May 31, 2007

My Shot: David Graham

David Graham was one tough guy on a golf course, but 25 years after winning the Open at Merion, he shows his sensitive side. Pass the kleenex, please.

David Graham, photographed March 20, 2006, at Scotty's Gun Club in Kalispell, Mont.

David Graham, photographed March 20, 2006, at Scotty's Gun Club in Kalispell, Mont.

Age 59 Whitefish, Montana

It's been 25 years since I won the U.S. Open at Merion, and it's a good thing they have video, because I can hardly remember a thing about the final round. I was in a daze, in the zone. The details—every fairway hit except the first, a hole I birdied; every green hit except landing on the collars at No. 9 and No. 11, leaving me 25 feet from the hole at most—were a blur until it was over. In fact, the only clear memory is a bad one, my three-putt at the fifth hole. Isn't that odd? Some people felt the 67 I shot was the best closing round ever in a U.S. Open. Well, it would be nice if I could have seen it.

In 1996, Merion invited me to its 100th anniversary. It was called Merion Cricket Club well before they opened the golf course there in 1912. Anyway, after the golf the membership gathered around the 18th green. As a band played, they had me walk from the 18th tee down the fairway, up and over the hill. When I appeared, they gave me the most wonderful applause I've ever heard. It was like coming home, really. My most thrilling day happened at Merion. The most heartwarming day happened there, too. And I'm glad to say I remember everything about it.

A couple of summers ago I developed a cough. I was at a tournament in Boston and figured I'd just play through it. I didn't feel much better on Saturday but played anyway, coughing all day. On Sunday I felt even worse. On the eighth green my caddie looked at me and said, "Boss, you look awful. You've got to go in." I told him, "I think I'll just hit this putt." I stood over the ball and collapsed. They got me to the hospital, and I wound up spending five days there. It was congestive heart failure, cardiomyopathy and one or two other things. The big muscles and small muscles of my heart don't work well together, and there's nothing that can be done except to give me lots of pills to manage it. That was the end of me as a golfer. It was almost the end of me, period.

Early in my career, I had a three-quarter backswing. I just wasn't comfortable taking the club back to parallel. In 1978, on the advice of Gary Player, I began swinging a weighted driver. I drilled big holes in a persimmon clubhead and poured hot lead into the holes, then poured more lead down the shaft till it was brimming. After it cooled I put a new grip on. This club stretched out my swing very nicely. I liked it so much that I took to actually hitting balls with it. That summer I swung the club back to parallel for the first time and played great golf. To this day, even with all the practice devices that are available, I don't think there's anything better for your swing than a simple weighted club.

I was never much of a showman. I was too scared. No matter how big a lead I had, I could never punch the air with my fist after, say, a birdie at the 17th. Because in the back of my mind, I was aware that I could double bogey the 18th hole and bring about the most embarrassing situation of my life. Emotionally, I preferred to keep my cards close to my vest.

It was a good move on my part. In 1979, I came to the last hole of the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills with a two-stroke lead. One of the golf magazines—it wasn't yours—had offered $50,000 to anyone who broke the PGA 72-hole scoring record, and another $50,000 if he broke the 18-hole record. A par would have given me a 63 and the first record; a birdie would have given me both. Well, I blocked my drive well to the right, and although I had an open shot, there were too many people about to figure my yardage. So I asked my caddie, Willie Peterson—you remember Willie, he was Jack Nicklaus' caddie at Augusta for years—to get a yardage. Willie's answer was shocking: "You haven't asked me one question all the way around. I don't know. Figure it out yourself." I said, "Excuse me?" Willie just clammed up.

I ended up guessing the yardage and hit a 6-iron dead on line but over the green. I chili-dipped the chip shot, then chipped up and missed the putt. I made a double bogey, and the next minute I'm in a sudden-death playoff against Ben Crenshaw. Walking up to the scorer's tent, Willie says, "Don't worry, Boss, we'll get 'em in the playoff." I said, "Don't even speak to me. The farther you stay away from me, the happier I'll be. Just carry the clubs."

Frankly, I don't know how I got from the scorer's tent to the first tee. Ben hits a beautiful drive, and I hit a duck hook. I chipped out 100 yards short of the green, then hit a wedge shot about 20 feet to the right of the hole. And then I made the putt. And on the second hole I made a 10-footer to tie him again. Finally I won on the third hole with a birdie.

Standing over that 20-footer on the first hole, I had no inkling I would make the putt. You talk about players willing the ball into the hole? Well, my will and composure were shot. I can only conclude that a higher power was in control that day.

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.

