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They Really Missed This Major

Golf: Watson and Palmer won almost everything else, but they couldn't win PGA.

August 07, 1996|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Between them, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson have won 93 PGA tournaments. Between them, they have won about $9 million on the PGA Tour. Between them, they have won seven British Opens, six Masters and two U.S. Opens, but not a single PGA Championship.

Hard to believe?

Since 1955, first Palmer, and then Watson carved a path of glory down PGA fairways, smashing impressive drives, blasting out of intimidating traps, sinking mind-rattling putts and generally discouraging one opponent after another. But when it came to the PGA Championship, neither man was ever able to hang on to the top spot on the leaderboard.

It wasn't for lack of trying. The two men have played in a combined 60 PGA Championships, Palmer going 0 for 37, Watson 0 for 23.

Why? The question leaves both men scratching their heads.

"Bad timing," Watson said from Kansas City, where he was preparing to take another shot in this week's PGA Championship, to be played at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

For Palmer, there will be no more shots at the only piece of unfinished business of his career. At 66, he is confining his course activity to the senior tour.

"You always wish that you could go back, play in it and win," Palmer said from his office in Latrobe, Pa. "You are always upset. Sure, I'm unhappy that I didn't win it.

"But time passes by. If I had won, no one would be calling to see what I say about it. So this way, it at least keeps me in touch."

Actually, what bothers Palmer as much as failing in his 37 opportunities to win the PGA are the five opportunities he never even had. When Palmer joined the pro tour, golfers were required to play five years before they even qualified for the PGA Championship.

"I'm not bitter," Palmer said, "but that was the rule."

When Palmer looks over those 37 years of futility, three in particular stand out:

--1964: Columbus (Ohio) Country Club.

Palmer shot 68-68-69-69, the first player in tournament history to shoot four rounds in the 60s. He went into the final day one stroke behind Bobby Nichols and five ahead of Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus shot a 64. But that was only good for a second-place tie with Palmer. Nichols' 67 gave him a three-shot victory at 271, the lowest 72-hole total in the history of the event to that time, a mark finally broken by Nick Price and Steve Elkington in the last two years.

--1968: Pecan Valley Country Club, San Antonio.

Palmer and Bob Charles shot 70 on the final day to finish at 282. But Julius Boros shot a 69 to wind up one stroke better.

Palmer has made thousands of shots over the years, but one that still stands out in agonizing clarity was a putt on the final hole of that tournament.

"I had just used a three-wood to make one of the best shots I ever hit," Palmer said. "That left me with a 12-foot putt."

Palmer, with a chance to at least force a playoff, missed the putt.

Boros, on the other hand, pitched up to within two feet of the cup for the par that clinched the victory.

Once again, Palmer had fallen short because of an unprecedented performance. At 48, Boros was the oldest man to win the PGA championship.

--1970: Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa, Okla.

This time, the shot that hangs heavily on Palmer's mind was not one he made, but a memorable wedge shot by Dave Stockton.

Stockton shot a third-round 66 to move into a three-stroke lead. That lead was up to six by the time Stockton headed into the final nine holes.

Then came the 13th. While Palmer was looking at a three-foot birdie putt, Stockton was looking into a pond where he had put his second shot.

Palmer appeared in position to pick up three shots, or more, on Stockton.

Stockton's shot, after he took a drop, wound up inches from the cup. He tapped the ball in to salvage a bogey, and Palmer missed his birdie putt. Palmer had gained only one stroke. Stockton struggled to a final-round 73, but that proved to be enough to defeat Palmer, who shot a 70 that day, and Bob Murphy by two strokes.

In each of his near misses, Palmer finished in a second-place tie.

Watson can sympathize with Palmer. He had his own near miss in 1978 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club. Watson had shot a 67, 69, 67 over the first three rounds and had a five-stroke lead going into the final nine holes.

"I drove a ball into a divot on the 10th hole," Watson recalled, "and wound up with a double bogey. That left a bad taste in my mouth."

And a bad finish.

He wound up with a 73, forcing him into a playoff with John Mahaffey and Jerry Pate. Mahaffey won on the second extra hole.

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