1974 PGA Championship at Tanglewood

The Best Major No One Remembers

50 years ago, Trevino and Nicklaus battled it out at a PGA Championship that has since been lost to history

Episode 161: The Best Major No One Remembers The Golfer's Journal Podcast

Ah, the PGA. I’m deeply and profoundly in like with it, regardless of where it falls on the calendar. Lodged in golf’s hierarchy as the eternal fourth of four, it tries. Lord knows, it tries. Loved a smidgeon less than the rest, its history is a bit like the fellow who can’t seem to find clothes that fit. Bless its 106-year-old heart. It began in the fall, moved to the summer and now it’s in the spring. Winter should be out of the question, but you never  know with the PGA. It changed from match play to medal in 1958 and navel-gazers still wonder if that was a good idea. It’s been won five times each by Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus and four times by Tiger Woods—three of the most prolific collectors of titles of significance the game has ever known—which should grant it a lofty level of legitimacy, and yet we wouldn’t really count on it to run the family business, now would we? There was a time, not so very long ago, when the best players in the world were flying to America from Europe on the Concord. To the Faldos and Seves and Woosies, the PGA held all the glitz and glamor of the championship of the Pipe Fitters Union.

In 1957, with Hagen and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead mostly in the rearview mirror, Herbert Warren Wind was already bemoaning the quality of the PGA’s venues. “Much more often than not in recent years, the PGA Championship was held on layouts quite unworthy of the event,” he wrote then. It was a stigma, fairly or unfairly, that attached like a barnacle to the underbelly of the championship for decades. The reality was far more nuanced. For every Pecan Valley there was a Southern Hills or Congressional. Besides, anyone who has ever witnessed the ebbs and flows of a Ryder Cup knows that the game doesn’t require a great work of art as its setting to provide a suitable stage for compelling theater. Shakespeare is still Shakespeare whether it’s in the Globe or the Cinema 10. Valhalla, the site of this year’s PGA, makes the point—to steal from Woods’ famous gesture in his playoff with Bob May in 2000. And, if you somehow are of the belief that the Wanamaker Trophy is a lesser tchotchke, you haven’t talked to a man who owns one. Right, Padraig? Rory? JT?

Fifty years ago the PGA of America, in all likelihood enticed by a spittoon full of tobacco money, ventured into the wilderness of a massive park outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to play on a public golf course no one would ever confuse with Pebble Beach or Pinehurst No. 2. It nonetheless managed to produce as satisfying a week of high-level-yet-soggy golf as any other you’ve completely forgotten. It was wet and wonderful. It was Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, and golf, then or now, doesn’t get much better than that.

Feel free to argue amongst yourselves over who the greatest player of all time was, but this much is true: From the moment Nicklaus took Arnold Palmer to overtime in 1962 at Oakmont, Jack’s ecosystem included a continuous string of great—not just good but great—players who were unafraid to go toe-to-toe and eyeball-to-eyeball with him, beginning with Palmer and including Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. And so it was, when Nicklaus had another shot at his nemesis, Trevino, at the Tanglewood Park Golf Course in 1974 it was a week to remember, even if most people, including many of the protagonists, don’t.

“I don’t remember it,” Gary Player said when asked years later about the 64 he shot in the second round. “I couldn’t have shot a 64. I must have been in a dream. I couldn’t have shot a 64 and not remember it at all. But I just can’t.”

Part of the reason for this might be because big-league history was being made elsewhere. On the evening of Thursday, August 8—the same night Raymond Floyd, Hubert Green and the PGA Tour’s leading astrological soothsayer John Schlee would sleep on the first-round lead—Richard Nixon announced in an address from the White House’s Oval Office that he was resigning the presidency. Talk about getting your stars crossed. Tanglewood may have been inundated with days and days of rain but it had nothing on Watergate. After Nixon, the outside world thankfully kept its distance from golf’s majors until O.J. Simpson crawled down an L.A. freeway in a white Bronco during the ’94 U.S. Open at Oakmont. 

Richard Nixon
President Nixon gives his famous wave from the steps of Marine One after his resignation as President of the United States. Photo by Bettman/Getty

High crimes and misdemeanors notwithstanding, the telling details of a championship tend to be a hodgepodge of the before and during. Robert Trent Jones Sr. designed the Tanglewood Park course in 1958 and came back to fluff the pillow for the ’74 PGA. This involved increasing the number of bunkers to a staggering 111. To Golf World magazine they looked like “giant jigsaw puzzle pieces dropped from the Goodyear Blimp.” They were everywhere. What wasn’t anywhere was a clubhouse, so they built one.

