ST. LOUIS -- So it has come full circle. What began last year at the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick with John Daly's victory ended yesterday at the Bellerive Country Club with Nick Price's triumph.
The fact that Daly's reign began because he took Price's vacated spot when Price withdrew to be with his wife for the birth of their first child added flavor to the drama of the afternoon. As did the presence of Price's caddie, Jeff (Squeaky) Medlen, who switched to Daly last year when Price withdrew, making Medlen the first known caddie to carry for back-to-back PGA champions.
All of this was accompanied by the natural tension of the final day of a major championship in which there was no clear indication of who would be the winner when the round started.
As is usually the case in majors -- the PGA is the last of the season -- Price's victory was created by his ability to stay in place while others were self-destructing. By shooting a steady 1-under-par 70, Price's numbers for the tournament read 6-under-par 278, three shots better than Nick Faldo, Jim Gallagher Jr., John Cook and Gene Sauers.
Sauers, who began the day at 6 under with a two-stroke lead and striving to become the first player in nine years to lead the PGA wire to wire, started out with a flurry. The soft-spoken Georgian climbed to 8 under after four holes, but then disappeared in a barrage of bogeys and double bogeys, going a hacker-like 6 over in the next seven holes.
There was also the sorry tale of Jeff Maggert, Sauers' playing partner for the day. Maggert had climbed onto the leader board Saturday after carding a course-record 65, which left him tied with Price at 5 under, two strokes behind Sauers.
While Sauers was crashing and burning, Maggert was moving into the lead. After making the turn in 2-under 34, the 28-year-old Texan, who was looking for his first win on the PGA Tour, had the lead for two holes. But then he realized this was not some stop on the Ben Hogan tour. It was the PGA and carried with it all the prestige and perks (a 10-year exemption from qualifying as well as a $280,000 winner's check). He too was left in the trough at Bellerive, last seen when his last-gasp effort to get back in contention failed when he splashed a 3-wood into the water at the 536-yard par-5 17th.
Which left Price, a 35-year-old South African who started sniffing the majors 10 years ago when he led the British Open with six holes left in 1982 but let it slip away to Tom Watson.
"That might have been the best thing that happened to me," said Price. "It strengthened my resolve. I knew I had my work cut out for me."
Of the contenders besides Price, only this year's British Open champion, Faldo, seemed to have the right stuff to prevail on the final day of a major tournament.
But Faldo had his own system breakdown Saturday when he crawled into the clubhouse with a 5-over 76, which left him eight shots behind Sauers. A gritty 67 yesterday wasn't enough. Price made sure of that by concentrating on playing as much of an error-free round as possible.
"All I was trying to do on the front nine was not make any mistakes," said Price, who parred the first 10 holes and had only one bogey and two birdies. "I knew from experience from other championships that if I shot par or 1 over, I would have a good chance."
A few players made cameo appearances as they contended for the lead. Cook, for example, who had dueled and lost to Faldo (finishing second) in the British Open in July, climbed to 4 under, as did Gallagher.
"I wanted this pretty bad," said Cook, who was playing with Price. "This is what it's all about. A bunch of us are all looking to boost ourselves to the next level. Nick was the one who did it today."
Price's rise finally began on the 373-yard, par-4 11th, where he scored his first birdie. "That kind of gave me a boost," he said.
Price got going in the other direction when he missed a par putt at 15 to card his only bogey of the round.
He rolled in a tough 25-foot putt at 16 for a birdie, going to school on the chip that Cook had knocked in moments earlier. But the key came on the 17th.
With the pin tucked to the extreme right-hand corner of a ballroom-size green that was slick as a dance floor, the 17th hole turned into the key of the tournament.
Price had a two-stroke lead, but a mistake would have allowed any number of players, including Cook, Gallagher and Maggert, back into the chase. He reached the hole in two, flying a 3-wood into the left bunker. He then chipped out, but still left himself a 40-foot putt for a birdie. The putt didn't stop until it was 12 feet past the hole. "I couldn't believe how fast those greens were,' said Price, who had to gulp while standing over and then making the comeback putt for par.
The rest was academic. Maggert, playing in a twosome behind Price, went into the lake in front of the green on 17 and all Price had to do was concentrate on finishing without any major mistakes.
He did that and walked up the fairway at the 18th, listening to the gallery cheer him as the new PGA champion.
A year ago, Price was home in Florida, celebrating the birth of his son Gregory, when John Daly was walking up the 18th fairway, pumping his fist in the air, hardly believing the circumstances that allowed him to become PGA champion.
That opportunity was created by Nick Price, who now has a championship trophy of his own.