Cool Californian Dave Stockton Conquered the Heat in 1970 at Southern Hills
Excitement was brewing in Tulsa leading up to the 52nd PGA Championship, the first to be held at Southern Hills. The Big 3 (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player) led a deep field ready to tackle the August heat and Bermuda rough of this Perry Maxwell classic design that opened for play in 1936.
A 28-year old Dave Stockton was not one of those legends or a household name when he arrived, but after going head-to-head with Arnold Palmer in the final round, he left no doubt who was in charge that week. Riding crisp iron play and a brilliant putter, he held off both Palmer and Bob Murphy, to win by two.
None of this might have been possible without a series of events that occurred during Dave’s first practice round that resulted in him firing his assigned caddie. Fortunately, 21-year-old Jed Day, who grew up playing at Southern Hills and was a scratch golfer, had just returned to Tulsa after attending basic training. He was available and became Dave’s new caddie. The pair hit their irons about the same distance which made advising on club selection easy and Jed knew the difficult Perry Maxwell greens better than anyone in the field. Jed was likely one of the few fans on Sunday cheering for Dave.
“Getting Jed was the biggest break I could have possibly gotten that week,” Stockton said after the Championship. “I had a caddie that had no idea what he was doing. I had never fired a caddie in my life, but I had to fire him. The next thing I know, I’ve got a 1 or 2 handicap. I go from the worst I could have had, to the best. Jed was great that week.”
Jed and Dave became friends and teamed up together in the 1977 U.S. Open, but couldn’t rekindle the magic. They stayed in contact until Jed’s untimely death in 2018. It’s not often that a player and an assigned caddie become friends for life.
The championship got off to a rousing start as Nicklaus and a 23-year-old named John (not yet Johnny) Miller each shot 68 to take the lead. Stockton, Palmer, and 58-year-old Sam Snead were at 70. It looked like the big guns were ready to fire.
Miller, a protégé of Billy Casper, turned pro the previous year and would soon be returning to Brigham Young to finish his degree. For the moment, he was more concerned with people getting him mixed up with another blond, Larry Hinson, who shot an opening round 69.
What a difference a day makes. In round two Nicklaus shot 76, and Miller a 77. After another 70, Stockton claimed the lead along with Larry Henson at 140 heading into the weekend. Hale Irwin was at 141. Other familiar names at 142 included Palmer, Player, and Casper. People still remember when Palmer, who was leading by two at the time, left his shoes on to play from the creek on number 12. The attempt resulted in a costly double bogey.
Later, Arnie explained, “The water was pretty deep, just under my knees. I never thought of taking off my shoes. I didn’t want to step on a water moccasin and get bit.”
The cool California Dave Stockton took control in round three with a 4-under 66 to grab a three-stroke lead over defending champion Raymond Floyd. Floyd, who blazed to a competitive course-record round of 65. Palmer, after a 69, was five back.
“Nobody can putt and chip better than I can,” Stockton said after the round. “I just feel like I am going to win.” Dave carried this short game trademark throughout his playing and teaching career.
Even though Floyd was in second, Stockton and Palmer were paired together in the final twosome on Sunday - and they didn’t disappoint. While the majority of the crowd was behind Arnie, Dave gave them plenty to cheer about with a birdie at the par 3 sixth, then spinning a wedge shot back into the hole on the seventh for an eagle two. That increased his lead over Palmer to seven. Stockton gave those two shots back at the eighth with a double bogey, but birdied the ninth.
The pair began the final nine holes with Stockton leading by six. Palmer whittled at the lead and cut it to three with one to play. Stockton, playing conservatively on the final hole, made bogey at the 18th and settled for a two-shot victory. Murphy closed with a 66 and tied Palmer for second. Nicklaus found his game with a final-round 66 and finished sixth. Starting the day well back of the leaders, Lee Trevino matched Floyd’s course record shooting a 65 on Sunday.
Trevino, whose previous rounds were 72-77-77 jokingly said, “It was like Christmas today. If I had another 77, I might have killed myself.”
Murphy commented, “I had as good a round of golf as I can play. I wish they would play a big tournament at Southern Hills every year.”
For Arnie, it was a disappointing finish at the PGA Championship. This was his third time to finish second and his last real chance at winning the one major that had escaped him. He would play again at Southern Hills in 1982, and in 1994 would play in his final PGA Championship.
For Stockton, walking up the hill to the 18th green was an emotional experience.
As he explained after the round, “I saw my wife, and she waived at me. I was about to become the PGA Champion. I tried to talk, but I couldn’t speak, and then I started crying.”
Stockton recalled that after putting out to win the championship.
“It kind of shook me up a little. I felt sorry for Arnie…for a millionth of a second.”