As it turned out, however, it wasn’t the bunkers (or the clubhouse that, coincidentally, is being torn down this year) that proved the most significant influence on scoring. It was the rain, enough to make the adjacent Yadkin River run as muddy as the Mississippi. It was August in the South. Thunderstorms are as omnipresent as sweet tea. It rained so much the week prior to the championship that Jones, on site to check out his menagerie of bunkers, measured it in gallons—21 million by his reckoning. It continued to fall lightly but consistently early in tournament week before a Biblical, 45-minute deluge on Friday sealed the playing conditions irrevocably. The upshot was the greens were soft as banana pudding and the fairways broadened by a lack of roll. And, in case you’re wondering, 1974 was several decades prior to “mudballs” becoming the scourge of western civilization the modern player believes them to be. The old guys just kind of got on with it. Since it was too wet to mow the Bermuda rough, it blossomed into a thick, gnarled, wet, 4 ½-inch deep hazard far more penalizing than any bunker. The fairway was the only place to play from and very few players have understood how to do that better than Lee Trevino, whose hardscrabble, caddie-yard fade was the signature of one of great ball-strikers of all time. This was a man who could flight the ball lower than a basketball goal and back it up like a yo-yo if he wanted to.

The PGA Tour Champions tournament, the Vantage Championship, was played at Tanglewood Park from 1988 through 2002. During one of Trevino’s years playing in it, he was asked about ’74 and Lee, typically half-joking, said the only thing he could remember was that he never missed a fairway. That wasn’t the funny part because he wasn’t far wrong.

The late Tom Weiskopf was not among the players who cut the PGA any slack for democratizing its championship by taking it to a public golf course, which today carries three decidedly nondescript stars out of five on GolfPass, if you’re into that kind of thing. Weiskopf, glib and whip smart, rarely held back his opinions and never when he was talking to Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins. In the two years before Tanglewood, the PGA visited Oakland Hills and Canterbury. After Tanglewood, it was booked into Firestone, Congressional and Pebble Beach. “But in between we had to have this,” Weiskopf said. His unhappiness floated to the surface in a spritzing rain on the 16th hole on Friday—the same day Player dreamed up his course-record 64. By some estimates he took nine putts, though seven seemed to be the overall consensus, some with the putter held upside down. According to Jenkins, the conversation Weiskopf had with a PGA rules official went something like this:

“I’m injured and I quit.”

“What’s your injury?”

“I’m 25 over.”

The PGA Championship in ’74 was conducted in the antediluvian days when players were not allowed to use their own caddies. Nicklaus’ bag was being carried by a local heating and air conditioning salesman. Player’s 64 came with his usual caddie Alfred “Rabbit” Dyer in a supporting role only, scouting the setup before each round. His on-course caddie was Clarence Simington, an inspector for Reynolds Tobacco. 

Schlee, who held the halfway lead by a shot over Green, was in a ’70s, Age of Aquarius, kind of mood. “When your astrological outlook is not good, you just have to try a lot harder,” he said. “The stars influence, but they do not compel.” Good to know. What was compelling was some swing advice he got three years prior from Ben Hogan. “That’s better than astrology or a good putting stroke,” the tea leaves revealed.

Lee Trevino - 1974 PGA Championship at Tanglewood
Trevino at Tanglewood. Photo by Al Satterwhite /American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images

Trevino was ultimately the one who hit the zodiac jackpot. He found it in the attic of the house he’d rented for the week in nearby Bermuda Run from a woman named Zana Mayberry who asked him to take a look at her late husband’s golf clubs in the event they might be worth something. What he found was a putter with a paper base under the grip. “I’d been looking for one like this for years but they quit making them 15 years ago,” Trevino said. It went straight into the bag. “Mrs. Mayberry told me that if I won the tournament I could have it,” Trevino said a month later during the World Open in Pinehurst, a tournament that coincided with the opening of the World Golf Hall of Fame, an event attended by the grinning new president of the United States, Gerald Ford. “She doesn’t know it but I probably would have taken it anyway,” he said.

Trevino came into the PGA Championship in a dour mood. Just a month earlier at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, the man the headline writers loved to call “Merry Mex” was grousing about a schedule stuffed full of things he couldn’t say no to and then didn’t want to do, gift wrapped inside a general lack of privacy. After a second-round 66 got him in contention on a golf course perfectly suited to his skill set, his outlook improved markedly. “Ain’t nothin’ like a low round to make you untired,” he said.

