The 1991 PGA Championship may rival the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas boxing match as the most improbable outcome in the past three decades.
The PGA Championship is the last of golf’s four majors. It is conducted by the Professional Golf Association of America, the world’s largest sporting organization—comprised of 28,000 men and women golf professionals who are the recognized experts in teaching and growing the game. Founded in 1916, the PGA conducts the biennial Ryder Cup matches between the U.S. and Europe as well as the annual PGA Championship. The 73rd PGA Championship was held at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Indiana, a suburb north of Indianapolis and home of industrial metals magnate Mark Desmond. Built in 1964 by famous course architect Pete Dye, Crooked Stick was considered one of America’s hardest courses–a par-72, 7,289-yard beast. In August 1991, former PGA champions Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd, and Payne Stewart joined a field of 151 players vying for the $230,000 first prize [the 2016 winner’s check was $ 1,890,000]. After a quarter century with ABC Sports, the PGA returned to CBS, which dedicated 20 cameras to televise the action. Legendary producer Frank Chirkinian, whose first assignment for CBS was the 1958 PGA Championship and who revolutionized televised golf, directed the coverage.
The event was preceded by a domino chain of withdrawals. Two-time champion Lee Trevino [Daily Dose, 12/1/15] claimed exhaustion, two players cited injury, and Mark James stayed at home to try and qualify for Europe’s Ryder Cup team. When Nick Price [who would go on to win the event the following year] withdrew due to the pending birth of his child, the final spot in the field went to the ninth alternate—25-year-old rookie John Daly. The Arkansas native, who had missed eleven cuts in his 23 previous starts, left his home in Memphis on Wednesday to make the seven-and-a-half hour drive to Carmel. “I had never heard of him,” said Ken Anderson, PGA czar of the alternates list. Thankfully, Price had drawn an afternoon tee time, allowing Daly to get some sleep before he played. Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, a hard-working former bricklayer, was Price’s regular caddie. He had made the three hour drive from Columbus knowing his man might withdrawal, but had meticulously walked the course earlier in the week and knew Crooked Stick well. When Price withdrew, Daly—who had never seen the golf course—put Squeaky on his bag.
Crooked Stick is a diabolic Pete Dye-designed golf course fraught with danger, but John Daly was monstrously long. Paired with Billy Andrade and Bob Lohr, Daly shot an opening round 69, two back of Kenny Knox and Ian Woosnam, who four months earlier had won the Masters. The blonde basher hit it past all the trouble. “I had Greg Norman out to the course prior to the PGA and he couldn’t carry any danger,” said Dye. “John Daly carried it all.” Medlin, who had worked for Price, Fred Couples [Daily Dose, 4/12/16] and 1988 PGA champion Jeff Sluman, called his wife after the first round and said, “I can’t club this guy. He hits it longer than anybody I’ve ever seen.” The day also brought tragedy. During a weather delay due to an electrical storm, a spectator was killed by lightning. It was the PGA Tour’s second lightning fatality of the summer, as two months earlier a fan had been struck at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine.
Employing a “grip it and rip it” mentality, Daly fired a second round 67 to lead veteran Bruce Leitzke by one at eight under par. Price’s wife Sue gave birth Friday morning and by the time he and Leitzke teed off Saturday, the legend of John Daly was growing exponentially. “He crushed the ball and hit it straight as a string. He was smoking cigarettes and waving,” said Leitzke. “He was everyman’s hero.” After getting to 11 under and building a three-shot lead after three rounds, Daly and his fiancée, Bettye Fulford, attended a Colts game Saturday night at the Hoosier Dome. They sat at the 50 yard line and were greeted with roars from a crowd that treated Daly as if he had already won. Prior to Crooked Stick, the biggest victory of John Daly’s career had come at the 1990 Utah Open, a Ben Hogan [now Web.com] Tour event. Cynics and skeptics said the kid couldn’t possibly hold on, but Squeaky continued to guide his man around Crooked Stick in Sunday’s final round. Daly took a five-shot lead to the 17th tee. After a three-putt double bogey, the lead was down to three. “I’ll tell you what, it’s not over yet,” Ken Venturi told the CBS audience from the broadcast tower. “Up ‘till then, I was trying not to think it was a major,” confessed Daly after the round. “Just think of it as another tournament. But going to 16 I couldn’t do that anymore. I knew it was a major and I had a chance to win. That’s when I really started to feel the pressure.” After his drive safely avoided the water on 18, Daly reached the green in regulation with an eight-iron and strode to the final green pumping his fist in the air. He calmly two-putted to win by three, with a 12-under par 276.
John Daly overpowered Crooked Stick at the 1991 PGA, but his putter was the lethal weapon. On a layout that Jack Nicklaus called the “hardest course I’ve ever played” after finishing three practice rounds earlier in the week, Daly made 21 birdies and an eagle. “Everyone knows this is a Cinderella story for John Daly. I feel so wonderful. I think the fans won the tournament for me.” Afterward, the most unforeseen major championship winner in modern history and his fiancée hit the drive-through at McDonald’s. “This is like a miracle,” said golf’s newest major champion. “It just doesn’t happen that often.”
Twenty five years ago today, John Patrick Daly shot a final round 71 to win the PGA Championship by three shots over Bruce Leitzke. It was the first Tour win and first major championship victory for Mr. Daly, who would go on to win four more titles, including the 1995 Open Championship at St. Andrews.
Postscript: Thomas Weaver, a 39-year-old father of two, was killed by lightning in the Crooked Stick car park on Thursday. Following his win on Sunday, John Daly immediately donated $ 30,000 to a scholarship fund for Weaver’s two little girls, Emily and Karen. Emily started college at Purdue, got married and finished school in Illinois. Karen got a degree in biology from Indiana University. Jeff Medlin returned to Nick Price’s bag after looping for Daly at Crooked Stick and the pair won three majors together, including the 1992 PGA Championship. Squeaky died from leukemia in 1997. He was 43 years old.