Still Swinging: An Interview with David Graham
by Paul Prendergast
The Presidents Cup, heading back “Down Under” in the fall of 2011, has provided a heartwarming development for Australian and international golf fans. Home grown two time major winner David Graham will be making what is likely to be an emotional trip down to serve in an official capacity as a Presidents Cup committee member for the matches at Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
Struck down by congestive heart failure in the middle of a Champions Tour event in 2004 that ended his professional playing career, Graham’s health has not permitted long haul travel in recent years. But he is feeling well enough to travel now, after not being in a position to accept a Golf Australia invitation to the Centenary Australian Open a number of years ago.
Always a forthright interview throughout his career, the 64-year-old Graham showed when we chatted recently that he has lost little of his passion. He spoke on several topics that I was not planning on going near – the omission of several players from the World Golf Hall of Fame (including himself), the jealousies of some of his fellow tour pros in his heyday and the infamous player mutiny that lead to his resignation as International Team captain in the Presidents Cup in 1996.
On the flipside however, he spoke emotionally of his admiration and gratitude for the support of lifelong friends in Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Ben Crenshaw, inquiring after legendary Australian golf writer Tom Ramsey and tearfully recalling details of his formative years as a trainee under George Naismith at Riversdale Golf Club in Melbourne.
Paul Prendergast: David, thank you for your time. You were able to play a three-man “Greats of Golf’” charity event in the lead up to the 3M Championship last August on the Champions Tour, which sounds like you’ve made some progress with your health. Does this mean you’re back playing some golf now?
David Graham: Oh, I’m not back playing golf; I don’t know where that started. That was the first time I’ve done anything like that in seven years, and if it hadn’t been for Lee Trevino, I would never have done it. It was not my definition of playing golf. A three-man scramble is not golf, but it was for a very good cause. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I was very well taken care of.
PP: You’re continuing with your role on the Cup and Tee Committee at the Masters this year. What’s involved in that process and what are the factors you look at?
DG: I think this is my 21st year on the committee. It’s something I take very seriously, and obviously I’m honored and flattered to do it. The Masters still continues to pave the way in terms of how to run a golf tournament and they have me on the committee to make sure that the hole locations are fair, relevant to the speed. We take in weather conditions, wind directions; make it fair to the players.
PP: Do you get down to the level of detail about equipment changes, which have obviously been substantial in the 21 years you’ve been on the committee? For example, did the change in grooves last year play a part in planning at all?
DG: The groove change was absolutely unnecessary and a total waste of money, but that’s just my opinion. It won’t have an impact on where we put the pins, just as all the other equipment changes haven’t come into the equation relevant to the hole locations. The weather has far more of a bearing and there are some traditional pin locations, like number 12 and 16, we don’t deviate from.
PP: As the only Australian with two U.S.-based major victories, you would have been hoping an Aussie could finally prevail at Augusta?
DG: That begs the question, why aren’t I in the Hall of Fame?
PP: Well, I had thought about asking that question later on but if you want to talk about it now….
DG: (Laughing) OK, we’ll continue on. You ask the questions and I’ll do the talking.
PP: Geoff Ogilvy would be our most likely candidate. His game appears to be best suited to the Masters. Would you agree?
DG: Most definitely, yes. It’s very, very difficult to try to play professional golf and be a good parent, to try to find the balance between playing the game for a living and being a responsible husband and parent. It’s a hard balance, although it’s easier for players today who make so much more money. They have more choices than players in my generation had because we had to play more tournaments to make a little bit of money. They play less tournaments and make a lot of money, but it’s still a difficult balance to try to find with soccer games and school. Geoff is trying to find that balance (with a young family). I like Geoff, he’s a very, very fine gentleman.
PP: Turning to the U.S. Open, 30 years this June since that famous victory at Merion, where the Open will return to in 2013. I’m sorry to have to remind you of the time that has passed!
DG: Hey, that’s okay. Better to be a “has been” than a “never was.” I kind of broke a barrier – I was the first Australian to do that, which was nice and I did it at a very traditional golf course in Merion. Hogan and Trevino had won there and it has a wonderful history of golf, so there were a lot of combinations of me being the first Australian to win a U.S. Open, doing it at Merion that just made that particular Open….it held the same kind of category as an Open at Pebble Beach and stuff like that. It made it even more memorable.