Jack Nicklaus preferred leather grips on his clubs. So did a few other guys, but Jack's grips were different. He liked the grips to get old so the leather was rock hard and shiny. They were slick as glass. Whenever I swung one it almost flew out of my hands—and I had strong hands! If you hit a ball out on the toe of those small MacGregor irons, it would sting your hands something awful. Jack has small hands that weren't particularly strong, and how he played in the rain is anybody's guess. I suppose his grip pressure in every finger was absolutely perfect, and he had to accelerate the club very purely just to hold on to the club. That's one mystery Jack will take to his grave. "I love 'em like that," he'd say, then change the subject.

Can you imagine seeing Jack Nicklaus today lighting a cigarette during an interview? Or Arnold Palmer? It's almost unimaginable that these men ever smoked, yet they did. And so did I, until five years ago. Even then I replaced the cigarettes with cigars for a while. In terms of difficulty, quitting was about as easy as winning the U.S. Open.

For years, Jack would invite me to Augusta National for practice rounds the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the week before the Masters, and I used it to pick his brain. I asked him once why he made such a long backswing—his shoulder turn was second to none. Jack thought for a minute and said, "Good shots are worth waiting for."

It's one day at a time now. I have good days and bad. I can't walk uphill at all. Sometimes 50 yards is an ordeal. It's not totally debilitating. I can still travel some. I shoot skeet, go to dinner with friends and have people over. I have a good life.

The friendships I've made in Montana are much different than the friendships I had on tour. For the first time, they're not founded on or built around golf, and that's made it very challenging for me. Golf comes up in conversations, sure, because it's been my life. But we talk far more about the gun club, the goings on around Whitefish and Kalispell, all sorts of things I wasn't aware of before. Forming these new friendships is like learning to walk, because they're rooted in everyday lives that cover the gamut. It's required a higher level of consideration, loyalty, trust, honesty and thoughtfulness. I've had to work very hard at that, because so many of the friendships I have in pro golf are more like acquaintances because of the transient life we all led.

Hand me another Kleenex, will you? I cry a lot these days. My wife, Maureen, says it's a side effect from the handful of pills I take for my heart every day, but I'll admit I've become very sensitive, a baby really. All my life I fought like the devil to be successful, to escape the terrible start I had in life and build a good life for my wife and children. I pushed all the time, and one day I almost died and missed the things I'd worked for. All the goodness has hit me all at once. Every time I turn around, I'm living the end of a really happy movie.

After I got sick, I spent six months feeling sorry for myself. You know, the "Why me?" syndrome. Then I stumbled across a TV program about St. Jude Children's Hospital. They're talking to a 5-year-old girl with cancer. She said, "I can choose to be sick and unhappy, or I can choose to be sick and happy. I choose to be happy. It's a personal choice." That was the end of Mr. Graham feeling sorry for himself. Hand me that Kleenex again.

After I got sick, a year went by without me so much as lifting a club. Then a friend needed a partner for the big member-member at Iron Horse here in Whitefish. They let me play, using a cart with no restrictions. The problem was, I had to play off scratch. My opening tee shot, I hit four inches behind the ball and sent it 80 yards. Embarrassing. On the fourth hole, a par 5, we were 40 yards short of the green in two and made an 11. On the seventh hole, a par 3, I shanked a ball into the woods. We were well down the list, but the next day we shot 10 under and had a nice time. The upshot of that experience is that I haven't hit a ball since. Gave all of my clubs away except the irons I used to win the PGA and the U.S. Open, and the Bulls Eye putter I used at Merion. Threw 15 pairs of golf shoes in the dump. I'll never play again. Too embarrassing.

That shank, by the way, was the first one I ever hit in my entire life. I'm serious. I just cannot remember ever hitting one. Man, was it embarrassing. Now I understand what all the commotion is about.

I hated school and quit to turn pro when I was 14 in Australia. My father, who was a nasty guy and lived in a separate part of the house from my mother, said he'd never speak to me again if I chose that route, and boy, he meant it. I left home when I was 16, and years of desperation followed. No money, a terrible golf game, no friends, no education, terribly insecure. I'd mark six-inch putts in the small pro tournaments I played in and would hold up the whole course because the thought of blowing a putt and losing the few dollars was too dire to consider.

Anyway, when I came to America in 1969, I wasn't much different from the immigrants who came here a hundred years ago. I had nothing except desire and a trade, and the longer I stayed the more successful I became. That in turn made me more and more grateful. It was like being reborn, and I decided to break the chain of unhappiness that had been in my family past. All the crap has disappeared. I consider myself a first-generation Graham. My wife and I ingrained a completely different set of values in our two sons, and now I see them instilling those things in my grandchildren. It's just a wonderful feeling. The Kleenex again . . . just set the box over here.

I wasn't completely truthful about giving all my clubs away. I do keep one set of terrific irons at the house. A new driver, too, and the newest sand wedges, which are gorgeous and set up just beautifully. Hey, you never know.