David Graham, the 'Defending Champion' at Oakland Hills, Remains Something of a Mystery

Graham's first major victory came in the 1979 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills. Graham double-bogeyed the 18th hole, still shot 65, and won a sudden-death playoff over Ben Crenshaw at the third hole.
George Tiedemann

He collapsed while sizing up a putt. That was the last we heard of David Graham, who never made it past the eighth hole of the 2004 Bank of America Championship on June 27th of that year. Started the day in spikes; ended it in a hospital gown. Graham's diseased heart was found to be pumping at only 12% of normal volume. That was the day he retired, with all the subtlety and sentiment of a bullet wound. It was almost enough to make you forget about the friendly fire from the 1996 Presidents Cup team, whose mutiny forced Graham to step down as International captain.

Graham will be the defending champion of sorts when the PGA Championship returns to Oakland Hills this August. He won the major the last time it was contested on that confounding patch of grass outside Detroit, in 1979. And while CBS plans to feature a brief retrospective of the Australian's career, he remains something of a mystery, thanks to his one-two of abrupt, appalling exits from the game.

Graham racked up 35 professional victories, including two majors, eight PGA Tour titles, and five wins on the Champions Tour. His closing 67 at the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion is a benchmark for tournament golf. Graham hit every fairway that day but the first, and basically every green in regulation (his ball twice rolled onto the fringe). Ben Hogan called to tell him he'd crafted "one of the best rounds of golf I've ever seen."

It made sense, one of golf's most exacting course setups being tamed by one of its most exacting players.

"He was very fastidious about his clubs, how they felt, the length, the swingweight," says Bruce Devlin, a fellow competitor who remains a friend. "He and I would change a full set of irons in the motel room in the night. You get those tiny cigarette lighters — about half of one gets one head off, so five or six of them would get the whole set off."

For Graham there was no obstacle that he couldn't overcome with enough pain, effort and creativity. He turned pro at 14 against the wishes of his father, an angry World War II veteran who lived in a separate part of the house from Graham's mother. For the boy's temerity, Graham the elder promised never to speak to his son again, and kept his word until 10 years later, at the 1970 U.S. Open, when he showed up unannounced on the practice range. By then he was more of a stranger than ever, and after a surreal conversation in the clubhouse Graham sent the man back whence he came — wherever that was. His sister wrote many years later to say that their father had died.

Graham gave himself to golf. So relentless did he become in his obsession with the craft that he could be called a precursor to Nick Faldo, or even to self-described "control freak" Tiger Woods.

"David is the only guy I've seen who regripped his clubs every day before he practiced," says his friend Lee Trevino. "He'd come out with a pair of scissors and a roll of tape and lighter fluid, and he'd put the grips on, let them dry for five minutes, and then he'd hit balls. He had all the grass on the practice range dead from lighter fluid.

"He was a perfectionist in the way he dressed, spoke, carried himself and tried to play."

As he sits on the patio overlooking Iron Horse Golf Club in Whitefish, Montana, where he lives with his wife, Maureen, David Graham, 62, is almost unrecognizable from the guy he was in the late 1970s and '80s. He wears khaki shorts and a white T-shirt around his midsection, which is 20 pounds heavier than it was in his prime. His face is fleshier; only the eyes and the last vestiges of an accent give him away.

"I loved to play," says Graham, who now prefers skeet shooting. "I used to love to get up at two o'clock in the morning and go out to my workshop and grab a shaft and a head and a grip and make a putter and let the glue dry overnight and get up the next morning because it was going to be the best putter I ever had, you know?"

His putting saved him in the '79 PGA. Graham led by two strokes but flinched on his tee shot on the 18th hole, finding the right rough. Having done his own yardages all day, he was in desperate need of a number to the green and asked his caddie, who blew his shot at Employee of the Month when he replied, "You haven't asked me one question all the way around. I don't know. Figure it out for yourself."

Taken aback, Graham airmailed the green with a 6-iron, fluffed his first chip, got his second one on the green, missed an uphill four-footer for the win and tapped in for a double-bogey 6. And so a tournament that seemed to be over was not.

Ben Crenshaw laced a perfect drive down the first hole of the sudden-death playoff, and hit the green in regulation. Still ashen-faced, Graham hit a terrible duck hook, had to chip out 100 yards short of the green and hit a lackluster third shot to 25 feet. He made the putt and won with a birdie on the third extra hole.

"Somebody was looking after me there," Graham says. "I don't think I would have won a U.S. Open had I not won the PGA. I look back and think what would have happened had I not won it. Things like that ruin people's careers. Look at the Van de Velde guy. The PGA changed my career. I was able to stay in the U.S., buy houses, put the kids in schools. I feel very blessed."

It's hard to square Graham's reputation as an overly exacting curmudgeon, which became etched in stone after his downfall as Presidents Cup captain, with the man today. He calls the 1996 episode "disgraceful," and questions the Tour's decision to appoint Greg Norman as the 2009 captain, but his heart isn't in it anymore.

"I'm hard to please because I like to do things correctly," he says, but there's no fire in it. You need a little Colonel Nathan R. Jessep ("You can't handle the truth!") to sell a line like that, and Graham has no more edges. They began to erode when it all went down in '96, and Graham cried at the embarrassment and the hurt. He all but disappeared with his diagnosis of cardiomy-opathy and congestive heart failure.

Today Graham cries when he contemplates how blessed he is to have two grown sons and four grandchildren with another on the way. He likes to talk on the phone with friends like Devlin, Trevino and Tom Weiskopf, and wonders when he might see Jack and Arnold again.

