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Looking Forward & Backward at the PGA Championship

By: Joel Zuckerman


The 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course, the first-ever major championship contested in the state of South Carolina, begins August 9th. It's a bit puzzling that it's taken all these many years, considering that South Carolina is on a very short list of the premier golf states in the nation.

Some refer to the PGA as "Glory's Last Shot." Others refer to it as the also-ran of majors, lacking the prestige of the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship. Regardless, the odds are excellent that the tournament will be memorable, if for no other reason than the fact the windswept Ocean Course is such a uniquely beautiful venue. This year's PGA Championship has big shoes to fill, because the last time the golf world focused so intently on the Ocean Course was during the 1991 Ryder Cup, one of the most grippingly contentious golf competitions in history.

That riveting Ryder Cup, known as the "War on the Shore," vaulted Kiawah Island and it's instantly-iconic Ocean Course into the consciousness of the golf public at home and abroad. It came down to the last day, the last match, the last hole, the last putt and the last man standing that could either make or miss a six-foot putt to either retain or forfeit the modest gold chalice that signifies the victor of this seminal, biennial international golf match. Germany's Bernhard Langer missed, and the Ryder Cup went to the American side.

Here's a quick look back at some of the most memorable PGA Championships since 1991, the year the Ocean Course came into being:

Just a month or so before that unforgettable Ryder Cup, rookie John Daly completed a storybook finish at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., which like the Ocean Course is yet another marquee venue created by Hall of Fame golf architect Pete Dye. Without the benefit of a practice round, Daly - the ninth alternate - didn't get into the championship until Nick Price withdrew the night before. After driving all night Daly laid waste to both the course and the field in a performance - he won by three strokes over Bruce Lietzke with a total of 12-under 276 - that ranks as one of golf's greatest surprise triumphs.

In 1996 at Kentucky's Valhalla Golf Club, Mark Brooks birdied the 18th hole twice within 45 minutes to win a playoff over native son Kenny Perry. The Kentuckian inexplicably spent what could have been valuable warm-up time being interviewed in the TV tower after completing his round, though he knew Brooks - still on the course - was within range of forging a tie and forcing a playoff. When the two went head-to-head in sudden-death, Perry made a mess of the playoff hole, paving the way for Brooks to win.

The following year, Davis Love III won his only Grand Slam event with a memorable performance at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Love putted out for victory on the 72nd hole underneath a vivid rainbow, which served as a poignant reminder that the new champion had lost his dad, respected PGA professional Davis Love Jr., in a plane crash less than 10 years prior.

In 1999, a 23-year-old Tiger Woods won his first PGA title and second major championship overall when he outlasted Spain's 19-year-old Sergio Garcia by a stroke at Medinah Country Club - site of this year's Ryder Cup - near Chicago. Woods has subsequently won a dozen others, while Garcia has failed to capitalize on his enormous teenage potential and has yet to win even a single major.

The year 2000 provided quite an encore for Woods, who became the first back-to-back PGA champion since the otherwise-forgettable Denny Shute more than 60 years prior. Woods, already a winner of the U.S. Open and British Open earlier that summer, battled journeyman Tour pro Bob May, whose glossy record Woods had emulated as a youth in the Southern California junior ranks. Their stirring final-round duel included 18th-hole birdies for both players, and they entered the first three-hole aggregate score playoff in PGA Championship history. Woods birdied the 16th, then saved par on the final two holes to edge May by a stroke.

In 2001 winner David Toms denied Phil Mickelson his first major when he chose to lay up on the water-laden final hole after a drive into the rough, hit a solid wedge and then made a 12-footer to win at Atlanta Athletic Club.

One & Done Winners

It seems the PGA Championship offers a disproportionate share of "one-hit wonders"; i.e., players who only managed to capture a single major. In the last 35-odd years those include Lanny Wadkins, Hal Sutton, Bob Tway, Jeff Sluman, Wayne Grady, Paul Azinger, Steve Elkington and the aforementioned Brooks and Love, among others. This sensibility was crystallized in 2002 and '03, the victors less of a "Who's Who?" and more of a "Whose He?" at the season's final major.

First, it was Rich Beem with a stunning back-nine charge at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., to rise over Woods to the title in the 85th PGA Championship. Then the following year, Shaun Micheel nearly holed his final shot of the tournament, hitting a 7-iron to within inches to win at historic Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. It's instructive to note that a decade removed from that triumph Beem hasn't won again, and Micheel's PGA title remains the journeyman's lone career victory.

In 2004, Vijay Singh earned his second PGA Championship, outlasting Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco in a three-hole cumulative-score playoff at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., yet another of Dye's wondrous creations. At 7,536 yards, at the time it was the longest course in major championship history.

