US PGA Championship 2021: Golf's wild year of drama led by John Daly, Corey Pavin and Kiawah Island 'War on the Shore'
Ahead of the 103rd US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island's Ocean Course (May 20-23), Desmond Kane takes a trip down memory lane to reflect on a remarkable few months for professional golf in 1991 that remain forever etched in sporting folklore 30 years on – and inspired by the nationalist fervour swirling wildly around American idols John Daly and Corey Pavin.
PGA Champion John Daly and Betty Fulton celebrate on the 18th green after Daly won the 73rd US PGA Championship at Crooked Stick Country Club.
It takes a lot to rouse the mild-mannered and manicured habitat of golf from its slumbers, but 1991 was the old game’s equivalent of Woodstock with metal woods.
It produced an unforgettable few months of wonderful triumph for American golf yet gloriously crazy, spiteful gamesmanship and unsavoury nationalistic fervour, a moment in time when the ancient sport was infamously hijacked by wider patriot games.
From the wild thing to wilder things, the 103rd staging of the US PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina this week marks the 30th anniversary of some fabulous, infantile and, some will suggest, a gruesomely trend-setting few weeks in the history of professional golf back when the gentleman’s game was cornered by jingoistic bedlam, beer and boorish goings on that laid the foundations for further mayhem before the decade was out.
The good, the bad and the ugly began at the 73rd US PGA Championship in August 1991 and continued at the 29th Ryder Cup between the United States and Europe a month later when patriotism in golf pants was all the rage set against America’s military conflict with Saddam Hussein in Kuwait.
John Daly lifts the 1991 US PGA Championship title.
Image credit: Eurosport
The season’s final major at Crooked Stick in Indiana provided the sport with a new global superstar when the booming 25-year-old self-taught rookie ‘Long’ John Daly – a good old American boy from Arkansas who had failed to win an event during three years at college – careered to a maiden professional title armed with a driver that was longer than it was crooked (first in length over 288 yards, he was 185th in driving accuracy on the US Tour) on a course he had never played before.
As ninth reserve, Daly drove from Memphis to Indiana the night before, he probably hit the ball further, having gained a tee time when Nick Price’s wife went into labour and forced the Zimbabwean’s withdrawal on the eve of the season’s final major. Oddly enough, Price succeeded Daly as PGA winner a year later.
Daly was a revelation back in the day as he smashed the ball with little regard for accepted wisdom with some of his drives flying well over 370 yards without a tutored technique, with professional golf lessons an irritant which he had little time for.
In the modern age, this may all sound as antiquated as Daly’s clubs 30 years ago, especially when you witness the distance-based formula of Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson or Brooks Koepka, but it captured the imagination of the watching fans, who had never witnessed such a figure show such little regard for accepted conformity.
"I wasn’t brought up (with a) silver spoon in my mouth. I’m a redneck boy from Arkansas who didn’t really know rights from wrongs and wrongs from rights, but when I screw up I’m the first one to admit it," he said.
Sporting a magnificent blonde mullet, matching moustache and an aversion to etiquette, Daly became an overnight local hero across the land as he seemingly bludgeoned the course and his opponents to death with a nonchalant, never-ending swing that went so far past his head that it almost did a lap of honour.
Tiger-proofing courses that came down the road to handle the long hitters and modern technology after the 21-year-old Tiger Woods rampaged to the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes arguably first entered the thought process when Daly got his big stick out at Crooked Stick.
Commonly known as ‘Wild Thing’ with a technique that would have made Happy Gilmore look glum, Daly became the focal point for boozed up crowds on the US Tour to engage with the gentleman’s game with his “grip it and rip it” style laying waste to the accepted wisdom built up by Harvey Penick of a reliable approach, composure and decorum. He was a popular and populist golfer.
I played a few rounds where I was still drunk from the night before. One time (during a PGA Tour event), I played the front nine, drank four Coors Lights at the turn, then shot like four or five under on the back nine and finished seventh on the tournament..those beers released all the pressure.
Daly was never out of the lead after the Friday morning as he revelled in 21 birdies and one eagle for a 12-under total of 276 amid a week of crazy golf that saw his distance reduce the US PGA Championship to the professional equivalent of a pitch and putt.
It remains remarkable that Daly lorded it over a champion field yet never earned a Ryder Cup place with captain Dave Stockton’s two wild cards going to the more traditional and reserved choices of the consistent Chip Beck and veteran major winner Raymond Floyd, who had himself led the US two years earlier.
Daly also lifted the Open Championship at St Andrew’s in 1995 – having sized up the task by controversially chipping around the vast greens of the Old Course in America’s 1993 Dunhill Cup victory – and remains the only player in history of the sport, in the US or Europe, to win two majors and never earn a spot in the sport’s most revered team competition.