"Weiskopf was up here last summer," says Graham. "My cell phone rang and he said, 'David — Big T!' I said, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I'm in the parking lot at Iron Horse. Come here and buy me an iced tea. I haven't had a drink in five years.' I said, 'I'll be right there.' We sat in the bar for five or six hours, talking — great stories."

Nicklaus used to invite Graham to play practice rounds at Augusta National the week before the Masters, and Graham finished a career-best fifth there in 1980. He won the Golden Bear's Memorial tournament later that year.

"I haven't seen Jack in some time," he says. "I've got two bucket lists. I've got a bucket list that's golf-related, and I'm still working on my bucket list that's non-golf related. I'd like to go back to Muirfield."

Graham is asked to elaborate on his bucket list and his eyes water, not for the first time. "You've got me," he says. "I thought I did pretty good so far. Sorry." But now the tears begin in earnest.

"If I had the chance I'd like to go to Bay Hill to play nine with Arnie," Graham says softly. "That would be pretty cool."

When he came to America in 1969, after toiling as an assistant pro in Australia, Graham had nothing but his trade and determination. "He was like me," Trevino says: an outsider who had to play his way in. And so Graham cherishes the times he's been accepted.

He praises the Masters for making him an honorary invitee, and the USGA for flying past champions to the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He is especially fond of Preston Trail Golf Club in Dallas; joining was validation, proof that he had made it in America.

"Preston Trail always has a special place for me," he says. "I sponsored Trevino to get in. They accepted you because of the type of person you were, not because you played golf." Graham's eyes fill up again and there's another pause as he collects himself.

Is playing Preston Trail again on the bucket list? "Oh, I'll go back," Graham says, blinking back more tears.

It seems medically unwise to keep asking about the bucket list. Graham tries not to get excited anymore; it's why he no longer plays golf even socially. That and the memory of the Iron Horse member-member when he hit four inches behind the ball on his opening shot. He can't even get upset about not making the Hall of Fame.

"It's a sore subject," he says, but that's about all the venom he can muster. Eventually he'll need a heart transplant; no need in expediting it. He hasn't decided whether or not to attend the 2008 PGA and openly wonders if he'll be alive the next time the U.S. Open comes to Merion, in 2013.

He wants to be around as long as possible to see his grandkids, and to that end he and Maureen plan on spending the first part of 2009 in Dallas, leaving Whitefish for the winter for the first time in four years.

There is, however, one more thing on the list.

"I've never met Tiger Woods," Graham says. "I actually watched him hit balls on the driving range at the Masters, and I've never seen anything like that in my life. I'd like to sit on his bag when he's whacking balls one day. He's unbelievable. They've had to make up new terms for what he does."

The interview starts to wind down, and now it's time to drive home and oblige a guest by showing off the trophy room. The PGA and U.S. Open hardware sit side by side, and two sets of clubs, the ones Graham used at Oakland Hills and Merion, are mounted on the wall. There's a picture of him wearing a flight suit on the day he got to ride in the backseat of an F-15 fighter plane in 1985, through a friend he'd met in a pro-am; lots of golf action shots; a commendation from the Queen of England; some putters in the corner.

One trophy — a huge silver bowl Graham got for winning a tournament called the Wills Masters in 1975 — stands out because of the large, framed black-and-white photo above it. The champion is hoisting the bowl while his oldest boy, Andrew, sits inside. Given up on by his own father, David Graham beams at his two trophies, a man in full realization of a great improbable dream. It's almost enough to bring a tear to your eye.

THE DISGRACES
From the 1996 Presidents Cup to the Hall of Fame, Graham's friends say he's gotten a raw deal

Mutiny at the President's Cup

Graham helped launch the event, working long hours to captain the International team that lost to Hale Irwin's U.S. squad in 1994. Asked to serve again in 1996, Graham agreed when he was told that Palmer would be U.S. captain. But players complained to Tim Finchem about Graham's 1994 actions, so Graham promptly resigned.

Greg Norman was upset that Graham wouldn't let CBS put a microphone on him (Norman) during the event, and according to Graham, Steve Elkington's pregnant wife wanted the entire team to leave the White House in the middle of the reception for the 1994 team so she and her husband wouldn't appear rude. "I told her, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" Graham says. "I said, 'I'll get you a car. I'll get you a limousine.'" He says this riled Steve Elkington.

"[Norman] was the source [of the mutiny]," says Bruce Devlin, Graham's friend. "Finchem could have stood by him but he folded like a tent. No guts. I just thought the whole thing was really classless."

Norman responds: "Devlin doesn't know what he's talking about. He wasn't even in the room. For him to say that I was the source is categorically untrue."

"I blame Finchem," Trevino says. "Finchem and Henry Hughes wouldn't go to bat for David Graham, which is why I couldn't support them when they later asked me to be the captain. I said hell no! I'm still pissed off about it."

The Hall of Fame Snub

Graham's 35 professional victories — including two majors and 13 titles between the PGA and Champions Tours — would seem to be comparable to those of other inductees, and in fact superior to the careers of others. Graham is also the only Aussie to have won two of golf's four majors (the PGA and U.S. Open).

"Some people in there got in with less of a record than him," says Devlin. "How do you put Isao Aoki in the Hall of Fame before David Graham?"

Graham could get in through the Lifetime Achievement category (his part in getting the Presidents Cup airborne would help), and could be put back on the regular ballot by the PGA Tour policy board.

 

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