Sunday 25 August 2019

A century on, the Wanamaker Trophy really is a cup for all seasons

The PGA Championship jug has had a topsy-turvy journey through its storied history in golf

Pádraig Harrington holds the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 90th PGA Championship. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Pádraig Harrington holds the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 90th PGA Championship. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Dermot Gilleece

It is 100 years, two months and four days since the inaugural PGA Championship was completed at Sinawoy CC, Bronxville, New York. Along the way, two unusually weighty trophies were mislaid - and only one has been recovered.

Pádraig Harrington was presented with the original, however, in August 2008 and the same, formidable Wanamaker Trophy later went to Rory McIlroy after his triumphs of 2012 and 2014.

When studying the history of the only Major championship restricted to professionals, you soon notice its date having been kicked around in the golfing calendar on a regular basis. Now there's a suggestion of a February staging in 2020 in San Francisco, so as to avoid a clash with golf in Tokyo's Olympic Games.

Alternatively, the Players Championship might be moved to March in 2020, making way for the PGA in May. Another suggestion is for an autumn staging. All this only months after the event seemed somewhat downgraded to accommodate the Rio Olympics, with a slot squeezed into the end of last July - only two weeks after a thrilling Open Championship at Royal Troon.

The PGA would appear to have had to fight for its identity, right from the outset. Reflecting on its 1916 launch, when America had fewer than 750 golf courses compared with a current 15,300, one US critic observed: "Any tournament that excluded Bobby Jones was a championship of somewhat tainted value."

As things turned out, the PGA delivered a very able substitute for Jones in Walter Hagen, who, after being champion in 1921, went on to gain the remarkable distinction of winning four in a row from 1924 to 1927. It was an achievement which had two sharply contrasting consequences - a mislaid trophy and an ill-fated appearance in Dublin to mark a new course at Clontarf GC in May, 1928.

We'll deal firstly with the famous trophy, which I had the good fortune of actually handling on the Monday morning after Harrington's stunning triumph at Oakland Hills, Detroit. Named after Rodman Wanamaker, a wealthy American businessman who was instrumental in helping his country's professional golfers become organised, it was mistakenly believed to have been in Hagen's possession when, in fact, it was lost.

Apparently, when celebrating the second win of his four-in-a-row, Hagen was heading back to his hotel with the trophy when, on an impulse, he decided the night was still young. So he gave the taxi man a $5 tip to take it to a specified destination while he resumed his revelry.

That was the last Hagen saw of the trophy, though it didn't really matter, so long as he kept winning. His failure to bring it with him for subsequent appearances was viewed simply as the brash, Hagen way of signalling his continued dominance.

After losing in the semi-finals of 1928, however, he had to admit that he hadn't seen the trophy in years and had no notion of its whereabouts. Which left the PGA with no option other than to commission a new one. It was several years later before an employee in a Detroit warehouse came upon a dust-covered crate and its precious contents.

So, the Wanamaker Trophy returned to presentation platforms and, as a fascinating tailpiece, the PGA proceeded to lose the replacement. Which, of course, didn't concern Harrington 75 years later.

Memories of Oakland Hills prompt thoughts of the whereabouts of a black Detroit youngster who, as toddler back in 2008, nestled fast asleep in his father's arms while Harrington autographed the back of his striped T-shirt. The precious memento was acquired while the newly-crowned champion was being ushered along a walkway for a formal clubhouse gathering of the great and the good of American golf.

Back with Hagen, there was no appearance by the great man in the 1930 championship, but his return in 1931 was of particular interest to Irish observers. At Wannamoisett CC in Rhode Island, Greenore's Peter O'Hare caused a sensation by beating the five-time champion by 4 and 3 in the first round, before losing to the eventual winner, Tom Creavy. This would be the last appearance by an Irish player in the PGA as a match play event before the current stroke play format was adopted in 1958.

Hagen's celebrity in 1928 made it something of a coup for Clontarf to land him for an 18-hole exhibition on Saturday, May 26, a week prior to his appearance in the Irish Open at Royal Co Down.

Typical of newspaper reaction was a report in the Irish Independent which read: "We must congratulate the Clontarf club on their enterprise in affording Dublin golfers a view of the most talked-of golfer in the world."

It took the form of a fourball, with Hagen partnering the resident professional, Jack Quinn, against Willie Holley and Willie Nolan. Rarely short of words, Hagen had two particularly memorable sayings about golf: "Never hurry, never worry and be sure to smell the flowers along the way", and, "I place no importance in knowing a course". Both would have adopted a rather hollow ring during his Clontarf visit.

As it happened, there was no smelling of flowers as he grappled with a strange layout in a steady downpour. We're told that the miserable conditions kept the attendance down to "no more than a few stragglers", which made for lean pickings for Hagen, who had contracted for the gate receipts rather than a specific appearance fee.

In the event, he and Quinn were soundly beaten by their Irish opponents and Hagen didn't fare any better at Newcastle, in the wake of England's Ernest Whitcombe.

It is ironic that the phone call which ultimately convinced Ben Hogan to travel to the Open at Carnoustie in 1953 should have come from Hagen, given that it famously brought the timing of the PGA into focus.

On July 7, Walter Burkemo won it in Michigan, and three days later Hogan was triumphant on his only appearance in the Open Championship.

The fact that Hogan also won the Masters and the US Open that year inevitably prompted conjecture about the modern Grand Slam. As we can see from those overlapping dates, however, he couldn't have played in all four Majors in 1953, even if he so desired.

Dow Finsterwald became the first winner of the PGA as a stroke play event in 1958. Its new format failed to deliver a renewed Irish challenge, however, until 1991, when David Feherty finished sixth behind John Daly at Crooked Stick.

Even at this remove, Daly's appearance on that occasion was nothing short of miraculous, given the series of events that had to happen to allow him into the field from his position of ninth alternate. Among them, incidentally, was the withdrawal of Ronan Rafferty through a combination of injury and family commitments.

Meanwhile, the Hagen mystique lived on. In that context there was the charming story of the 1927 PGA Championship in Dallas, where he played compatriot Al Espinosa in the semi-finals. Faced with a blinding sun in the late afternoon, Hagen shielded his eyes with his hand.

That was when a lad standing close by offered the great man his school cap. Gratefully accepting, Hagen donned the cap and proceeded to hit a stunning approach to within eight feet of the pin. Then, smiling broadly, he returned it to 15-year-old Byron Nelson, who would go on to win the same title 13 years later.

That was in November. And given its October launch, the August wins by Harrington and McIlroy and the possibility of a February staging in 2020, it could be said that the PGA is truly a Major for all seasons. With a legacy very much its own.

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