PP: We got to see you play a lot in Australia in that era, before and after that victory. You played in almost everything – NSW & Australian Opens, PGAs, every summer for a number of years.
DG: I had no hesitations about trying to promote golf in Australian as a U.S. Open champion. Greg Norman came along at about that time and kinda took the country by storm, but I never second guessed my commitment to going back there and playing as many tournaments as I could. Unfortunately, there was a lot more jealousy amongst the ranks in those days because if someone like myself came back and got two free tickets with Qantas, a hotel room and maybe a $5,000 appearance fee, there was high resentment. There still is today. Appearance fees are just nasty subjects in the world of golf, and now those fees are astronomical.
I remember when Palmer, Nicklaus and Player used to come to the Australian Open and they got an airline ticket, hotel suite and maybe $20,000 and everyone was screaming bloody blue murder, saying that money should have been in the prize money and that we didn’t need Nicklaus and Palmer and Player! These players made the Australian Open; they made any tournament that they played in back then, when it was much more difficult to get to Australia, too. Golf should be indebted to them for going all over the world playing golf for not much money.
It’s been a controversial subject for 50 years and I don’t think it’s ever going away. A lot of players have to realize that Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are exceptions and without them, you don’t have a big tournament. It’s the same old argument and it’s never going to be resolved.
PP: When you were coming here year in, year out, it must have knocked you around at the end of a long year, the amount of travel you had to endure.
DG: Every player who played in my era, with very few exceptions, and Jack Nicklaus might have been the only exception, had to play 35 tournaments a year. I just played golf with Lee Trevino for a couple of days and he made a statement this morning. He said “One year, I was leading money winner, I won five tournaments and a major, and I won $185,000 and played 34 tournaments.” Today, a player can have a really good year, win $5 million and he actually can retire for the rest of his life! Pretty interesting equation.
PP: That U.S. Open final round of 67 was regarded as “Hoganesque” for the quality of your play. It must have been a fantastic experience for you on that stage.
DG: It’s like the old cliché. As a kid on the putting green, when you’re practicing to hole a putt to win the Australian Open or U.S. Open, you can’t really foresee that that’s actually going to happen. You can dream it, but you can’t foresee it. But when it does happen, it’s pretty cool.
PP: Going back two years prior to that, to your first major victory, you were less “Hoganesque” and more “Harry Houdini” in the PGA Championship playoff win at Oakland Hills. Potentially the only person in history to ever out-putt Ben Crenshaw.
DG: (Laughing) Yeah, I think so. I think somebody else was in charge, not me.
PP: You had a brilliant final round going, seven under with one hole to play, but then double bogeyed the final hole to fall into that playoff, which must’ve shocked you.
DG: It did yeah, that’s true.
PP: Crenshaw must still be shaking his head at all the putts you made in sudden death.
DG: No, I don’t think so. He’s had a very illustrious career and is a two-time Masters champion and has become a great golf course architect. I fortunately never experienced losing a playoff in a major championship so it takes a very strong person to overcome something like that. Many players have not been able to do that, but Ben was an exception and he went to on to have a great career. I take my hat off to him. He and I are very good friends; he handled himself in an absolutely gentlemanly manner.
PP: Aside from being one of only three Australians to win more than one major, you may be the only Australian “leftie” to win a major (Graham was a natural left hander as an apprentice professional). What were some of the circumstances that led to your decision to switch to right handed?
DG: Well, I didn’t make the decision, it was made for me. I wasn’t given a choice. It was all to do with the former head professional at Riversdale Golf Club in Melbourne, George Naismith. He was a very respected player and teaching professional and I was his assistant. He took me under his wing, but I was the assistant there for close to two years before he knew I even played left-handed! In those days, assistant professionals were golf club cleaners and floor sweepers and stuff like that. If a member was on the golf course, you had to keep the shop open, so assistants didn’t get much time to play.
One time, I shut the shop and was on the range and he was on his way home. He stopped the car and walked over, saying “I didn’t know you played left handed. Let me see you hit a couple of balls.” I hit a few little left-handed slices and he said, “You’ll never be a good player playing left-handed, son. You need to play right-handed. Build yourself a set of right-handed clubs tomorrow. I don’t want to see you playing left-handed anymore.” He just walked off, got in his car and left!
