BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 9 -- The only roars at the PGA Championship today were the indignant ones in the locker room. Rarely have players of this stature been so rebuffed by a golf course, and even the leader, Bobby Wadkins with his 68, suffered a double bogey on capricious Shoal Creek.
Running through a stifling Alabama hollow, along a ridge that after today should perhaps be named Hamburger Hill, par-72 Shoal Creek is not very beautiful or even very notable. But tournament officials artificially toughened it with rough deep and thick enough to smother small unwitting animals, and let the sun bake the greens into the texture of shale rock. The result was that you could get permanently lost in the woods and long grasses of its 7,145 yards, and some did.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin shot 77. Two-time Open winner Curtis Strange could not control his putter on the slick greens and shot 79, departing the grounds without comment and in a slow seethe. "Not now," he said. Tom Kite, the PGA Tour's all-time leading money winner and a considerable pretournament favorite, shot 79. Course designer Jack Nicklaus hit three fairways all afternoon, mired in that choking rough for a 78. Jim Thorpe, the only black player in the field of 152 and the focus of attention in the wake of a civil rights controversy at formerly all-white Shoal Creek, had a 77. So did Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Mark Calcavecchia.
Only 15 players broke par, 28 shot 80 or worse and the average score was 75.944. The only ones who safely negotiated the course were those who rarely missed a fairway and somehow made a few putts fall.
Wadkins, the 16-year veteran who unlike his prominent brother Lanny Wadkins has never won a tournament, recovered from his double bogey on the par-4 fourth hole to shoot 31 on the back nine. He birdied three of the last four holes to seize a one-stroke lead over Fred Couples and Mark O'Meara with their 69s.
Couples hit all but one fairway, and would have had a share of the lead but for a bogey 5 at the 18th.
Wadkins's wildly fluctuating round, eight birdies and two bogeys plus the double bogey, summed up the state of affairs on this distortion of a golf course, which he brooded over almost unhappily.
"I don't know what they're trying to prove," he said. His double on the 456-yard fourth was a simple matter of driving into the rough, from which he had no play to the green, hacking out of the long grass. He missed only one fairway and one green on the back side. After all that work, a 68 hardly seemed fair compensation.
"And I played as good as I could play," he said. "The only lesson I learned is not to put it in the rough."
Scott Verplank's four birdies on the front nine, including three in a row to begin his round, gave him a cushion as he endured a double-bogey 7 from the trees of the 17th. Billy Mayfair atched his 70.
Ten more players just managed to slip below par with 71s, led by reigning British Open and Masters titlist Nick Faldo of Great Britain, seeking to become the first man since Ben Hogan in 1953 to win three major titles in a season. Among that group was playing partner Payne Stewart, the PGA defending champion and runner-up in last month's British Open. Stewart has been the most vocal critic of Shoal Creek, but a chorus has joined him.
"You move in that locker room and you can hear some powerful bitching," said Tim Simpson, also with a 71.
Faldo's most important stroke of the day came on the second hole, a par-4 of 417 yards where he drove into the rough. He could only pitch into the fairway, with no chance of reaching the green. But he then holed out his next wedge shot, from 120 yards away. That was the only true noise of the day, as Shoal Creek's severe conditions were like a blanket, a strange muffling effect that even seeped into the crowd.
"There were no cheers," Faldo said. That's because there was little to cheer for, any impulse toward shotmaking theatrics quelled.
"It wasn't great," Faldo shrugged, considering his round. The course required strict attention and conservativism: if you landed in the rough, you had to grin weakly and chip it back into the fairway. Irwin and Stewart were each in the rough just 80 yards from the 17th green and had no chance of getting there, forced to chunk the ball onto smoother grass.
One of Faldo's three bogeys came at the 437-yard ninth, where he drove in the rough. The ball seemed to be sitting up, so he pulled out an 8-iron and regarded the water-surrounded green, thinking he had "half a chance" to get there. But as he addressed the ball, a tuft of grass crept up the back of the club and all sorts of disasters flashed through his mind. He backed away and settled for knocking it onto safer ground.
"I thought, I've seen that movie before," he said.
Mike Reid, the PGA runner-up to Stewart at Kemper Lakes in Chicago last year, had a 71 that was as trouble free as any round of the day. He did not bogey, his only birdie coming on the 421-yard 10th, where he demonstrated why he is nicknamed "Radar" with a 7-iron that trickled just a foot from the flagstick. But even he was forced to save pars four times with pitch-and-run shots after catching the fairway or greenside rough.
"Some good pars held the round together," he said. "The course demands a lot. It's relentless. You've got to pay attention."
Reid's sort of tidiness was hard to duplicate as the holes alternately gave and took back. O'Meara birdied four straight on his way to a 32 on the front nine, and hung on for dear life on the back with eight pars to one bogey. Even if you managed to avoid the rough, there were other hazardous places, as Couples discovered with his six birdies but four bogeys.
Couples is a long hitter who wouldn't seem to be suited for Shoal Creek and has not fared well in the PGA, missing the cut three straight times. He had his hands tied by the parameters of the course, using his driver only three times, and he intimated there was a litle bit of luck in his round.
A single lapse is what cost Verplank a share of the lead at the 17th, an arduous par-5 of 530 yards bordered by forest, and with a pond fronting the green. Verplank, a diabetic who has to snack every three or four holes to keep up his strength, could only attribute his wild swing off the tee to fatigue as he drove his ball 50 yards right into the trees. He proceeded to take six shots to get to the green, where he actually saved his double bogey with a 20-foot putt.
"Do you have an hour?" he said. "That's about how long it took to play the hole. At first I said maybe I could make a par, then I said maybe I could make a bogey, and then I said, all right, maybe I can make a double. I ended up making a hell of a seven. You don't call them that too often."
Verplank knew his first attempt with an 8-iron would never make it out of the pines. On his second attempt, he just tried to miss a fairway bunker. His third attempt went into the bunker. Watching all of this from the tee were Faldo, Stewart and Irwin, playing in a threesome just behind him. They had a good five-minute wait, wondering what on earth he was doing.
"I was confused," Faldo said. "We could see balls flying everywhere."
It was that kind of round.