There are those who say the PGA Championship hasn't been the same since it converted from match play to stroke play in 1958. They say it lost its distinctiveness and enduring quality. They may be right, but in the final round of the 67th PGA at Cherry Hills Country Club, the venerable tournament became match play, in effect, once again. Hubert Green and defending champion Lee Trevino, paired in the last group, staged a mile-high Western shootout to rival just about anything the good old days ever offered.
Green started the day with a 3-stroke lead, but dissipated it on the front nine. Trevino actually went ahead briefly at the par-5 fifth, where he sank a 15-foot eagle putt, while Green was taking a bogey, but when Lee three-putted the next hole it was all even again.
The moment of truth, in retrospect, came on the 9th hole, a 438-yard par 4 that plays much shorter at this altitude.
Trevino, a salty match player throughout his career, smacked an approach shot that danced to a halt 15 inches from the hole. His birdie was assured.
Green, who won the US Open in 1977 but nearly disappeared from view earlier this decade, needed a big shot of his own to avoid falling behind the opportunistic Trevino once again. He hunkered over his sidehill shot, waggled his club repeatedly, and slashed the ball almost as close to the cup as Trevino's for a matching birdie.
With that, Green turned to his talkative opponent, flashed a crooked grin and pointed a finger at him as if to say, ``I can keep up with you, partner.''
And after the turn, it was Green who played the steadier golf. Twice he went ahead by one stroke only to see Trevino pull back into a tie. Then Trevino three-putted the 15th to fall behind again, and this time Green closed him out with three straight pars, finishing with a 6-under-par 278 that beat Lee by two strokes. The victory was worth $125,000 and a spot on the US Ryder Cup team that will face the European squad overseas in mid-September.
Tied for third were the hulking Andy Bean and the wispish Tze-Ming Chen of Taiwan, older brother of T. C. Chen, who nearly won the US Open in June. Chen the elder fired a blazing 65 the last day here. T. C. himself finished with a 66.
But the tournament belonged to Green, who slumped to a $29,000 season in 1983 before beginning to bounce back last year.
``I was almost dead on the tour, but I never counted myself out,'' said the curly-haired native of Alabama who now lives in north Florida. ``I had some shoulder problems and some swing problems, but I've always been willing to work overtime, and I finally got them ironed out.''
Green's swing has never been called classic. He picks up the club quickly with his wrist, loops it strangely at the top, and flails at the ball like a woodman cutting down a tree (though he does accelerate the club through the ball admirably).
His putting is even more unorthodox. He hunkers over the ball as if looking for a lost contact lens, his hands split on the grip and his left foot pulled far back of his right. The new version has him hitting the ball from opposite his rear foot, his hands well in front of the ball. The style looks peculiar, but encourages crisp contact.
``Hubert may not look pretty in action, but he has as much courage as anybody out here,'' says his friend Fuzzy Zoeller. ``He's had plenty of chances to give up, but he never did. His game was well suited to this course. The greens got very hard, but he hits his irons high and lands the ball softly. And he made more clutch putts than one of the best clutch players in the business.''
Green seemed to relish his stirring confrontation with Trevino, who was seeking his third PGA title, and said afterward, ``When you play with the Mex and he's hitting those super shots, you'd better dampen his fires in a hurry, because he can run off and hide from you fast.''
Green won 10 times in the 1970s, including that '77 US Open.
``That was so long ago it's hard to compare it with this win,'' he said. ``Maybe this means a little more because I was a favorite back then, and in recent years I've been much less successful.''
Green's triumph was a fitting climax to a year that specialized in the unlikely. Bernhard Langer of West Germany won the Masters; Andy North, who hadn't won since 1978, won the US Open; and Sandy Lyle gave Britain a rare and unexpected champion in the British Open.
Could it be the majors were getting even for giving us popular champions Ben Crenshaw, Zoeller, Seve Ballesteros, and Trevino in stirring 1984 spectaculars?