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Memory Lane: Knox, Lietzke Contended In ‘91

By Phillip Howley
July 27, 2009
Bruce Lietzke played with eventual winner John Daly, a virtual unknown at the time, in the third round of the 1991 PGA Championship at Crooked Stick. (John Mummert/USGA)

Carmel, Ind. - History is a big part of what makes golf special, and to that end, Crooked Stick will embellish its championship pedigree by conducting the U.S. Senior Open this week. At the same time, when it comes to memorable championships, the Pete Dye-designed beauty already has a prominent place.

The club hosted one of the most famous major championships of them all, the 1991 PGA, when a long-hitting kid named John Daly went from tournament alternate to improbable major champion. You had to see it to believe it, and few people saw it better than Bruce Lietzke and Kenny Knox.

"I remember watching a guy dominate a golf course and a golf field, coming out of nowhere," said Knox, who finished fourth behind Daly, six strokes back. "It was quite an experience to be part of that."

Lietzke finished three strokes in Daly's shadow. The 13-time PGA Tour winner played with Daly in the third round in 1991, but he couldn't keep pace. Daly shot 69 and Lietzke carded 72.

"He was a ninth alternate and a player that nobody on our Tour knew about," said Lietzke, winner of the 2003 Senior Open. "And I kept expecting him to act like a rookie and fold sometime. If he didn't do it on Saturday, I thought he would, you know, fall apart on Sunday. And that didn't happen either.

"I shot (70) the last day, which a lot of times in a major championship, especially on a real tough golf course like this, puts you near the lead. That's a score that can win, and it didn't. I finished three shots back and I finished two or three shots ahead of the next guy."

Daly finished the championship at 12 under par. Lietzke pulled in at nine under, two strokes ahead of Jim Gallagher Jr. and one more ahead of Knox.

Daly's performance had a particularly profound impact on Knox, who played in the final pairing with Daly on Sunday and shot 74. Knox, 35 at the time, had won three times on the PGA Tour at that point, and he was in the midst of his best overall season. But after watching Daly overpower 7,200 yards of Crooked Stick, Knox decided he needed distance in his game to take it to the next level and contend in majors.

The former Florida State standout made swing changes the following year, then suffered a back injury that essentially ended his career on the regular tour. Some have speculated the two were related – the swing changes and the back problems. Knox won't go quite as far as to blame Daly's "Grip it and rip it" influence and the '91 PGA, but he doesn't completely dismiss the idea.

"Watching a guy making a golf course this difficult look that easy, hitting 5-irons and 7-irons to par 5s, it made you think," said Knox. "I certainly never thought I was going to do that, but certainly I felt, at the age I was, there was an opportunity to hit the ball farther.

"I hurt my back in '92. Whether that was from making swing changes or from all the traveling and things like that, who knows. It could have been from some swing changes. But it's just speculation."

Lietzke now works in tandem with Dye on a golf course project in San Antonio. It has changed his opinion of what happened in '91 and what Crooked Stick represents. "I thought I had this golf course pegged pretty good," Lietzke said. "The 14th hole might be the hole that kind of skewered my thinking a little bit. It's a 90-degree dogleg left that has a creek out there, and to carry it's in the 275-280-yards range.

"In 1991, Greg Norman was the best long driver the tour had ever seen, and I played with Norman on Thursday and Friday. He and I and all the rest of us human beings, we couldn't carry the ball. This was Balata golf balls, I guess maybe some wooden heads and back then, and 275-280 was out of the question, even for Norman.

"I got paired with Daly on Saturday. I hit a really good drive, just as daring as I could hit it, and I hit 3-iron to the green. John Daly hit an 8-iron. He was the one guy in the field that could knock it over the creek. And I kept thinking this was just a long hitter's course."

But being around Dye, seeing the intricacies of his designs, Liezke now thinks differently. Dye often mentions Crooked Stick, Whistling Straits and Kiawah Island as his proudest work. Lietzke now appreciates the under-stated angles and subtle challenges of the golf course. He now knows the real reason Daly was able to conquer Crooked Stick.

"I used to this was just his perfect kind of golf course," Lietzke said. "And that I've seen it and been reminded, I realize this was just his perfect week. That's what it was."

Knox has not played in a tour event this season. After he injured his back, he got into business selling synthetic greens that did well. He has since sold the business and after giving the Champions Tour a run, he now spends most of his time traveling with his wife, Karen.

But a friend talked him into playing in the sectional qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., and he earned a trip back to Crooked Stick, a trip down memory lane. "I've actually been playing better and sleeping a whole lot better since I don't play as much," Knox said. He added he's been having fun.

There is an additional reason for Knox, Lietzke and the other players in the Senior Open field this week to be excited and have fun.

John Daly isn't playing.

Phillip Howley is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.ussenioropen.com.

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