With headlines of the day featuring Woodstock and Charles Manson, the 1969 PGA Championship – won by Raymond Floyd – did its best.
From August 14 to 17, the 1969 PGA Championship was played at the National Cash Register Country Club outside of Dayton, Ohio. It was held in the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, the tragedies of the Manson murders and Chappaquiddick, and contemporaneously with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York. It would have been hard for a mere golf tournament to match the drama of the time. The PGA Championship did its best.
This article about that eventful week is adapted from my book, “The Age of Palmer, Pro Golf in the 1960s, its Greatest Era” (Canoe Tree Press), which is available through Amazon.com. The 1969 season marked the first since 1957 in which none of golf’s “Big Three” of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player won a major championship.
For the most part, the tour had been sheltered from the tumult of the 1960s. Early in the decade, the PGA of America’s “Caucasian-only” clause had been removed, and by the end of the decade Black pros Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Pete Brown were tour mainstays who, for the most part, were accepted by their peers and appreciated by fans.
Many established pros, such as Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Phil Rodgers, Orville Moody and Lou Graham, had served in the military during the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s and had fulfilled their obligations and/or were too old for service when the Vietnam War began to sow divisions in America in 1965. Bud Allin delayed his golf career while he earned decorations for combat in the early days of the war in Southeast Asia. Cliff Harrington, who excelled on the United Golf Association while he served as a career Army paratrooper, lost his chance to prove himself on the PGA Tour when he was killed in action in Vietnam. Steve Eichstaedt earned his player’s card in 1967 and entered five tournaments in 1968 before he was drafted. After service as a combat medic in Vietnam, he briefly played the tour (finishing second to Bruce Devlin at the 1970 Cleveland Open). But, for the most part, golfers who came of age during the war were able to use college or family deferments, or service in the reserves, to stay out of Vietnam.
However, cultural upheaval and professional golf intersected at the last major championship of the decade. As Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated, “the PGA would be remembered as the tournament that let golf in on what’s going on out there in the real world.”
Before the PGA Championship, a group known as the Dayton Organization threatened to disrupt the championship unless a list of 27 demands were met, including 3,000 free tickets, access to all private clubs, a donation to the poor equal to the $175,000 purse, and an end to the Vietnam War. According to a leader of the coalition, they were disturbed that the Dayton area Chamber of Commerce had devoted more resources toward promoting the tournament than attempting to assist with problems in the community. Needless to say, the PGA was unwilling or unable to meet the demands. Sifford, Elder and Brown rejected the coalition’s overtures that they boycott the tournament, and all played.
After the first round, there was a nine-way tie for first place at 69. Few of the leaders were well known other than by hardcore golf fans, save perhaps for 1966 champion Al Geiberger. Their scores were overshadowed by the 82 shot by Palmer, who, citing a hip injury, immediately withdrew saying that he did not intend to return to competitive golf until he had recovered. Palmer was less than a month from turning 40, and the press immediately speculated that his career might be over.
“For one thing, I knew I was going to play with a man that I absolutely loathe. We couldn’t have said four words all day. … He’s not a considerate player with those he’s playing with. I guess it’s because his nerves are gone. I can’t say nothing to a guy like that. He’s an old man.” – Raymond Floyd
One of the nine first-round co-leaders was Raymond Floyd, a 26-year-old from North Carolina who had already won twice in 1969, most recently three weeks earlier at the American Golf Classic on the other side of Ohio in Akron. On the tour, he was known as much for being a party boy and a baseball fan (of the Chicago Cubs) as for his golf, and for his ability to play well after a night of carousing.
Floyd was grouped with Herman Keiser and Jim Ferrier, an odd threesome given that Keiser and Ferrier were 54 years old. Ferrier, an Australian, was in the field by virtue of his PGA Championship win in 1947. In 1960, Ferrier nearly won the PGA, but by the end of the decade he was taking up space in fields by virtue of the lifetime exemption granted at the time to all former PGA champions. In 1969, he entered 19 tournaments and won a grand total of $1,172.
Less than half the age of his playing competitors and at the top of his game, Floyd was displeased having to go out with two old-timers who had little chance of making the cut, let alone winning. Keiser, the 1946 Masters winner, shot a 41 on his first nine on Thursday and did not turn in his card at the end of the round. Floyd, who often had a sour disposition on the course, was annoyed that Ferrier took forever to line up his putts, though Ferrier did manage a respectable 74.
“Jim Ferrier was slow. I was a slow player, too, but compared to him I was like Superman,” tour pro Chuck Courtney said in an author interview.
Floyd and Ferrier played as a twosome in the second round. Still, the round took five hours to complete as Ferrier gave no quarter as he slogged to a 79 to comfortably miss the cut. Floyd was able to channel his anger during the round to shoot 66 and take a one-shot lead over Gary Player, who shot 65.
