Professional golf rarely intersects with real life. When it does, it's usually awkward. Like on a gusty Saturday morning when a hundred or so Occupy the PGA protestors marched through the modest downtown of Benton Harbor, Mich., carrying a coffin (symbolizing city residents) along with homemade signs with varied messages such as JESUS DON'T GOLF and NICKLAUS DOESN'T KNOW JACK. In other words, last week's 73rd Senior PGA Championship was no ordinary golf event.
This leadoff major (four more "majors" are on tap in the next seven weeks—Gentlemen, recharge your pacemakers) had so many wrinkles, starting with Harbor Shores, a challenging new course with crazy-quilt greens designed by Nicklaus on mostly reclaimed land overlooking Lake Michigan. Fred Funk began his first practice round on the par-5 10th, whose extreme mounds belong in the X Games, and wondered aloud, "Holy s---, is this what we've got the rest of the day?" Despite the fears of Funk and many others, soft conditions led to lights-out scoring on the weekend. The final round featured a nine-under-par 62 (by Kenny Perry), a 63 (Peter Senior) and four 64s.
There was a true Cinderella winner, Roger Chapman, or as most observers called him, Roger Who? Chapman, 53, is a journeyman who got his only European tour victory in 2000 on his 472nd try, in a one-off event in Rio de Janeiro, where he beat Padraig Harrington in a playoff. "I'd give myself a B minus for my career," Chapman said. His previous claims to fame were winning the 1979 English Amateur and beating Hal Sutton in the 1981 Walker Cup at Cypress Point.
Chapman chuckled on Sunday when it was pointed out that he is surely the first major champion born in Kenya. Except he's English. Chapman's father was an agriculture minister for the United Kingdom who moved his family to Kenya for two years, then to Trinidad briefly and finally back to England. "I have an affection for Kenya," Chapman says, "but I'm English through and through. And very proud of it."
Former Masters champ Sandy Lyle, a longtime friend, waited by the scoring trailer after he finished the final round to congratulate Chapman, who got into the field on the strength of his 11th-place finish on the 2011 European Senior tour Order of Merit, on his life-changing victory. "He was always a very good player," Lyle said. "He simply wasn't a prolific winner for some reason."
Chapman didn't look like a journeyman at Harbor Shores, at least not until he stumbled in on the final nine after his lead had grown to nine shots. Chapman hit 62 of 72 greens in regulation, and his third-round 64 was shades of Ben Hogan. "It would've been a good tournament this week if he wasn't around," said Michael Allen, the 2009 Senior PGA Championship winner, who finished 11th.
The win makes Chapman exempt on the Champions tour and earns him a spot in the PGA Championship at the Ocean course on Kiawah Island, S.C., in August. "This is the greatest day of my professional career," Chapman said proudly. "No question about it."
Then there was Hale Irwin, who, rumor has it, may be immortal. A few days before turning 67, Irwin might have snagged a 46th senior title—and an eighth senior major—if his putter had cooperated. In the second round Irwin three-putted his final green for bogey to shoot his age, 66, tripped over an early triple bogey in the third round and still finished third, three shots back. Sometimes it's easy to forget how amazing Irwin is. He is taking golfing longevity to a place where maybe only Sam Snead has been.
Still, there was more to this Senior PGA than golf. There was the Harbor Shores project, which includes a luxury residential community with a marina. It was unusual enough to warrant a big New York Times Magazine piece last December on the somewhat controversial socioeconomic redevelopment plan to revive a dying Rust Belt town. As Jonathan Mahler wrote, "The juxtaposition of Benton Harbor's impoverished population and its two rising monuments to wealth—all wedged into a little more than four square miles—make it almost a caricature of economic disparity in America."
Benton Harbor was a bustling manufacturing center in the 1960s, and its population exceeded 20,000. It's still home to Whirlpool, a Fortune 500 company, but only about 10,000 residents remain. About 90% of them are African-American, and, according to the Times, 60% are getting public aid. Times are tough, but if Harbor Shores becomes a success story, other financially strapped cities will surely try to replicate the model.