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The Backbone of the PGA Championship

A return to Oak Hill is a reminder that the path to golf is often about fathers and sons, or the guiding hand of a PGA pro

By Michael Bamberger

PITTSFORD, N.Y.—Lee Trevino is in the air here, at this 105th PGA Championship, at Oak Hill. Trevino is a two-time winner of the PGA Championship, in 1974 and 1984, and he won the Senior PGA Championship twice, in ’92 and ’94. Next week the Senior PGA will be played at a new course outside Dallas called Fields Ranch East, and Trevino, a native son of Dallas, will be on hand. But the legend of Lee Trevino began right here, in 1968, when he won the U.S. Open at Oak Hill. By the time he won the ’74 PGA at Tanglewood, a public course in North Carolina, he was, famously, Jack Nicklaus’s main foil.

Eric Cole, slender, affable 34-year-old journeyman golfer, is a mini-tour legend who played his way into this PGA Championship with the help of his runner-up finish in this year’s Honda Classic. His golf this week has been outstanding, and through three rounds he is in a tie for 10th. On his way to his courtesy car on Saturday afternoon, he was remembering the 1974 PGA Championship that Trevino won. Sort of.

“That’s the year your father finished third in the PGA,” a reporter noted to Cole. Eric’s father is Bobby Cole, a former Tour player. His mother is Laura Baugh. In 1974, she was the LPGA Rookie of the Year.

“I knew he had played well in one of the PGAs,” Eric Cole said. “Yeah, 1974. Wow.”

Trevino won at 4 under. Nicklaus was a shot back. Cole was in a four-way tie for third, two shots behind Nicklaus, with Sam Snead, Dave Hill and Hubert Green. Snead was 62. Hill was a famously direct, hard-ass touring pro. Green was a mega-talent with a swing faster than Jon Rahm’s. Big Jack was Big Jack. Trevino had his number, at least now and again.

Golf has been an interesting sport for a long time.

It has also been a game that gets handed down. Few people just take up the game out of nowhere. Your parents played. Or you worked at a golf course. Or a friend took you to a driving range. Or a PGA of America pro came to your school and showed you the grip. Something happened that got you to golf.

The generational legacy of that 1974 PGA Championship is astounding.

Davis Love Jr., a teaching pro and club pro who was in the field, brought his 10-year-old son, Davis Love III, to the tournament. Twenty-three years later, DL3 won the PGA.

One of Nicklaus’s four sons, Gary, played on the PGA Tour.

Al Geiberger, who finished eighth, has a son, Brent, who played the Tour.

Here are just a few of the players in the field of the ’74 PGA Championship who had sons (and in one case a grandson) who followed them into professional golf:

• Jim Dent’s son, James, is the head pro at the Augusta Municipal Golf Course;

• Tom Nieporte, the last club pro to win on Tour, is the father of John Nieporte, the head pro at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla.;

• Raymond Floyd’s son, Robert, played the PGA Tour;

• Arnold Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, plays the Tour;

• Chuck Hart is the father of Dudley Hart, who played the Tour and later bought a golf course in upstate New York with Jeff Sluman, your 1988 PGA champion;

• Dow Finsterwald had a son, Dow Jr., who was a longtime club pro.

There are bunches of others.

“What about Kevin Tway’s father?” Eric Cole asked, unsolicited.

Good thought! Kevin Tway’s father, Bob, won the 1986 PGA Championship. Both Tways have had long, fruitful careers. Alas, Bob Tway was in high school when the 1974 PGA was played.

But you get the point. The point is the subtext to any PGA Championship, that the tournament is a nod to the tens of thousands of trained professionals who do something to bring new people into golf. Michael Block, for instance, the longtime head pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in the California desert. Michael Block, who is even par through three rounds of this 105th PGA Championship and in a tie for eighth.

After his round on Saturday night, Block described life as a club pro: “You deal with 600 different personalities, right? You’ve got a lawyer telling you how to grow grass and you’ve got an accountant telling you that the burger wasn’t cooked right. So you’ve got to deal with it and you know how to deal with everybody under the sun.”

Eric Cole knows how that all works. He has been around golf all his life. His mother and father (they’re no longer married) were both touring pros and later had far longer careers as teaching pros.

“That’s the backbone of this tournament, club pros and teaching pros, like my mom, like my dad,” Eric said. He found his way to this game through them, and that made all the difference.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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