However, after the round Floyd erupted. “I was irritable teeing off,” he said. “For one thing, I knew I was going to play with a man that I absolutely loathe. We couldn’t have said four words all day. Herman quit Thursday. He said he couldn’t take it anymore and apologized to me for leaving me in a twosome.” Of Ferrier, Floyd continued his rant. “He’s not a considerate player with those he’s playing with. I guess it’s because his nerves are gone. I can’t say nothing to a guy like that. He’s an old man.”
After Ferrier complained to PGA commissioner Joe Dey, Floyd apologized for his intemperate remarks. The third round offered more unwanted drama. The two of the “Big Three” remaining in the field – Player and Nicklaus – were paired. They started the day one and three shots, respectively, behind Floyd.
On Saturday, the Dayton Organization dramatically aired its unmet grievances regarding the South African and his homeland’s apartheid segregation policy. As Player prepared to tee off on the fourth hole, a man threw the 250-page tournament program in his direction. The demonstrator was taken away by security. On the ninth hole, a protester yelled, “Hey,” as Nicklaus prepared to putt. While walking to the 10th tee, somebody threw ice cubes in Player’s face and yelled, “Racist.”
On the 10th green, while Nicklaus was lining up an eagle putt, several demonstrators ran onto the green. One ran through a bunker toward Nicklaus, who raised his putter in self-defense. The demonstrator stopped, but another picked up Nicklaus’ ball on the green and threw it into a bunker. On the 13th hole, as Player prepared to putt, a woman threw a ball onto the green and was arrested. In all, 11 demonstrators were arrested and charged with misdemeanors.
After a round that Player called the “toughest I’ve ever played,” and admitted “I honestly thought I might get shot because of South Africa,” he tried to be diplomatic regarding the protesters.
“I wasn’t touched,” he said. “I tried to be a peacemaker.” According to Player, a shaggy-haired young man being led off in handcuffs said to him, “We have nothing against you and Jack, Gary. We’re just against the PGA.” Despite the distractions, Player managed a 71, while Nicklaus struggled to 74 after a closing triple.
“My hands were quivering,” Nicklaus told SI. “I didn’t know what the hell to think. I just wanted off the golf course, that’s all. It took me a little longer to get off than I would have preferred.”
“(Raymond Floyd) was like Nicklaus. He wore the arrogance. He’d walk up to the tee, and you didn’t even want to look him in the face. He was like, ‘I’m going to kick your ass today.’ ” – Frank Beard
Floyd, who also was harassed by demonstrators, but to a lesser extent, shot a 67 for his third sub-70 round to give him a commanding five-shot lead over Player, Bunky Henry and Bert Greene.
“Raymond was a great player, and to us he was a good guy. He never caused any problems. He was class; he wore nice clothes,” said Frank Beard, who would finish 10th that week, in a 2022 interview for the book. “We weren’t social friends; he lived in another world from what I did. He was arrogant. He was like Nicklaus. He wore the arrogance. He’d walk up to the tee, and you didn’t even want to look him in the face. He was like, ‘I’m going to kick your ass today.’ You see it in other sports. It was appropriate arrogance. They earned it. You don’t hear it out of their mouths. He didn’t care. He had business to do, and he had golf to play.”
Floyd hadn’t fully earned that arrogance yet on a major stage, and the final round tested him with the big lead on his shoulders. One hundred police officers and gallery marshals surrounded Floyd and Player in the final group, and there were no further disturbances. The leader struggled for most of the round. After bogeys on 13 and 15, Floyd stepped to the 16th tee with his lead over Player reduced to one. However, Floyd knocked in a 35-foot birdie on 16 and Player bogeyed to extend the lead to three. Player birdied 17 to get back within two. As Floyd bogeyed 18, Player had a birdie opportunity from 40 feet to force a playoff. But Player’s putt came up short and Floyd escaped with a one-stroke victory and his first major win.
“They threw telephone books in my back swing; they threw ice in my eyes; they charged me on the green; they threw golf balls between my legs when I was putting; they screamed on my backswing; and they threatened to kill me – and I lost by one,” Player told me in 2022 interview. “I certainly would’ve won if I never had any of that, without a question. But ‘ifs’ don’t mean a thing. There’s so many ifs in golf. I could write a book on ifs.”
Winning the PGA Championship meant that Floyd would represent the United States in the World Cup in Singapore in early October, which did not entirely please him. “I was hoping to see the Cubs in the World Series in October,” he lamented.
It was a real dilemma because the Cubs then held an eight-game lead over the New York Mets in the National League East. Floyd would withdraw from the World Cup, citing other commitments, and was replaced by Lee Trevino. The Cubs would crash and burn, leading the way for the Miracle Mets’ world championship. Not until 2016, 30 years after Floyd won his fourth major championship, at the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, and when he was 73 years old, would his beloved Chicago Cubs play in (and win) the World Series.
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