BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 12 -- By the time the last ball had spun crazily around Shoal Creek, no one could decide whether the PGA Championship was more of a tournament or a mishap, not even victor Wayne Grady of Australia.

Grady profited from a fortunate bounce off a tree and Fred Couples' inability to make three short putts to win his first major title today on a stifling, controversial course.

Grady, a 33-year-old from Queensland who has finished second 29 times in his career, shot a modest final round of 71 for a total of 6 under par 282. But that was enough for a three-stroke victory over Couples on one of the most grueling and argued sites the field could remember. The par-72 designed by Jack Nicklaus was rendered almost unplayable in places by deadly rough and hardened greens, conditions that called for a certain amount of fortitude, and luck.

While Grady had a little of each, both failed Couples, who surged to a one-stroke lead through 12 holes, only to bogey the next four. "It's sickening," he said. On three of the bogeys Couples missed three-footers for par with a sudden case of major championship anxiety. "Was it pressure?" he asked. "Yes." With Couples sentenced to a round of even par for 285, Grady reclaimed the lead and held fast to it, parring the last six holes.

"I'm just glad it's over," he said. "If I had to go any more holes I don't think I could have gotten around. Right now I'm a little numb. It was very, very hard, and I had a few more breaks than the other guys and that's why I'm here."

The choice of Shoal Creek as host of the PGA Championship will be debated for some time, chiefly because of the civil rights controversy that erupted in June when it was learned the private club did not accept blacks as members. The controversy quieted when a local black businessman was admitted on an honorary basis. But a lesser one sprung up when the players found PGA of America officials had converted a long if unmemorable 7,145-yard course into a torture chamber. It defeated some of the biggest names in golf, including Masters and British Open champion Nick Faldo, who could only partly remedy his tragic 80 on Saturday with today's 69, the low of the afternoon.

Grady was a lesser player in the field, with just four previous victories in his career, and almost invisible in the shadow of countryman Greg Norman, who kindly called from his jet to leave a good luck message. But Grady also must be recognized as a model of consistency. He was the only player among the original 152 who in four days never suffered a round over par. Surely that was deserving of the $225,000 first prize and silver urn.

"There are some great names on it," he said. "But it doesn't matter how hard you scratch that thing now, you aren't going to get my name off of it."

It might be that Grady benefited from some hilarious luck at the 15th hole, his wild shank off the tee hitting the trunk of a tree and rebounding onto the fairway instead of into double- or triple-bogey country, allowing him to save par. "It could have gone anywhere," he said, rolling his eyes. But he had to be applauded for his play at the 17th, an arduous par-5 of 530 yards, where he ground out another par despite landing in the long twine three times.

Grady had contended in the final round of a major championship just once before, losing a playoff at the British Open last year to come-from-behind winner Mark Calcavecchia. His biggest fear was that someone in the pack would overtake him, but Shoal Creek prevented any significant progress, the overly ambitious meeting with disasters. Gil Morgan pulled to within a stroke through 11 holes, but double-bogeyed the par-3 13th and finished with a 72 for 286 and third place. Defending champion Payne Stewart faltered with a triple bogey at the par-5 11th for a 79 and total of 292, tied for eighth.

That left Couples, who had no sooner seized the lead than he collapsed. "I never wish another player harm, but he made some mistakes," Grady said. " . . . He gave me some help."

Left largely to themselves and separated by half a hole, Grady and Couples, both seeking their first major championship, played some absorbing golf.

At the 451-yard, par-4 12th, Couples made a second straight birdie to tie the tournament for the first time. He hit a 6-iron to 15 feet, and the lagging putt dropped at the last second to bone-shaking roars. Grady began to feel his nerves.

"For the first 12 holes it didn't look like he made a mistake," Grady said. "Every time I heard a roar and looked up he was in the middle of the fairway or on the green. That was getting very tiresome. At 12 I heard the roar and I thought, 'Christ, here we go again.' "

The 12th became the site of a two-shot swing when Grady, in the group behind Couples', bogeyed. He drove into the short rough, smothered his iron into some long rough fronting the green, lofted a wedge to 15 feet and missed the putt. Couples was suddenly the leader by a stroke, but he held that lead for exactly 10 minutes.

He inexplicably contracted a sudden case of wristlock. His first three bogeys resulted from the fact that he was simply unable to sink what were makable par putts of three to four feet, even if they were tricky downhillers.

"I got off to a great, great start," Couples said. "I put the pressure on Wayne. And then I gave out myself."

At the par-3 13th, he three-putted from 30 feet. He had a difficult first putt, a swooper from the fringe that turned right to left and ran past the hole. He jerked the three-footer for par as it ran halfway around the rim of the cup.

"I stroked it good," he said. "Up until then I thought I was going to make every putt. Then right away I get another downhill curler, on 14, and then another on 15."

At the 379-yard, par-4 14th, he escaped from far worse trouble, digging out of the rough on his second shot, and then the grassy edge of the green with a delicate little chip to four feet. Only to miss that opportunity for par too, this time shoving the putt badly. It missed the hole by a full inch, with never a chance the ball of going in.

At the 15th, a par-4 of 405 yards, he became a confirmed nerve case. His approach to the green kicked right just off the green to the short grass. His chip was too soft, leaving him with another four-footer that by this time looked almost unmakable. He pulled it, again never grazing the hole, to fall two strokes back with three to play.

The 16th, a par-3 of 215 yards, gave the tournament to Grady. Couples' 5-iron strayed into a greenside bunker with a tree in his line, leaving him no angle at the flag. His sand shot left him with a 15-footer for par. That probably came closer to going in than any of the previous three, but it too turned away. That gave Grady a three-stroke lead with three to play, and Couples never threatened again.

"The bogeys happened so fast," Couples said. "Looking back, that was the whole round. It was a day when I let myself down."

As Grady looked back, it was a day when he had held up. "It was," he said, "the longest day of my life."