Its US Golf Open time, and I felt inspired by Matt Riordan’s wonderful list of his 5 favorite golfers and the typically eclectic Almanacker response, to add my recollection of a forgotten hero of Australian golf.
Before the Shark there was Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle, Bruce Crampton (second best golfer in the world for many years to Nicklaus in his pomp) and Jack Newton (what might have been?). The often forgotten name is David Graham who won a US PGA Championship (the 4th Major) at Oakland Hills in 1979 in a 3 hole playoff with Ben Crenshaw. Graham showed nerves of steel after double bogeying the last to allow Crenshaw a play off opportunity. He then holed 20 and 10 foot putts to stay in the playoff, before triumphing on the 21st with a birdie. As he says in the linked Golf Digest interview from 2006:
“If I’d lost that tournament, it probably would have been the end of David Graham the golfer. There’s a good chance I would have gone home and thought myself a choker for the rest of my career. Can you think of another instance where a guy blew a two-shot lead on the last hole and then won the playoff? It just never happens, but that day it happened to me.”
But his most astonishing win was the 1981 US Open at Merion. The course had specially narrowed fairways for the Open, and deep rough that required a wedge for any shot landing even a metre off the mowed grass. In the final round Graham hit every green in regulation and every fairway bar the first (which he birdied). His final round 67 to win by 3 strokes is generally regarded as the finest closing round in a US Open.
David Graham had a brutal childhood, and left school at 14 to turn pro. He went to the US at 23 without establishing himself on the local circuit. Fear and poverty motivated him. I can remember Murray Crafter, then pro at Royal Adelaide, telling me how the young Graham would practise until it was dark and his hands bled. Then tape them up to put in more time on the range the next day.
Graham didn’t return to Australia until after his US Major successes, when he could command the appearance fees denied most locals. I think he lost an epic Australian Open at Kooyonga to Gary Player (perhaps in a playoff) late in his career.
My memory is of an early West Lakes Classic at the Grange Golf Club in Adelaide (near Football Park), where David Graham was the tournament’s featured international player. I took a Thursday off work (probably unauthorised) and followed him for most of his first round. He was his usual meticulous, emotionless, somewhat forbidding self for most of the round. He was expressionless and said little to fans, fellow players or his caddy.
On about the sixteenth I noticed a young couple following in the crowd, carrying a young baby wrapped in the mother’s arms. Sure enough after Graham hit his usual low, drawn drive down the centre, the baby began to cry loudly. No amount of “shooshes” from mum could pacify it. Uh oh, I thought, bad enough bringing a baby to a golf tournament – but David Graham????? Mr Grumpy – yeeks!!
Sure enough Graham marched straight from the tee box, to where the parents were trying to hide under the grass in the fairway rough. Stopping in front of the mother, he took the baby in his arms and marched off down the fairway with babe in arms and parents following. All the time cooing “who’s a little man now” to the suddenly beatific child. Arriving at his ball he gave the baby to the caddy, hit his shot, took the baby back and played the last 3 holes with child in arms.
It is probably the most astonishing thing I have seen in serious sport, and I became a fervent David Graham fan for the rest of his career. I am sure his appearance fee was worth more than the tournament prize, but it was still one of the top half dozen events on the Australian PGA tour of the time.
As a young man it taught me that there is often a very different human face and story behind the public face of those in the spotlight – sportsmen, politicians, entertainers and other public figures. Everyone has their demons; their dreams; their fears and their hopes – and we all carry them differently.
Serious heart problems forcedDavidGraham to retire from competitive golf at an early age, but researching the story I came across this 2006 Golf Digest profile of a life redeemed and enriched by hard work and compassion in adversity.
Real heroes don’t need their name in lights.
Read More at: http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2006-06/myshot_gd0606