For golf's Hal Sutton, PGA title an indication of things to come

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The course at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, the site of this year's 65th annual PGA Championship, always takes more than it gives. The layout is beautifully tough and challenging.

It has small greens, narrow fairways, and a special strain of African grass that makes every blade look as though it has been spray-starched. It is where Hollywood years ago filmed ''The Ben Hogan Story,'' starring Glenn Ford.

It is also where 25-year-old Hal Sutton won his first major tournament, last week's PGA Championship, by one stroke over an aroused Jack Nicklaus, who simply ran out of holes. Sutton's 274 total was manufactured from rounds of 65-66-72-71 .

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Sutton is a serious type out of Louisiana who could be playing golf strictly for fun, but he isn't. His family owns enough oil wells, and who knows what else , to buy him his own 18-hole course.

This is a kid who knows the salad fork from the dinner fork and can buy a luxury foreign car without bothering to ask the price. In fact, he and his father own an 11-seat turboprop plane together. Hal explodes the theory that you have to be born on the other side of the tracks to know what motivation is all about.

Sutton has felt the pressure of competition and he's dealt with it. For example, three weeks ago Hal had victory in his hip pocket and let it get away. Playing a tournament in Williamsburg, Va., he led by six strokes entering the final round, only to lose to Calvin Peete. But instead of getting down on himself, he got together with his private golf tutor, Jimmy Ballard, and worked until his swing and mind were straightened out.

Still, the 1983 taming of Riviera wasn't easy. The word ''choke'' came up again during the PGA's final round, when Sutton recorded three straight bogeys, beginning at the 12th hole. But then he rallied with pars over the last four holes to level a personal Mt. Everest.

A year ago, as a rookie on the pro tour, Sutton set a record for first-year players by earning $237,424. This year that figure is already up to $397,684, which makes him the tour's leading money winner, and it's still only August.

The PGA championship was Hal's third victory since joining the tour. His first win came at the 1982 Walt Disney World Golf Classic. He followed that up this year with a victory in the Tournament Players Championship.

Consistency is a big part of his game. This season he has made the cut in 20 of 23 tournament starts, which means his scores qualified him to play in the last two money rounds.

If Sutton showed by winning the PGA that he can indeed handle pressure, Nicklaus demonstrated that he can still play championship golf in the big events by coming from several shots off the lead to within a cat's whisker of victory. Had Jack won, it would have been his first major title since 1980, when he won both the US Open and PGA tournaments.

Afterward Nicklaus told reporters, ''When I'm playing well these days, I'm probably playing as well as I ever have. It was fun coming down to the final hole and knowing that a major title was still on the line. But I simply gave myself too much work to do. I had to make up eight shots on the leader and it turned out to be one too many. As for Sutton, I think if there is anyone coming along who is going to dominate the tour, Hal has the tools plus a head start on everyone else.''

The pressure of the PGA really peaked for Sutton on the 14th hole when he hit a 5-iron that was the equivalent of an infield popup in major league baseball. When Hal followed that with a weak chip shot and two putts, Nicklaus was almost as close as the pages in a book.

At that point Sutton reminded his caddie that ''this is what it's all about, '' and proceeded to play par golf.

''All I could think about coming down to the end was that I didn't want to embarrass myself again on national television,'' Sutton said. ''Fortunately there is something inside you that punches you up and says: 'Don't do this again. Don't do this twice in a row. Don't come apart on national TV.' ''

Although the winner of the PGA is usually named to the US Ryder Cup team, which enters international competition in October, Sutton hasn't been a professional long enough to fulfill the various eligibility requirements, and the Professional Golfers Association generally doesn't waive rules at this level.

Sutton is currently taking a week off, not so much to get away from golf as to get ready for his sister's wedding.

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