With Las Vegas hosting a PGA Tour event this week for the 32nd consecutive year, I have to shyly admit that I have worked on or near the 18th green during Sunday’s final round 30 times. Before you say, “Get a life” or “Try fantasy football,” I must also shyly admit that I’ve never once been paid for the privilege, which includes serving as emcee for many of those 30 years.
Rather, I do it because having the world’s best golfers here each year is a cool alternative for our community, and the tournament has raised millions of dollars for local charities. (Plus, with all the crimes and misdemeanors I commit during the other 51 weeks of the year, it’s my hope that this one “giving back” week will partially erase some of those sins.)
Over the past 30 years, hundreds of memorable moments have occurred on and around the various courses that have hosted the tournament (which, incidentally, has had more name changes than the artist formerly and currently known as Prince and Snoop Dogg/Lion combined). With this year’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open taking place October 16-19 at TPC Summerlin, I look back at my seven favorite moments from one of the longest-running professional sporting events in Southern Nevada history:
7. In 1992, John Cook won the first event (then known as the Las Vegas Invitational) in which TPC Summerlin served as the host course. I had known John for several years, and also his father, Jim, who was the longtime tournament chairman. Upon signing his scorecard, and knowing that I would be interviewing him for the gallery around the 18th green, John asked me to not make a big deal out of the fact that he was the first-ever winner of a PGA Tour event in which his father was chairman. Minutes later, Jim Cook implored me to be sure and emphasize that very fact. During the interview, I was more tongue-tied than Elmer Fudd on Novocain, alternately watching John giving me eye signals not to go near the subject, and his father doing the opposite.
6. Tongue-tied could also describe the scene in 1995, when third-year pro Jim Furyk won here, his first career Tour victory. After asking the perfunctory questions about his strategy over the final nine holes, I said, “Jim, I know your father, Mike, has been your only teacher through the years, and I’m sure he’s watching back in Pittsburgh. What would you like to say to him?” Instantly, Jim’s lower lip started to vibrate like a hummingbird’s wings, and big, salty tears rolled down his cheeks. His reaction caught me off guard, but when I tried to bail him out of the Barbara Walters moment, I found my own throat chalk dry. So we both just stood there looking stupid until I finally barked out something profound, like “Great win!” Furyk went on to win in Las Vegas twice more, in 1998 and ’99, and lost a sudden-death playoff in 2005. He’s won almost as much loot in Las Vegas as the runner-up in the World Series of Poker.
5. Former UNLV golfer Ryan Moore’s one-stroke victory in 2012 had great significance to the Las Vegas golf community. Nearly every year since coach Dwaine Knight took over the Rebel program in 1987, at least one UNLV player has been in the field, many of them on sponsor’s invitations. Appropriately, Moore became the first of the local bunch to hoist the trophy. After having the second most successful amateur season ever in 2004 (for you golf trivia buffs: Bobby Jones winning the Grand Slam in 1930 stands alone), it was fitting that Moore, a four-time All-American, would claim that honor.
4. Fuzzy Zoeller was the perfect champion when the PGA returned to Las Vegas in 1983 after a seven-year absence. With his bubbly personality and penchant for enjoying nightlife, Fuzzy was not only a colorful past Masters champion, but he embodied what the tournament sponsors were looking for in what was then called the Las Vegas Panasonic Pro-Celebrity Classic. That event offered the first million-dollar purse in Tour history, and drew such big names as Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood and PGA Hall of Famer Gary Player.
3. There are dramatic finishes, and then there are unbelievable finishes. Jonathan Byrd’s final shot in 2010, struck on the par-3 17th hole at TPC Summerlin, lands into the latter category. As darkness was falling, in a three-man playoff with defending champion Martin Laird and Aussie Cameron Percy, Byrd made a hole-in-one to claim the crown. It marked the only time in PGA Tour history that the ultimate shot had occurred in a sudden-death playoff. There is now a plaque on that tee commemorating Byrd’s shot, although the inscription erroneously calls it a “Walk-Off Ace.” Not to be picky, but neither Laird nor Percy had yet to hit their shots, so it wasn’t technically a walk-off.
2. It was an early-morning round in 1991, accompanied by amateur-playing competitors and with less than a dozen people watching, that Chip Beck entered the Twilight Zone. At Sunrise Golf Club, on a course that no longer exists, Beck made 13 birdies and five pars for a miraculous 59. It was the first time that score had ever been posted at a Tour event without using preferred lies. (Al Geiberger shot 59 in the Memphis Classic in 1977, but wet conditions allowed him to improve his lie in the fairways.) For the feat, Beck won $1 million from Hilton Hotels, half of which was given to charities. Oddly, Beck didn’t win the tournament.
1. Without question, the Las Vegas tournament victory that had the loudest reverberations came in 1996, when a 20-year-old named Tiger Woods defeated Davis Love in a playoff. It was Woods’ first career victory in just his fifth event as a professional, coming less than two months after turning pro. When I asked him in the post-round interview on the 18th green whether he was surprised to win a Tour event so early in his career, he gave me a cold-eyed look and said, “To be perfectly honest with you, I’m surprised it took this long.”
Jack Sheehan has written more than 20 books, including several about golf, and is a member of the Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame.