John Huggan: Tales of the unexpected

It’s a sad and maybe unfair state of affairs, but the US PGA Championship is no-one’s favourite major.

Lee Trevino celebrates his US Open victory at Oak Hills in 1968. Picture: James Drake
Lee Trevino celebrates his US Open victory at Oak Hills in 1968. Picture: James Drake
Lee Trevino celebrates his US Open victory at Oak Hills in 1968. Picture: James Drake

Last both chronologically and alphabetically, the PGA of America’s cash cow is, by a distance, the least distinct quarter of the Grand Slam whole. The Masters has the short grass delights of Augusta National, the US Open has its (often silly) rough, the Open Championship has the smell of the sea in its nostrils and the US PGA has, well, not much of anything you can’t find most weeks on the PGA Tour.

Hang on though. Set aside for a second the fact that, were golf to start over tomorrow, the “sweater salesman” championship would never make it on to anyone’s four-strong list of major events. And forget for a moment that the championship would surely be more interesting if it returned to the match play format employed until 1958.

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This year – the 95th playing of the championship – just might be a little different from the too-often tedious norm. If history is our guide, extraordinary things tend to happen when the world’s best golfers converge on the East Course at the Oak Hill Country Club in New York state. For one thing, Oak Hill is the only course in the US to have hosted all six of the biggest (male) events available to it – the Ryder Cup, the US PGA, the US Open, the US Senior Open, the US Amateur and the Senior US PGA.

That aside, this long, heavily wooded and typically American test of golf – thick rough, fast fairways, glistening white sand in the jigsaw-puzzle bunkers – has played host to some of the most memorably head-shaking moments in the game over the last half century.

Back in 1968, Oak Hill and the US Open saw the emergence of a man well deserving of the label “genius”. Wearing a garish pair of red socks and employing a method the great Dan Jenkins described as “his spread-out caddie-hustler stance and his short, choppy public-course swing”, Lee Trevino saw off the best and the rest by four clear shots.

It was a remarkable and most unlikely triumph for a man known mostly for his prowess as an on-course gambler and, to those paying close attention, his fifth place finish in the previous US Open at Baltusrol. But he did it in style, beating the game’s best player, Jack Nicklaus, into second place – the first of four times the Golden Bear would be runner-up to Supermex in major championships.

Typically, Trevino had a few things to say along the road to his maiden PGA Tour victory. A (sometimes politically incorrect) sample:

“Yeah, I been married before, but I get rid of ’em when they turn 21.”

“Yeah, you got to speak Mexkin in El Paso. Hell, you can’t even buy gas if you can’t speak Mexkin.”

“No, I haven’t called my wife. But if I don’t have the $30,000 cheque there by Wednesday, she’ll call me.”

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Twelve years later, Oak Hill was back on the major championship stage, this time with a US PGA Championship that proved to be what almost everyone thought was Nicklaus’s (17th and) last victory at golf’s most exalted level. Six years later, of course, the blonde Ohio native would claim his sixth green jacket at the unlikely age of 46. But until then, his seven-shot win over Andy Bean – two months after his fourth US Open triumph – was widely viewed as the final masterstroke in an unparalleled career.

At the other end of the 1980s, another unusual feat was recorded at Oak Hill when Curtis Strange successfully defended his US Open title. Strange was the first man to achieve that rare distinction since the great Ben Hogan in 1951, a fact the Virginian celebrated with the now famous tongue-in-cheek phrase: “Move over Ben.”

Six years after that, however, Strange was less chuffed with himself as he “led” the US Ryder Cup squad to ignominious and largely self-induced defeat versus the Europeans. Two points down going into the final-day singles – historically the preserve of the typically powerhouse American squads – the visitors staged an absurd comeback highlighted by Nick Faldo’s unforgettable recovery from two down with three to play to beat Strange.

Elsewhere, absolutely everything that had to happen did happen for the Europeans. Howard Clark made a hole-in-one en route to victory over Peter Jacobsen. Professional golf’s worst chipper, David Gilford, managed to beat Brad Faxon despite a flubbed attempt to run the ball through long grass behind the 18th green. And Irishman Philip Walton literally staggered – he almost stepped on his own ball in the rough fronting the final putting surface – to another final-hole victory over Jay Haas.

Despite all of the above though, the most spectacular memories of that final afternoon were provided by Seve Ballesteros. Playing perhaps the worst golf of his career, the Spaniard hit tee-shots all over the premises, yet still contrived to take Tom Lehman – at the time one of the strongest players on the US side – to the 15th green before succumbing. Lehman later described the experience as “the most amazing performance I ever saw”, but the best comment came from Ballesteros himself.

Walking up the tenth fairway, Ballesteros was all smiles as his non-playing captain, Bernard Gallacher, approached.

“Why are you smiling Seve?” asked the Scot. “You’re one down.”

“Because I should be nine down!” was the reply.

Eight years on from that delicious moment, major championship golf returned to Oak Hill in the shape of the US PGA. As ever at that time, world No.1 Tiger Woods was favourite to claim what would have been his ninth major victory. But it wasn’t to be on a course almost suffocated by long grass. The eventual champion, in fact, turned out to be a man ranked 168 places lower than Woods, a man playing in his first US PGA Championship, and a man previously winless on the PGA Tour.

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Even those unlikely facts are but nothing in comparison with the way in which Shaun Micheel, right, clinched his unimaginable victory. Tied with compatriot Chad Campbell with one hole to play, the then 34-year-old journeyman struck a 175-yard 7-iron from the edge of the left rough to within two inches of the cup for a winning birdie. It was, by almost universal acclaim, the shot of the “noughties” in major championship play.

“I had a perfect yardage and the ball was sitting up,” said Micheel, who would never again win on the PGA Tour and is better known these days for his on-going battle with low testosterone. “When I hit the ball up there and walked up and actually saw how close it was, a whole range of emotions came through.

“I was really leaking oil down the stretch. Not closing the deal was probably the first thing that came to my mind, besides my family and my wife, because I knew I couldn’t miss that putt.”

So there you have it. Based on what has gone on there in the past, this coming week should see nothing usual happening. Instead, expect the unexpected, in the shape of a victory for oh, Charlie Beljan, Kiradech Aphibarnrat or even Kohki Idoki. You know it makes (no) sense.