David Graham is best known for a ball-striking display in the final round of the 1981 US Open at Merion that had the game’s most revered figures in awe yet his Sunday heroics at the 1979 US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club in Michigan were almost as noteworthy.
Starting the day four back of 54-hole leader Rex Caldwell – who bore an uncanny resemblance to crooner Barry Manilow – Graham went on a birdie blitz that had the course record and US PGA tournament record score well within his grasp.
And then disaster struck.
“It hit me just as I started my backswing on the 18th tee,” Graham conceded. “I just lost control of everything.”
The result was a double-bogey on the 72nd hole for a closing 5-under 65 and a playoff showdown with close friend Ben Crenshaw.
David Graham was the giant of Australian golf that no one saw coming.
He challenged the hierarchy of Australian golf from day one, becoming the youngest member of the Victorian PGA at just 16 years of age in 1962 and in so doing causing a rift between he and his father that lasted 10 years.
After success as a player in Australia, Japan and throughout Asia he defied convention again to take his game to the lucrative US Tour.
His first season was in 1971 and in 1972 Graham notched his first PGA TOUR title, defeating countryman and fellow trailblazer Bruce Devlin in a playoff at the 1972 Cleveland Open.
He would have to wait another four years to pick up his second yet his tie for fourth at the 1976 US PGA Championship paved the way for Graham to elevate his play into truly elite status.
He won twice in 1976, claimed the 1977 Australian Open at The Australian Golf Club and was top-10 in the 1977 and 1978 Masters but his best was yet to come.
Second going into the final round, Graham finished tied for sixth at the Philadelphia Classic the week prior to the US PGA Championship to signify he was in good form heading to Oakland Hills.
Overnight rain softened one of America’s most feared tests to the point where Tom Watson could post an opening round of 4-under 66 with Graham and fellow Australian Graham Marsh three shots back after posting rounds of 1-under 69.
Oakland Hills’ reputation for instilling carnage onto the world’s best players took another hit on Friday when Ben Crenshaw used a 3-under 67 to reach 4-under at the halfway mark, Graham’s 68 putting him into the group of 17 sub-par rounds on day two at an Oakland Hills layout that Detroit Free Press Sports Writer Jack Saylor described as “soft and vulnerable”.
One shot back through 36 holes, Graham fell four behind heading into the final round as Rex Caldwell took a two-stroke lead on the back of a third round of 4-under 66.
Recognising the need to produce a round of the highest order to even give himself a chance, Graham was sublime, picking up shots at the two opening holes, adding two more before the turn and then making birdies at both the 10th and 11th holes to reach 9-under par with seven holes to play.
His seventh birdie of the day at the par-4 15th not only put Graham in prime position to claim the Wanamaker Trophy and Oakland Hills course record but also a $50,000 bonus offered by Golf Magazine for any player who could best the PGA tournament record score of 271 set by Bobby Nichols in 1964.
And then Graham collapsed in a manner that he bluntly told the Detroit Free Press afterwards was the textbook definition of a choke.
“It hit me just as I started my backswing on the 18th tee,” Graham conceded. “I just lost control of everything. I had no idea where my ball would finish.”
Graham’s tee shot finished in the right rough, his approach shot to the 72nd green buried in grass so deep in the left collar of the putting surface that his third shot didn’t advance at all.
His second attempt finished just four feet from the hole but again nerves got the better of him, Graham’s miss and resulting double-bogey resulting in a sudden-death playoff with Crenshaw.
“It was not a difficult putt at all,” Graham added, finishing tied with Crenshaw on a tournament total of 272. “It should have been inside the right edge of the hole. When it missed I thought, What the hell’s going on here?”
Such was their friendship Crenshaw had often sought Graham’s counsel but now they were pitted against each other, both seeking a maiden Major championship victory.
More than 35,000 fans were on hand as the pair returned to the first hole to determine the champion.
Crenshaw had the upper hand until Graham sank a snaking 18-footer on the opening hole to match Crenshaw’s par, Graham driving another dagger into Crenshaw’s heart when he holed a 10-footer for birdie to match the Texan’s tap-in at the second playoff hole.
The end came at the 202-yard par-3 third, Crenshaw’s tee shot finishing in the greenside bunker as Graham lasered his iron into six feet and made the putt for birdie.
“I thought I had him on the first two holes but he kept making putts,” Crenshaw was left to lament.
“Except for that 18th hole it was as pure a round of golf as I’ve ever played,” Graham added.
“I had thought throughout the day that everything was well within my reach, and it was all there, just seeming to wait for me.”
Throughout the 1980s Graham was a consistent contender in the game’s showpiece events, his crowning glory the 1981 US Open win and a final day’s play that Ben Hogan himself referred to as “near perfection”.
Graham finished outside the top-20 at The Masters only twice between 1977 and 1985 and recorded a top-10 finish in at least one Major every year between 1975 and 1986, his 16th top-10 result at a Major coming at the 1990 Open Championship at St Andrews at 44 years of age.
He turned 50 in 1996 and won three Champions Tour titles the following year, adding further wins in each of the next two years, his final victory coming at the Raley’s Gold Rush Classic in October 1999.
Graham was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988, inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990 and in 2015 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, his nomination supported by none other than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.