A 'Major' Accomplishment

50 years ago, hurdle after hurdle was overcome en route to Columbine hosting 1967 PGA Championship

by Gary Baines - 3/13/2017

The 1967 PGA Championship, held at Columbine Country Club, proved to be the little engine that could.

A half-century ago this year, this Grand Slam event overcame multiple major hurdles to finally become a reality. To this day, it remains one of just six men's major championships ever to be held in Colorado -- and the only one at a course other than Cherry Hills Country Club, which has hosted three U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships.

Specifically, the '67 PGA came to fruition despite a flood of the South Platte River that postponed the Championship in Colorado a year, a potential player boycott, an ill-timed major hailstorm, and being held a week after the British Open, which made for a very rough travel schedule over the course of two weeks.

Suffice it to say that the road to the 49th PGA Championship included a lot of hairpin turns.

"Until two weeks before the start of the tournament, it looked as if the 1967 PGA was destined to go down in history as the Snakebit Open," Sports Illustrated's Alfred Wright wrote in the July 31, 1967 issue. 

When Don January (pictured with trophy) defeated fellow Texan Don Massengale in a playoff to win the only major championship of his career, it concluded a 25-month odyssey for the tournament.

First, there was the flash flood of June 16, 1965, with the South Platte, which directly borders the course at several junctures, laying waste to much of Columbine Country Club, which was scheduled to host the 1966 PGA. Roughly 25 homes at Columbine were either destroyed or severely damaged, and overall, the town of Columbine Valley suffered an estimated $2 million in financial loss.

"At one point, a third of the golf course was, in effect, the bottom of a lake," SI noted. "When it emerged two days later, two holes had disappeared. So had some $35,000 worth of face-lifting. In September, Tournament Chairman (Everett) Collier, the gregarious businessman-golfer who had launched Columbine 11 years earlier and had brought the championship to his new club, invited 500 eager citizens for a kickoff dinner. The kickoff turned out to be more like a touchback. Former Colorado Governor Dan Thornton arose to announce that there was no chance to rebuild the course in time for a tournament only 10 months away."

Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, was set to host the 1967 PGA, but with Columbine's situation, PGA Championship director J. Edwin Carter convinced officials from the Ohio club to switch years and give Columbine an extra 12 months to recover from the flood.

In that recovery period, $90,000 was spent on getting the Columbine course back up to snuff for a major championship, with some strategically-placed fairway bunkers and trees being added to the Henry Hughes layout.

Then it was player unrest that threatened the championship. In 1967, we were still a year away from the professional golf separation of what is now known as the PGA Tour from the PGA of America. The latter still owns and operates the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, among other championships. But in '67, there was ongoing unrest between touring professionals and PGA of America leadership. Since the Masters in April, the touring pros had been threatening to boycott the PGA Championship. The situation was dire enough that PGA of America president Max Elbin was calling "aging" former PGA Champions in the hopes that they would compete at Columbine if the boycott came to fruition.

Despite no resolution to the touring pros' ongoing grievances, they voted in early July to play at Columbine. The '67 PGA had dodged another bullet.

But not the last ...

Not long after the player vote, a major storm hit Columbine, with hailstones the size of golf balls pock-marking the greens. Fortunately, a rainy stretch helped the course recover -- just in time for the championship, which was contested July 20-24, including the playoff day.

Then there was the problematic schedule, with players competing in major championships in Liverpool, England and Columbine Valley, Colorado, in back-to-back weeks.

"This is the toughest time I've ever had adjusting to the time change," 1967 U.S. Open champion Jack Nicklaus said at Columbine. "Then there is the altitude and the heat. I don't have any zip, and I've never slept worse in my life."

Oh, yes. Then there was a heat issue. High temperatures were in the 90-degree range, with largely cloudless skies and the altitude taking a toll on several players. Dan Sikes, who would lead after 54 holes, almost collapsed on the 13th hole in round 2 and didn't feel up to participating in an expected post-round press conference. Playing partner Al Geiberger, the defending champion, almost fell over while teeing up his ball on No. 17 on Friday and hit it out of bounds.

