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On This Date in Sports August 14, 1977: Sudden Death at PGA

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

For the first time, the PGA Championship is decided with a sudden death playoff, as Gene Littler and Lanny Wadkins finish tied after 72 holes with a six under par 282 at the scenic Pebble Beach Golf Course in California. Little and Wadkins would need three holes to decide a champion as each record a par and birdie on the first two holes. On the third hole, Lanny Wadkins emerges the winner as Littler bogeys. It would be the only major title of Wadkins’ career.

In previous years, the PGA Championship would play an entire extra round on Monday if there was a tie at the end of 72 holes. The last time a playoff was needed was in 1967 when Don January beat Don Massengale by two strokes. The PGA decided to change its tiebreaker format to sudden death, looking to add extra drama on the final day of the championship.

The 1977 PGA Championship was the second major to be played at the bucolic Pebble Beach Golf Links resting on the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. The 1972 U.S. Open was the first to use the course. A drought in California played havoc with the course creating dry conditions and fast greens. Gene Littler got off to a quick start, shooting a 67 on Thursday to hold a one-stroke lead at -5 over a group of golfers that included Tom Watson. Meanwhile, Lanny Wadkins began his tournament with a 69 and was just two strokes off the lead. Little maintained his lead with a 69 on Friday, as Wadkins was tied with Jack Nicklaus four strokes back at -4 midway thru the tournament. Saturday was moving day, and Gene Little continued to lead the way, shooting a 70 to sit at -10, with a four-stroke lead over Jack Nicklaus, who was at -6, while Lanny Wadkins scuffled and was among a group of five golfers at -4.

The final round belonged to Lanny Wadkins as he made his charge shooting a 70 to finish his tournament with a six under par 282. Jack Nicklaus, who began the day in second place meanwhile, dropped a stroke, shooting a 73, to finish his tournament at -5. Gene Littler, who led after the first three rounds, looked to be in firm control until the back nine as he made five bogeys over a six-hole stretch to see his once commanding lead over Wadkins evaporate. With Lanny Wadkins holding the clubhouse lead, Littler made three straight pars and closed his tournament with a 282 after a four over par 76 on the final day of the competition.

The sudden death playoff began on the first tee, a par four hole, which both golfers managed to par, with Lanny Wadkins making a clutch chip shot on the third shot to save his par and continue to put heat on Gene Littler. The second hole was a par-5 hole; each golfer reached the green in two shots and narrowly missed winning with Eagle putts as they tapped each posted a birdie to send the tournament to a third sudden death hole. On the third hole, a par-4, each golfer landed in the heavy rough and had to work to save par. Once again, Lanny Wadkins hit a perfect chip shot to within five feet of the hole; Gene Littler was not as fortunate and found himself with a tricky par putt. After Littler's putt sailed right, Wadkins stepped up and nailed his putt to win the Wanamaker Trophy.

The 1977 victory at Pebble Beach would end up as the only major championship in the career of Lanny Wadkins. Gene Littler had long been a successful golfer, winning the 1961 U.S. Open. His run at the 1977 PGA Championship would be the final time he made a serious run at a major.