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PGA Has Turned Into a Major Coming-Out Party

August 14, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Rich Beem checked out Tiger Woods in his rearview mirror, then sped away and won the PGA Championship last year at Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., his victory carried more than the usual weight of historical significance associated with a major.

It was Beem's first major title in only his fourth major tournament.

That Beem's major breakthrough occurred at the PGA Championship was another piece in the historical puzzle, extending the PGA Championship's reputation as the official coming-out party for first-time major winners. Since 1988, a span of 15 years, the PGA Championship has been won 12 times by players whose victories were their first -- and sometimes only -- major titles.

The list of winners is a long and interesting one, noteworthy not only because of the major-championship credentials each player earned, but also because of the limited success many champions have had in trying to win another.

If you were drawing a timeline to designate when and where this first-time trend began, it would be 1988 at Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla., where 30-year-old Jeff Sluman got the ball rolling.

Sluman, playing in his first PGA Championship, won the first -- and only -- major in his 20 years on the PGA Tour. Shooting 65 on Sunday, he knocked off Tom Kite, Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd, Greg Norman and Payne Stewart.

It was only the beginning. Stewart's victory in 1989 at Kemper Lakes in Chicago was his first in a major, but he went on to win two more, the U.S. Open in 1991 and 1999.

The rest of the list:

* 1990 -- Wayne Grady won his one and only major in the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Ala.

* 1991 -- John Daly, the ninth alternate, won his first major in the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick in Carmel, Ind., then four years later won the British Open at St. Andrews.

* 1992 -- Nick Price won his first major in the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis. Price won the PGA title again in 1994 at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., the same year he won the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland.

* 1993 -- Paul Azinger won his first and only major title in the PGA Championship at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where he beat Greg Norman in a playoff. Azinger, who birdied four of the last seven holes, wound up at the top of a leaderboard that included players who had won 23 major titles.

* 1995 -- Steve Elkington got past Colin Montgomerie in a playoff at Riviera in Pacific Palisades and won the PGA Championship, the first and only major of his 18-year career.

* 1996 -- Mark Brooks took his turn at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, where he won the PGA Championship in a playoff with Kenny Perry. Brooks has not won another major title.

* 1997 -- Davis Love III won his first and only major when he shot 66-66 on the weekend and defeated reigning British Open champion Justin Leonard by five shots in the drizzle at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., claiming the PGA Championship.

* 1998 -- Vijay Singh solved the tree-lined course at Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., and won the PGA Championship by two shots over Steve Stricker for his first major title. Singh also won the 2000 Masters.

* 2001 -- David Toms was next, following consecutive wins by Tiger Woods, and he made the PGA Championship his first and only major title with a one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Last year, Beem added his name to the list.

All that is left is to try to make some sense of this avalanche of first-timers in the PGA Championship.

The PGA of America has improved the quality of its PGA Championship field by reducing the number of American club pros, inviting more international players and upgrading the championship courses.

So what gives?

Maybe the best theory involves, well, identity. At the Masters, it's all about the greens and driving the ball. At the U.S. Open, the USGA likes to take the drivers out of the players' hands, narrow the fairways, grow the rough and generally make the course as difficult as possible. At the British Open, the general characteristics favor players who keep the ball under the wind because links courses aren't necessarily mind-blowing unless the wind blows.

Then there is the PGA Championship. It's played on so many courses, it doesn't suit any particular style. Therefore, it gives more players opportunities to win.

That's the theory, anyway. Anybody with a better one, get in line because this is one major phenomenon that has some momentum going.

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