It remains an absurdity when you consider what his distance, competitive instinct, talent and proven Dunhill track record alongside Fred Couples and Payne Stewart could have brought to the team logistics.
USA team pairing Corey Pavin and Steve Pate sporting their Desert Storm caps for the War on the Shore during the Saturday afternoon fourballs of the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, USA.
Image credit: Eurosport
The machismo that was lost by Daly’s absence was more than made up for by 31-year-old rookie Corey Pavin, who embodied the spirit of a Ryder Cup at Kiawah that will forever by known as ‘The War on the Shore’ with his patriot games summing up the bad-natured element of match play.
Pavin was as short off the tee as Daly was long, but no less daunting, single-minded or clinical in closing out wins from short range.
Pavin – known as the Bulldog in his preening pomp and buoyed by an impressive Matthew Wilder style moustache – edged out Greg Norman to lift his only major title at the 1995 US Open, but will forever be recalled for his hat tip to ‘Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf, the imposing American general who led Operation Desert Storm in the first Gulf War earlier that year, around the gusting sands of the brutal par-72 Ocean Course, where designer Pete Dye once said the next land out of bounds is Spain.
Pavin decided to invoke the spirit of the day by donning a military ‘Desert Storm’ camouflage baseball cap alongside playing partner Steve Pate during the Saturday afternoon four-balls on the Ocean Course, designed by Dye before the dye was cast irreversibly for the Ryder Cup.
It became symbolic of the occasion as the US tried to liberate the Ryder Cup having liberated Kuwait. Having dominated the Ryder Cup with 18 wins and only three losses against Great Britain and Ireland between 1927 and 1977 until the event's expansion, including Europe and Seve Ballesteros, changed the mood music after 1979. The US did not take kindly to regularly losing the 19-inch gold trophy, the gold standard in professional team sport.
Mark O'Meara and Payne Stewart look on as captain Dave Stockton pushes Corey Pavin into the water as the USA celebrate on the beach after victory in the Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.
Image credit: Eurosport
With haunting losses in 1985, 1987 and a tied match in 1989, the US embarked upon some questionable but effective behaviours to unsettle the victorious Europeans with the iconic Ballesteros and Paul Azinger infamously locked in a dispute over changing balls during the Friday foursomes two years after a bad-natured singles draw at the Belfry.
Pavin holed from a bunker in a 2&1 win over Steven Richardson, a key point with Bernhard Langer later knocking a six-foot putt agonisingly wide in the final halved match with Hale Irwin that he had levelled from two behind on the 16th hole. The US celebrated their 14½ -13½ success wildly with the large audience chanting “USA, USA.." Sounds that are more at one with the Ryder Cup than Abba and Eurovision.
The 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island was essential viewing, wildly engaging, but also a precursor for a bitter and unsavoury rivalry, far removed from the intention of the event invented by Sam Ryder, played on the edge with accusations of bad sportsmanship, gamesmanship and grimly partisan, nationalistic crowds – in contrast to the spirit of the event particularly in the US – blighting the matches for the remainder of the 1990s. Its legacy will be witnessed in the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in September despite the advent of digital technology perhaps diluting interest in every sport.
The US – with former world number two Pavin again pivotal in team momentum – regained the trophy with a 15-13 win under Tom Watson in 1993, but two more European victories in 1995 and 1997 created the fervour for more bad blood during the ‘Battle of Brookline’ in Massachusetts in 1999 as the home side, inspired by t shirts celebrating great American victories in the event, recovered from trailing 10-6 on the final day to complete a 14½ -13½ win over the visitors.
European captain Mark James described Brookline as a raucous "bear pit". Justin Leonard's 45-foot match-clinching putt against José María Olazábal on the 17th green of the closing Sunday saw US players and officials bound across the surface prompting seething remarks from visiting players and commentators with the Spaniard yet to putt but already doomed.
If the conduct was regrettable, more akin to a drunken football crowd with thousands losing the plot behind the ropes, the outcome was right. The US deserved to win, but were stirred up to appreciate the meaning of the event and the pride in the jersey, however garish it looked, by battle-hardened figures like Pavin.
"The Ryder Cup is in my blood. It is the greatest event in the world, certainly in golf," said Pavin after succeeding Azinger as US Ryder Cup captain in 2008.
Despite their unwillingness to conform, Daly and Pavin remain pioneers who set future habits and brought modern trends to the game of golf in 1991.
The narrative has been kind to both of them as the years advance in bringing a frisson to the meaning of the US PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup that few others could have managed. Or had the attitude and swagger to pull off.
After all, what is the point of professional sport without passion, a willingness to entertain the masses and that sensation of enjoying and indeed thriving when living on the edge? It was the days of their life.
Would Daly or Pavin change anything from that glorious year? Perhaps, possibly but then again probably not.
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