This is without question the busiest PGA week of my year. The PGA Championship is our premier event and it is truly a celebration of golf for our 27,000 PGA members and apprentices. There are a couple of events that are PGA Championship week traditions and I would like to share those with you.
The Champions Dinner is traditionally held each Tuesday night before the tournament begins. This evening brings together a large collection of former golf greats- past and present- who have lifted the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday evening.
And here is a little trivia about that trophy. It was donated by Rodman Wanamaker, the New York City department store magnate, who was instrumental in the formation of the PGA of America in 1916. It weighs 27.5 pounds and is the heaviest of the four major championship trophies. When I am President in 2013-14, I will present this to the winner.
Martin Kaymer, of Germany, was the host of this year’s Champions Dinner because he is the defending champion. Kaymer picked a menu that included a traditional German Christmas dinner. The meal included a tomato and mozzarella cheese salad, roasted goose, sausage, red cabbage, potato dumpling, natural gravy and a delightful chocolate mousse.
Our past few PGA winners have included Y.E. Yang from Korea and Padraig Harrington from Northern Ireland. Suffice to say that we have experienced a variety of international cuisines lately at the PGA Champions dinner. Even in 2008, Tiger Woods decided to dedicate the meal to his wife Elin and he picked a Swedish theme that included a menu of raw fish.
I love all of these guys, but a good steak would be nice. (Read between the red, white and blue lines.)
This year’s dinner was attended by 17 of our past PGA Champions and it included Kaymer, Yang, Harrington, Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bobby Nichols, David Toms, Mark Brooks, Rich Beem, Vijay Singh, Larry Nelson, Bob Tway, Shaun Micheel, John Daly, Doug Ford, Paul Azinger, Don January, Hubert Green, Al Geiberger and Dow Finsterwald.
Each year the champion picks two players to speak and tell a few stories about the PGA Championship. Kaymer selected Toms, who won here at the Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001, and Mickelson, who finished a shot out of the lead that year. David and Phil exchanged a few barbs about that final round and some Ryder Cup experiences. This is always a highlight of the night.
I had the privilege to sit with Harrington and his wife, Caroline. The Irishman has won three major championships including two British Opens and the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills where he made a par saving putt on the final hole to nip Sergio Garcia by a shot.
Harrington grew up in Dublin. His father was a policeman who was part of a group of cops that built a golf course in 1971. This is the course where Harrington grew up. “Today seventy percent of the membership is made up of policeman. You can’t vote on any membership matters unless you are a policeman. I laugh when people talk about discrimination in golf because I tell them I can’t vote on things at my own course because I am not a policeman. It is a good course. The best score I ever shot there is 69, so that tells you something.”
During the Champions Dinner, a video is shown that highlights the winners from the previous 92 years of PGA Championships. It is a who’s who of golf and as each former champion appears on the video he receives a rousing applause from the crowd in attendance which includes PGA Officers, Directors, Past Presidents and their wives.
Harrington made an interesting observation at the conclusion of the video. “It’s interesting to see the time lapses between the wins in the case of multiple PGA winners. Many times, their wins are decades apart. When you win a major, the media gives the impression that you should contend in every major. It just won’t happen.
“The experience of having won a major is good and bad. You know how much it means to win a major, but sometimes that makes it tougher to win- harder to get in contention during the tournament. But, if you are in a good position on the final nine holes, the experience of winning a major definitely becomes an advantage,” said Harrington.
Besides the Champions Dinner, the other great event this week is the Distinguished Service Award presentation on Wednesday night. Larry Nelson was the 2011 recipient and he joined the likes of Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and George H.W. Bush.
Nelson is a native of Georgia. He won two PGA Championships and a U.S. Open. He was a Ryder Cup stalwart who racked up a 9-3-1 record in the matches including a 4-0 record against Seve Ballesteros in 1979.
Larry’s story is pretty amazing. He did not play golf in high school. He served our country in Viet Nam and upon his return decided to try golf. He was given a copy of the book Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons: the Modern Fundamentals of Golf” and literally read the book before he hit a golf ball. Nelson broke 100 the first time he played and nine months later he broke 70.
He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2006. Nelson made an impact off the golf course through his work with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has been involved with a multitude of charitable causes.
One story that Nelson’s mother Rudell tells says it all. Larry was driving home in the 1980’s and he passed a car with Ohio license plates. The hood was raised and the driver was shaking his head in despair. Nelson stopped and went back to the car, noticing it also contained a woman and two children in the back seat.
The driver was distraught and saw no way his family could get back home. Nelson told the man to hold on, and that he would return. He went to a nearby used car lot, made a quick purchase, driving the car back to the family.
Larry said to the man, “Here, now you can go home,” said Rudell. “I asked Larry about whether he ever heard back from the man or his family, and he said he didn’t need to hear back.”
Wednesday night, the PGA of America was honored to recognize Larry Nelson.