Trevino killed time in the evenings shooting hoops by himself in the driveway in Bermuda Run. “When I miss a shot, I’m Jerry West,” Lee said, “and when I make one, I’m me.” He was himself on Sunday, taking a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus and South African Bobby Cole into the final round. In the four major championships—two U.S. Opens and two Open Championships—Trevino already had to his credit, Nicklaus was the biggest hurdle in each. The two had, and still have, a deep and abiding respect for one another. Nothing got Trevino going like the chance to play Nicklaus and, for his part, Jack knew all too well that Lee didn’t have a reverse gear. Things got as funny as a rubber snake after Nicklaus made birdie on the fifth.

“He accidentally put his putter in my bag,” said Trevino. “He couldn’t find it when he reached for it on the sixth green. I said, ‘Hey, man, are you trying to give me 15 clubs? Tell you what, I’ll take the two [penalty strokes] if you promise me you won’t use that thing the rest of the round.’”

The 17th proved to be the championship’s decisive hole. To begin with, it was the end for Cole, who had eagled his first hole of the day with a sand wedge from 78 yards. The South African hung in until he duck-hooked his drive under a tree on the penultimate. He tried to play it, whiffed, and made double-bogey 6.

In the end, it wasn’t Mrs. Mayberry’s putter that landed the knockout blow, it was Trevino’s driver, the club that kept him in play all week. In The Snake in the Sandtrap, the book Trevino authored with Dallas Morning News sportswriter and editor Sam Blair, Lee said his tee shot off the sharp dogleg left 17th was one of the best shots he ever hit. Ever. For someone who possessed the stunning repertoire of shots Trevino had, that’s saying something. Using a 1960-model MacGregor driver with a nickel insert in the face—the club he wielded in one of his U.S. Open wins and both of his Opens—he hit a sweeping hook around the corner. “I decided to hook it and it came off perfect,” he said. “Nicklaus looked at me as though I had just lost my mind. Hell, I was surprised, too. I’ve never been able to draw the ball too well. I just don’t have the feel of the flow, but this time I had it just right.”

The part he didn’t have right belonged—or once belonged—to the deceased husband of Mrs. Mayberry. Trevino hit a 4-iron to 20 feet, left his first putt short, then missed the next one too. “My mind said to hit it hard but my hands wouldn’t move,” Trevino said. What do they say, dead men’s putters tell no tales? Anyway, that cut his lead over Nicklaus to one shot with one hole to play. Both drove well off the 18th with Lee hitting driver and Jack a 3-wood. Nicklaus’ second left him a 20-footer for birdie, with Trevino just inside him. When Nicklaus missed, Trevino putted a foot or so past the hole. After his experience on 17, he wasn’t anxious to rely on Mrs. Mayberry’s good graces again. He looked at Nicklaus and Hubert Green and asked if he could putt out. “I’m choking to death, men,” he said. Jack smiled and nodded his approval. 

“What I decided was, I got to go out and play with Jack so I’m going to go for everything. I went right for the flag all day practically. You have to against Jack,” Trevino said afterward. It marked the 12th time Nicklaus had been a runner-up in a major—in addition to his 14 titles—and four of those had come against Trevino. 

And, as if there was nothing else to talk about, 62-year-old Sam Snead shot 69-71-71-68, dragging his balky putter behind him to finish tied for third a mere 22 years after he won his first PGA—at match play. “I guess it’s always gonna be that way,” he grumbled.

The victory meant that Trevino was one green jacket shy of the career grand slam. He said he’d be going back to the Masters, a tournament he’d skipped the previous two years, “if they’ll have me.” Some people said Trevino didn’t play Augusta because the golf course didn’t suit him. Nicklaus, for one, knew that no one—neither Scottish sheep nor Robert Trent Jones—had ever built a golf course Trevino couldn’t play. “Jack says I’m capable of playing the course, so I must be,” said Lee.

As for Mrs. Mayberry’s putter, “I’m going to have a line of them coming out in about two months,” Trevino joked at the World Open in Pinehurst. “I may call it Mrs. Mayberry’s Putter or I may call it the Andy Griffith.”

1974 PGA Championship at Tanglewood
Trevino won his fifth of six majors at Tanglewood in 1974. He would win go on to win another PGA and his last major a decade later. Photo by Al Satterwhite /American Broadcasting Companies via Getty Images