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77TH PGA CHAMPIONSHIP: RIVIERA : Pretender to the Throne : Hal Sutton, 1983 PGA Champion, Learns the Hard Way That One Major Does Not a Career Make

August 07, 1995|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Nicklaus, so gifted off the tee, so consistent on the fairway, so skillful around the green for so many years, is a 22-handicapper when it comes to prophecy.

He is often called on to play oracle, to anoint a successor, a Next Jack, a golfer to win 21 major championships, one more than the First Jack, which is more than anybody else. At Riviera in 1983, the Next Jack was going to be Prince Hal, Nicklaus said after finishing second, a stroke behind Hal Sutton in the PGA Championship.

"That will be one of many championships for you," Nicklaus told Sutton.

"I really believe that," Nicklaus told everyone else. "He's a fine player with a good head on his shoulders. He has the right attitude, he's got his priorities in the right places and he seems to know what he's doing. . . . I think he'll win a lot of major championships."

What an awful thing to say to a 25-year-old kid who had just won his first major tournament.

"He's said that about a lot of people," said Sutton, who at 37 is still trying to win his second. "It's not any fault of his. It's a tough thing to live up to when somebody as great as he is says that about you. You feel like he probably knows what he's talking about, and you think, 'I don't want to miss.'

"It's tough to live up to the expectations of the people in the world."

It has been impossible for Sutton, who, in his second year on the tour, already had won twice, including the Tournament Players Championship. By year's end, he had earned $429,668, and no player had earned more. Riviera had brought $100,000, the first six-figure prize in the PGA Championship, and had taught a lesson.

He's still learning it.

Nobody was playing better than Sutton when he approached Riviera's first tee that Thursday morning. A seven-shot lead in the Anheuser-Busch, blown at Williamsburg, Va., two weeks before, was so much history because he was 25 and everything was in front of him. How many majors? How much money? How many Ryder Cups and Vardon trophies? As a Southerner, from Shreveport, La., he wondered how many Masters he would win.

He birdied the first hole, went on to shoot 65--using only 27 putts--and answered questions as the first-round leader by a shot.

On Friday, Sutton shot 66, a record 131 total for 36 holes. The questions were answered by the second-round leader, who was three shots ahead of second-place Ben Crenshaw.

On a Saturday that brought rain and lightning, then heat and humidity, it was 72, still two shots ahead of Crenshaw at 203.

Nicklaus was six shots back.

Most of the field fell back quickly on the final day, and through eight holes, Sutton held a seven-shot lead. Playing two threesomes in front of Sutton, Nicklaus began to play like the Nicklaus of old, and Peter Jacobsen was making birdies.

"I started playing too conservatively and started watching the leader board too much and realizing what everybody else was doing," Sutton said. "And all of a sudden, I put everybody back in the golf tournament instead of just taking care of my game. When you leave putts short, you're protecting something."

Memories of Williamsburg suddenly became too vivid. A seven-shot lead blown two weeks ago. A seven-shot lead on this day.

He bogeyed the 12th, 13th and 14th holes, and the lead was down to two strokes. Nicklaus and Jacobsen were in the process of shooting 66 and 65.

"At that point, I was just trying to say, 'Let's regroup. Let's start playing the best way I know how from here in,' " Sutton said. "I think I was playing more aggressively, running the putts by the hole instead of lagging them, after the 14th."

He birdied No. 15 with an 18-foot putt. Pars came at 16 and 17.

"I remember making the putt on the 17th hole," he said. "I had a 35- or 40-footer uphill and I ran it about five feet by, and I made it coming back and I really felt like I could win the golf tournament after making that putt."

No. 18 is uphill, a 451-yard finishing hole and a good one. There may be no greater thrill in golf than walking up the 18th fairway with the lead on the last day of a major, but when you know you have to par the hole to avoid a playoff with Nicklaus, there is no time to relish the moment.

His tee shot left him 201 yards to the flag. An adrenaline-charged five-iron took care of that.

"Once I hit the green, I didn't have anything but a 12- to 14-footer, straight uphill," Sutton said. "It was pretty easy, and I wasn't going to do anything stupid there. When I hit the second shot, in my mind I felt like I had won the golf tournanment there. It was neat walking to the green, knowing all I had to do was make this putt. Really, I couldn't have had an easier putt."

Now, he could savor the moment. He lagged the putt close, tapped in for his 71st stroke of the day and 274th of the week and had won the PGA Championship.

Nicklaus was a shot behind.

"Jack Nicklaus was my boyhood idol, and I had beaten him," Sutton said. "That made it even more special."

It couldn't get better than this.

It hasn't.

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