In 2005 at steamy Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, Phil Mickelson hit a flop shot from the deep rough on the 18th hole to within two feet and then tapped in for the winning birdie, capturing his first PGA Championship and second major overall.

South Korea's Y.E. Yang stunned the golf world in 2009 at Hazeltine with a solid back nine, including a chip-in for eagle on the 14th hole and closing birdie at 18 to chase down Woods and become the first Asian male player to win a major. The loss for Woods was the first time in his career that he ever coughed up a 54-hole lead at a major, having been a perfect 14 for 14 when he was either tied for the lead or held it outright beginning the final day of play. The unexpected loss portended the stunning downturn for Woods that began several months after that PGA Championship, on Thanksgiving night 2009. The years that followed were rife with controversy, injury, absence from the game and from the public eye, and a loss of form, face and endorsement income. Woods has recently righted his game and rebounded to win three times in 2012, and is now the world's second-ranked player. However, it has been more than four years since he captured a major championship, the longest drought by far in his professional career.

In 2010, a foreign golfer won for the third consecutive year as Germany's Martin Kaymer bested America's Bubba Watson in a three-hole aggregate-score playoff. The championship, contested at Whistling Straits, is best remembered for the controversy involving America's Dustin Johnson. Johnson had a one-shot lead starting the 18th hole when he drove it far right of the fairway into a tiny patch of sand where the gallery had been walking all week. He grounded his club, thinking it was grass that had been killed under a week's worth of foot traffic. Fans were packed so tightly around him that he never gave it another thought. Because of the proliferation of sand throughout the golf course (a thousand bunkers or more of various shapes, sizes and depths), the long-hitting Johnson failed to realize he was in a bunker when playing his approach shot. After appearing to bogey the hole to fall into a tie with Watson and Kaymer and be part of the playoff, Johnson - according to officials who watched video replays - was ruled to have grounded a club in a bunker, thus resulting in a one-shot penalty. Instead of having a chance to win his first major title the South Carolinian missed the playoff.

In 2011 it was PGA Tour rookie Keegan Bradley of Vermont, playing in his first-ever major championship, who emerged victorious in a playoff with another then-anonymous player named Jason Dufner. Bradley, the nephew of LPGA icon Pat Bradley, came back from a triple-bogey on the 15th hole in the final round, which put him five shots in arrears of leader Dufner. But the eventual winner recovered to birdie two of the final three holes, and when Dufner made three consecutive bogeys on the treacherous, water-laden march to the clubhouse, they were playoff-bound.

Winners & Major Misses

While PGA Championship titles came easily to some of the game's luminaries, there were others who, despite their great success in the game, could never quite earn the privilege of hoisting the venerable (and heavy - 27 pounds!) Wanamaker Trophy. The former category includes Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus, who each won the PGA Championship five times.

"The Haig" won all of his titles in the Roaring Twenties, while Nicklaus won in three different decades, his first victory coming in 1963 and his final in 1980. Woods is the only man to have won the PGA Championship exactly four times to date, while Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead each won the season's final major three times. It's instructive to note that Sarazen was both the youngest winner (age 20 in 1922) and oldest competitor in the tournament's history (age 70 in 1972).

On the other side of the ledger, the two most decorated champions that cannot count the PGA Championship among their many Grand Slam triumphs are Tom Watson and Arnold Palmer. Eight-time major winner Watson finished in the top 10 on 10 occasions, including a runner-up finish in 1978. Seven-time major winner Palmer was six times among the top 10, including a second place tie on two occasions. But like Watson, it was the lack of a PGA Championship victory that kept Palmer from the career Grand Slam.

Bobby Jones was a lifelong amateur, so despite his seven major titles he never competed in a PGA, and England's Harry Vardon, also with seven majors, concluded his winning ways several years before the PGA Championship came into existence. Finally, England's Nick Faldo won six majors but has neither a PGA Championship nor a U.S. Open title on his resume.

Joel Zuckerman, called "One of the Southeast's most respected and sought-after golf writers" by Golfer's Guide Magazine, is an award-winning travel writer based in Savannah, Georgia. His six books to date include "Pete Dye - Golf Courses," which was honored as "Book of the Year" by the International Network of Golf. His latest is titled, "KIAWAH GOLF - The Game's Elegant Island," released in July 2012. Joel's course reviews, player profiles, essays and features have appeared in 110 publications, including Sports Illustrated, Golf, Continental Magazine and Delta's Sky Magazine. He has played nearly 800 courses in 40-plus states and a dozen countries. For more about Joel, visit visit www.vagabondgolfer.com.