By James A. Frank
In 2019, Pebble Beach Golf Links will celebrate its 100th birthday and host its sixth U.S. Open. To commemorate these milestones, each issue of LINKS Magazine and LINKSdigital between now and then will tell the unique story that is Pebble Beach. Those articles will also be shared here on our website.
If you don’t remember what golf was like in the summer of 1977—when the PGA Championship came to Pebble Beach for the first (and so far only) time—the pressing issues of the day included unusual weather and equipment’s effect on the game. Sound familiar?
California was suffering one of its worst droughts in 1976–77, and, as a result, course conditions were far from optimal. According to the resort’s official history, “The little water available was used to perfect the greens. The rough was hard and consisted mainly of drought-resistant weeds. The fairways were not a lot better. The rye-seeded fairways were brown, and in many areas the dry ground had formed cracks in the soil. To adjust for the small fissure, tournament officials adopted a local rule that allowed relief should one’s ball come to rest in such an area.”
As for equipment, many prominent players were in a sweat as they learned that their clubs didn’t conform to the Rules of Golf because grooves in their irons were too wide. Although a discrepancy of just a few hundredths of an inch, the weeks leading up to the PGA saw players disqualified, Tour officials scrutinizing clubfaces, and equipment companies scrambling.
Then there was the mystery of Lanny Wadkins, who’d been voted the Tour’s rookie of the year in 1972, won twice in 1973, and disappeared (largely due to health issues), with only six top-10 finishes from 1974–1976. In the majors, Wadkins had three top-10s in 1973, but from the 1974 Masters up to the 1977 PGA, he skipped more majors than he played in (eight to seven).
Early in the 1977 season, things were looking up for Lanny, with two second-place finishes. So it wasn’t a surprise to see him on the PGA Championship leaderboard surrounded by the game’s biggest names.
Gene Littler—who’d been on Tour since the mid-1950s and was still winning in the 1970s—held the lead by himself after each of the first three rounds. Among those in contention were Charles Coody, Tom Watson (who’d already won five times that year, including at Augusta National and Turnberry), and, of course, Jack Nicklaus (who had three wins plus second-place finishes at the two majors Watson won).
Wadkins was tied for fifth place after the first round, tied for third after the second round, and tied for fourth after the third round. Starting the final round, Wadkins was six shots behind Littler, who looked unbeatable, going one under par on Sunday’s front nine. But the wheels came off on the back, where Littler was five over with bogeys on five of the first six holes.
Nicklaus made a run at the Wanamaker Trophy: Having started the final round four shots behind Littler, they were tied with just a few holes to go. As Wadkins birdied 18 to reach 6-under for the tournament, Nicklaus was teeing off on 17, the par three where he’d famously hit the flagstick to set up a birdie in the 1972 U.S. Open. But this time his ball bounced off the green into thick rough, leading to a two-putt bogey that along with a par on 18 left him one shot behind Wadkins.
Littler also found the rough on 17, but managed to hole a long putt for par, then parred 18 to tie Wadkins and set up the first sudden-death in major-championship history (the PGA had adopted a sudden-death format that year). The 27-year-old Wadkins took a gulp from a friend’s beer and went off to face the 47-year-old Littler.
On the first hole at Pebble Beach, Wadkins made a tough up-and-down from greenside rough to tie. Both players birdied the second. On the par-four 3rd hole, Littler was short with his approach while Wadkins was long; Littler hit his chip shot fat, missed a 20-foot putt, and took a bogey. Wadkins delicately popped his ball from behind the green and stopped it four feet short, leaving a touchy downhill putt that he rolled in for
From that point, Wadkins began living up to expectations, winning another 17 Tour events between 1977 and 1992. He didn’t win another major, but had 14 top-10 finishes through 1993. Meanwhile, Littler became a stalwart of the early Champions Tour, with eight victories from 1983 to 1989 and 10 other senior victories.