Pittsburgh Sports: Witnessing Sudden Death On PGA Tour


For anyone who has not attended a professional golf tournament, it might be because the sport is considered boring. However, having been present for the 1978 PGA Championship at the Oakmont Country Club just outside Pittsburgh, I can attest to the fact that a PGA tournament is far more exciting than one might believe.

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Growing up in the North Hills area of Pittsburgh, one of my neighbors was Dan Pelczarski, currently a financial advisor in the ‘Burgh. But back then, Dan was an aspiring professional golfer. I knew nothing about the sport, so Dan accompanied me to the event as sort of a tour guide. Here was a 15-year old golfer leading a 19 year old sports fan around the greens at Oakmont, witnessing golf history.

Some of the players we were able to see up close and personal were Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Lee Trevino. As we attended only the final round on August 6, 1978, we failed to get a glimpse of Jack Nicklaus, perhaps the greatest golfer of all time because “The Golden Bear” incredibly missed the cut. Nicklaus was only 38 at the time and missed the cut by five strokes. He was a favorite in this event and had won the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. That victory was his first major victory and first as a pro golfer.

Jun 7, 2015; Dublin, OH, USA; Jack Nicklaus looks on at the eighteenth hole during the final round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

For Oakmont Country Club, it marked the third time in their history they hosted the PGA Championship, and the eighth major held there. These days, PGA title winners are taking home massive amounts of money for finishing first in a tourney. In 1978, the winner of this event was awarded just $50,000. The four round event boiled down to what would take place among the three leaders on the final 18th hole.

John Mahaffey, Jerry Pate, and the great Tom Watson were vying for the title. Pate had a chance to win in his final putt on 18 and it was only a four footer. Had he made it, Pate would have won the tournament. Instead, the ball skimmed the hole for a miss and it was on to a sudden-death playoff between Pate, Watson, and Mahaffey.

For those who attend pro golf tournaments, the final hole is a tough one to witness. The way Pelczarski and I planed on watching by his suggestion, was to pick a grouping to follow from holes one to 18, then circle back to join the leaders the rest of the way. I can never forget on one hole as we watched Johnny Miller tee off, he sliced his drive to the left and we could hear the ball soaring just over our heads. Once we reached the final hole, we circled back to watch Pate, Watson, and Mahaffey the rest of the way.

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  • What we failed to realize is that once we reached 18, it was impossible to get a seat in the grandstands surrounding the green. Therefore, we would miss the action that would decide the fate of this match. Using my ingenuity, I climbed up the side of the stands holding on to the frame so I could get high enough to see what was happening.

    I was fortunate to see Pate miss his putt, but once he did, the mad scramble for the sudden-death at hole #1 was on. By the time I got back down to the ground, there were so many fans making a dash for the bridge that led to the first hole that we were unable to get there and were relegated to watching on a clubhouse monitor.

    In the end, it took two holes to decide the 1978 PGA title. All three finalists shot for par on the first hole. On the second, both Watson and Pate failed to make a birdie and John Mahaffey nailed a 12-foot putt to take home the trophy.

    As for my friend Dan Pelczarski, he would get his dream of becoming a pro golfer. It was however, on the Canadian Golf Tour and the Web.com Tour where he made his mark. The Web.com Tour is a developmental tour is American based events for pro golfers who do not reach the score level necessary at the PGA’s Qualifying School to earn a PGA tour card.

    Those who do not earn enough money to make the regular PGA tour also play on the Web.com tour. For Pelczarski, his best finish for a season was in 1997 when he earned $20,152 and made the cut on 26 tournaments finishing in the top 25 once. He was also a member of the Canadian tour in 1997, was the victor in a Tommy Armour tourney in 1995 and has won and played in events on the Space Coast and other Florida golf tours.

    If you haven’t had a chance to purchase a ticket to a PGA tournament, you might want to do that. You will be pleasantly surprised that excitement that surrounds a pro golf tournament. I know I experienced that even if it was 37 years ago!

    Original 1978 PGA Championship ticket

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