"This should be a fall tournament -- something to wind up the tournament year," Nicklaus said. "Then it would have some meaning. Until they do that, it is just another stop on the summer tour."

Given the temperatures, perhaps it wasn't surprising that two Texans were left to battle it out in a playoff after finishing regulation at 7-under-par 281. Coincidentally, the playoff was one of just two of the 18-hole variety in PGA Championship history -- the tournament was a match play affair through 1957, then went to sudden-death playoffs in 1977 -- and January was involved in both 90-hole competitions. He lost to Jerry Barber in round 5 in 1961 and was 0-4 in playoffs overall when he squared off with Massengale at Columbine. This time, just to get to face Massengale -- who had closed with a 6-under-par 66 in the final round of regulation -- January had to rally from the four-stroke deficit he encountered after 54 holes.

The Monday playoff attracted just 7,500 fans after 74,500 came out for the four days of regulation play.

January, 37, trailed Massengale by two strokes after six holes, but made five birdies in the eight-hole stretch from No. 8 through 15 to gain control. With both players posting sub-par rounds in the playoff, January prevailed 69-71. He won $25,000 out of the $148,200 purse.

"January is playing fine golf and it couldn't happen to a nicer guy," Massengale said.

Here's how the most prominent players -- past and future -- fared at Columbine, which played at a then-PGA record 7,436 yards, offset largely by the mile-high altitude:

-- Nicklaus, who had won the '67 U.S. Open and placed second the week before at the British Open, finished a stroke out of the playoff, in third place. The Golden Bear posted rounds of 67-75-69-71 for a 6-under-par 282 total, but battled a problematic putter. Nicklaus, of course, would go on to earn five wins in the PGA Championship. In Colorado, he notched the first and last of his USGA championship titles -- at the 1959 U.S. Amateur at The Broadmoor and the 1993 U.S. Senior Open at Cherry Hills. He also finished second as an amateur at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. (Nicklaus is pictured at left with Dave Hill during a Columbine practice round.)

-- Arnold Palmer, winner of the 1960 U.S. Open, tied for 14th place in the PGA at 287 (70-71-72-74). In the third round, The King showed his integrity when his second shot on the par-4 fourth hole landed in the crowd near the green before mysteriously coming out of Arnie's Army and rolling 6 feet from the pin. Palmer demanded to know approximately where it had landed in the crowd. He then dropped it there, pitched to the green and made par. Arnie would never win the PGA Championship, finishing second in 1964, '68 and '70.

-- Meanwhile, Billy Casper and Ray Floyd finished 19th and 20th, respectively, at Columbine. 

Several players with significant Colorado ties made the cut at the '67 PGA. Then-Englewood resident Hill, who called Colorado home for much of the 1960s and '70s and went on to win a record four Colorado Opens, led after round 1 with a then-course-record 66 in which he holed out a 170-yard shot for eagle on the par-4 14th. He ended up finishing 11th at 2-under-par 286. (As it turned out, Hill's course record lasted only a day as Tommy Aaron fired a 65 in round 2, carding 10 3s and needing just 24 putts.)

Bill Bisdorf, winner of three of the first four Colorado Opens in the mid-1960s, tied Floyd for 20th place at 289. Fred Wampler, the head professional at Denver Country Club at the time, placed 38th. Dale Douglass, now a Colorado Sports Hall of Famer, came in 44th. Davis Love Jr., twice a winner of the CGA Junior Match Play and at the time father to a 3-year-old Davis Love III, finished 55th. Dow Finsterwald, the 1958 PGA Champion who served as director of golf at The Broadmoor at the time, placed 60th.

Colorado Golf Hall of Famer Tony Novitsky, the longtime head professional at Columbine, missed the cut as the host pro in the '67 PGA, carding rounds of 79-83. (Novitsky is pictured behind January in the top photo.)

As a postscript, 50 years after the eyes of the golf world were on Columbine -- which was named after Colorado's state flower -- the club is taking on a fresh look. A new $20 million clubhouse is currently under construction and is tentatively expected to be completed by late September, according to head professional Bryan Heim.

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