If we asked you to name the Australian Golfer who is tied with Greg Norman for number of wins in one of professional golf’s four majors and trails only Peter Thomson in that regard, could you produce the name of David Graham?
He won the PGA Championship in 1979 and the U.S. Open in 1981, two tournaments that neither Norman or Thompson managed to win, their victories, five for Thompson and two for Norman, all coming from The Open Championship, as the Pogs prefer, or the British Open, as those who do not enjoy the privilege of living in the British Isles refer to it.
Born 23 May 1946 on the outskirts of Sydney in Windsor, NSW, Graham did something out of the usual by turning professional at age 16, an age when few golfers possess the maturity to withstand the demands, both physical but especially mental, that a professional golfer must deal with on a regular basis.
Graham spent most of his career in the United States, both on the regular tour and on the Champions Tour for the over 50 set. He shares a distinction with Gary Player, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer of having won tournaments on six continents, an accomplishment that is notable as much for the names not on the list as for the four who are on the list. No golfer has ever won events on seven continents, and none ever will until the Antarctic Open makes its debut, or the geographers decide to split one of the other continents.
Starting at so young an age meant that Graham would labour in relative obscurity for five years before he first experienced the thrill of winning the 1967 Queensland PGA Championship, a part of the Australasian circuit. He first appeared on the PGA Tour in 1970, playing in four events, making two cuts and missing two.
For his efforts, he earned $692 USD, roughly $900 AUD, which even in 1970 probably did not even cover his transportation to and from Oz. He fared better, at least in terms of position, on the Australasian tour, winning the Tasmanian Open and the Victorian Open. He also won in Asia, that being the Thailand Open and in Europe, the French Open. He partnered his compatriot Bruce Devlin in the World Cup, a tournament featuring teams of two who represent their respective countries.
They carried on where Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson left off in 1954 and 1959, lighting the way from Peter Fowler and Wayne Grady in 1989, and Jason Day and Adam Scott in 2013.
Fairly well established, at least in international circles, 1971 was a bit of a letdown, other than adding the continent of South America to his resume, via the Caracas Open.
Graham won his first PGA Tour event in 1972, the Cleveland Open. He needed a playoff to gain the upper hand over Bruce Devlin when the two finished regulation play at minus 6 – 278. Graham would show up for 18 starts in the PGA that year, finishing in the money 13 times and earning just under $54,000.
He managed to get in a four-way playoff in the Liggett & Myers Open, a tournament that lasted just two years. He was eliminated on the first extra hole. He played 31 PGA Tour events in 1973, and made 23 cuts, but at the end of the year, he had only $40,000 to show for it.
He went win-less in 1973 and 1974. He won only once in 1975, a Tour of Australasia event, the Wills Masters. Two PGA Tour wins came in 1976. He basically ran away from the field in posting a three-shot victory over notables Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller on 18 July.
He coasted again on 29 August in the American Golf Classic, the last year in which that tournament was played, posting an easy four-shot win over Lou Graham. He started 23 other times and had by far his best earnings year to date, over $176,000. He won the Chunichi Crowns on the Japan Golf Tour and the Piccadilly World Match Play Championship held in Wentworth, outside of London. He beat Hubert Green, and then took the upper hand over Raymond Floyd and finally Hale Irwin.
David Graham next appears in the winner’s circle in August of 1979, when he won the PGA Championship in a playoff over Ben Crenshaw. He nearly squandered that win when he went to the last hole with a two-shot margin, only to double bogey the 18th hole after he had managed to get to seven under par for the day. He wound up with a 65, letting Crenshaw creep into the playoff.
Graham had to survive the first two extra holes by sinking putts of considerable length before he would secure the win with a relatively routine par on the third extra hole.
He continued to win in different venues around the world during this time, next showing up with a win on the PGA Tour in the 1980 Memorial Tournament, beating Tom Watson by one stroke. Watson had been attempting to become the first golfer to win back-to-back in the history of the tournament that Jack Nicklaus initiated in 1976. He won the Phoenix Open the following year as a prelude to his greatest victory.
The 1981 U.S. Open took place at Merion, Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. He started the final round three shots behind American George Burns. He shot a 67 in the final round and won by three strokes, becoming the fourth Australian male golfer to win one of golf’s Majors, the first Australian to win the U.S. Open, and the only Australian other than Geoff Ogilvy in 2006.
Graham won once more on the PGA Tour, after going win-less in 1982, the 1983 Houston Coca-Cola Open, where he basically lapped the field, winning over a group of three Americans that included Lee Trevino. He declined from that point, in terms of number of appearances, cuts made and money earned.
In total, he made 410 starts, winning eight times and earning $1.87 million over the course 28 seasons. In golf’s other two majors, Graham managed fifth in the 1980 Masters and tied for third in the 1985 British Open.
Monetarily, Graham benefitted from the expansion of prize money when he appeared on the PGA Senior Tour, now known as The Champions Tour. He earned over a million dollars in 1997 and nearly a million in 1998. In playing 209 times, he earned $4.06 million, quite a nice reward for his earlier days when winners’ cheques were embarrassingly slim.
One thing that stands out in his career is the quality of competition he beat for some of his wins. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw, along with Bruce Devlin, are just a few who found themselves taking more strokes than Graham to complete the same course. He was the first Australian to win the PGA Championship after it switched from match to stroke play in 1958, and he was the only Australian to hold that distinction until Wayne Grady came along in 1990. Graham’s 38 professional wins are bona fide credentials.
A diagnosis of congestive heart failure in 2004 ended his professional career at the end of 58. He now lives in Whitefish, Montana. He was honoured by his homeland as a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988 and inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990. He was nominated, a nomination supported by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, for membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and he will be inducted into that body at the 2015 British Open Championship.