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Quiet journeymen won year's top golf prizes - all on the last shot

If would not be fair to say that golf's major championships were won by minor players this year, but the favorites certainly managed to lose them unexpectedly. Larry Mize (Masters), Scott Simpson (US Open), and Nick Faldo (British Open) all claimed their first majors. Larry Nelson, who won the PGA over the weekend at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., had spent the last few years in oblivion after capturing the 1981 PGA and 1983 US Open.

But if the game's premier events lacked name power this year, they were long on close finishes. All four went down to the final shot, which may never have happened before.

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Nelson, in fact, needed a playoff to beat out Lanny Wadkins Sunday after they completed regulation play all even. Simpson edged Tom Watson by one stroke at the US Open. And Faldo overtook Paul Azinger in the British Open when the latter bogeyed the last two holes.

But perhaps the most amazing finish of all was the first one, at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., back in April. It was there that hometown boy Mize sank a long chip shot on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff to stun Greg Norman and everybody else who saw or heard about it.

Norman hasn't recovered yet. The man who led all four 1986 majors after three rounds never contended in this year's US or British Open, and finished a remote 22 strokes behind Nelson in the PGA.

What happened to the player who had beed considered capable of winning the grand slam? The most popular speculation is that Norman let his schedule become overloaded with high-paying exhibitions and personal appearances brought on by his superb '86 record.

In any case, golf's wait for another dominant player goes on.

Watson was on the leader board in the last three majors and appears ready to resume his once magnificent play, but isn't quite in top fettle yet. He played strongly enough to win the US Open, but Simpson, putting outrageously well, nipped him.

The star of Jack Nicklaus appears finally in descent, and last year's PGA Player of the Year, Bob Tway, has all but disappeared from public view.

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That leaves quiet journeymen like Mize, Simpson, Faldo, and Nelson to inherit the important titles. Put them together in a foursome and you might not generate enough conversation to keep the scorekeeper awake.

At least Nelson ended the streak of 18 different winners in the majors. It started after he won the '83 US Open and ended when he sank a six-foot par put on the first hole of the playoff Sunday against Wadkins, who missed from four feet.

Nelson needed only a par 72 - and a 287 total that was a PGA record high - to force the playoff. Most of the leaders self-destructed on the hot, hard, poorly conditioned PGA National course. It's the wrong time of year to hold a tournament in Florida, as dozens of participants remarked. Arnold Palmer said the greens were the worst he'd ever seen in a major.

Why did the PGA of America, the association of club professionals that sponsors the venerable tournament, choose this course? Essentialy to try to sell real estate around its headquarters. One wonders if its strategy wasn't buried beneath the avalanche of negative publicity about the tournament.

Give the 39-year-old Nelson his due, though. His patient, persistent temperament is the type that prevails in the pressure of big tournaments.

So is his game. He drives the ball straighter than most other players and avoided the ravenous rough that made recovery shots at PGA National all but unthinkable.

He always has been an easy player to underestimate, but nobody wins three major championships without a bullet-proof swing and nerves.

Nelson's unlikely career has been well chronicled. Only four years after he began to play golf, the Alabama native qualified for the PGA tour. He climbed steadily toward the top.

Now, after his career took a deep dip, he has won his second PGA. Many outstanding players have done less.

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