PP: That’s amazing.
DG: (Voice breaking up) Fortunately, he lived long enough to learn that I won the PGA. I can still play pretty good left-handed. You bet. I don’t do it, but I could if I had to.
PP: You mentioned the Hall of Fame disappointment yourself. I was going to ask you about a career mulligan, a shot you wish you had over or a tournament you rue not winning. I’m guessing the 1985 British Open at Royal St Georges is up there?
DG: In hindsight, that’s most likely the one significant tournament in my career that I thought I should have won. But, it really didn’t come down to the last hole; I didn’t lose the tournament there. I lost it a few holes earlier than that. To Sandy Lyle’s credit, he won the tournament. I could have won but I’m grateful for the career I’ve had. I came out on the right side, twice winning majors, so I have no right to say I should have won (more).
PP: Let’s talk quickly, or for a long time, about the Hall of Fame. That’s obviously stuck in your craw for you to raise it.
DG: Yeah, it is. I think it’s embarrassing, and I think it shows the inadequacies that exist in the Hall of Fame when players are getting in without winning major championships because they’re from certain countries. I also don’t think golf course designers should be in the Hall of Fame, it should be reserved for players.
I don’t know who I’ve p—– off, and I quite frankly don’t care, but I’ve no interest in being in the Hall of Fame when I’m dead. It’s either the voting system or it’s Finchem, but it’s wrong that you’ve got major winners, multiple major winners….and I’m not the only one…Sandy Lyle isn’t in the Hall of Fame when he should be.
PP: Like you, he’s won on multiple tours and on different continents; had to travel a lot to achieve what he did.
DG: I won on five continents and won close to 40 tournaments around the world. To me it shows that the existing qualifying system is inadequate and I don’t think it will ever change. It is a thorn in my side and I don’t mind publicly discussing it because it’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I know I speak for a lot of players who aren’t in the Hall ahead of other players (with lesser records).
My complaining about it and bringing attention to it, at this stage in my life, is for no personal gain for me. It’s wrong for a guy like Sandy Lyle not to be in it when other players in an International category (are) who haven’t even played or won in the U.S. I think if you’re an international player, you need to have proven yourselves against the best players in the world.
If I’ve p—– anyone off, and I don’t think I have, I’d like to know why. I think it’s the system that’s at fault. If it’s going to happen (for me) they’d better do it while I’m alive, I’m not sending my family there when I’m gone!
PP: Finally, the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne is looming. I know this tournament probably brings out a mixed set of emotions for you given your history with it, but do you take a strong interest in the fortunes of the Internationals in the Cup?
DG: I do and it’s not the Presidents Cup itself that’s a sore point in my life at all. Actually, I have very fond memories, as I was the inaugural President. Hale Irwin and I played a major part to help get the Presidents Cup off the ground.
Unfortunately, in those days (1996), a couple of players decided to act very inappropriately and very vindictively towards me for their inappropriate behavior. They happened to be very prominent players at that time. The Australian PGA and even the PGA TOUR commissioner didn’t show any support for me, so the players got what they wanted at the time and I stepped down. It was very embarrassing and a very personal thing towards me and it’s sad that it happened.
I’m now on the Executive Committee of the Presidents Cup, which I just got nominated to, so I think I might come back!
PP: With your health, are you able to travel to Australia? Will you be coming down to the Cup?
DG: I think so, yeah. I’ll make every effort to be there. I don’t know what my duties will be, other than stand around, but that’s fine. If I do come back – and I hope that does happen – I want to see my mother-in-law and have my wife spend as much time with her as possible. I will definitely want a meat pie and some really good fish & chips. I would like also to drive by 16 Lillian Street and see the house that my mother raised me in. Plus, I would like to go to Riversdale Golf Club – they planted a tree there for Mr. Naismith and I would like to see it.
And one last thing, I would like to tell Peter Thompson what a fantastic influence he had on my life. I never have said that to him in person and I would like to do that.
Paul Prendergast is based on the Gold Coast, Australia, and currently writes for a number of publications in Australia, Asia, South Africa and in Europe. He plays off a one handicap, is a very occasional caddie and a full-time lover of his family and the occasional fine wine.