At the World Golf Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in March, David Graham approached former PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and congratulated him on being inducted and joining him in receiving golf’s highest honor. As they shook hands, Graham looked him in dead in the eye and added, “I want you to know. I’ve got a long memory.”
Finchem nodded knowingly and responded, “Yes, I know what you are referring to.”
That would be an incident that happened more than 25 years ago, when Graham, an Australian who won two majors during his Hall of Fame career was unceremoniously ousted as captain of the International Presidents Cup team by his own players, just two months before the second biennial international team competition was to be held in September 1996. Some of what happened during a player meeting in July at a Grand Hotel conference room near Royal Lytham in St. Annes, England, where the British Open was being contested that year, still is a mystery but this much is clear: it damaged the reputation of a good man willing to give his time and effort to grow the fledgling event.
To this day, Graham is convinced Greg Norman, then the No. 1 player in the world and now the face of LIV Golf, and fellow Aussie Steve Elkington orchestrated what one participant in the proceedings dubbed “this mutinous act.”
Mike Bodney, who spent 25 years with the PGA Tour and served as the Tour’s senior vice president of championship management, was one of three officials in the room and remembers the meeting didn’t start out the way it ended.
“It was the last thing I ever expected to happen and one of the oddest things I ever experienced in my life,” Bodney said.
Initially, Graham agreed to talk about what happened all those years ago. For more than two decades he has taken the high road, speaking once to Jaime Diaz in 1996 for a story in Sports Illustrated, but primarily staying mum on the topic. When I finally reached Graham on the phone earlier this month, he demurred. He sensed nothing to be gained by rehashing a sad moment in an otherwise distinguished career. But as we continued talking Graham began to pick at an old scab. He recounted how he and three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin were selected as the first Presidents Cup captains, and Bodney credits Graham for his role in getting the event off the ground.
David Graham was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2015 at a ceremony in St. Andrews, Scotland.
Graham was truly honored to be the first captain of the International team. But after the first event, which was won on home soil by Team USA, Graham had reservations about reprising his role. It proved to be a lot of work. He called Irwin to ask him if he planned to continue in his position as team captain. Irwin said that once was enough and Graham shared that he was leaning in the same direction. He asked Irwin who would be his replacement. When told that it would be Arnold Palmer, Graham suddenly had second thoughts.
“I said, how in the world can I possibly turn down the opportunity to be part of something with Arnold Palmer?” Graham recalled.
Little did he know that at least two of the players on his team harbored feelings of resentment against him and questioned his communication skills.
First and foremost was Norman, the most powerful presence, the best player in the world for whom the Presidents Cup was essentially created to assuage his interest in a version of the Ryder Cup for the rest of the world.
“He did feel empowered and was attempting to break out of the mold of being just a player,” Diaz said. “Greg wanted to be big.”
Norman, however, came down with the flu the week of the inaugural playing of the Presidents Cup in 1994 and he was excused from participating in team events such as a black-tie dinner at the White House despite, at the urging of Finchem, the fact Graham made attendance compulsory. On the final day of the competition, Norman flew in to lend support and arrived on the first tee. Graham said, “What the hell are you doing here?”
When Norman asked if he could be mic’d up for the CBS broadcast, Graham laid into him. “Not if I have anything to do with it,” Graham said. “You’re not going to take anything away from these players who did all the dinners, all the practice rounds, all the meetings. You want to come riding in here and go on national television and tell everybody how great you are. That’s not going to happen.”
David Graham was the captain of the International team for the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994 (shown here in 2000).
According to several sources of Diaz, an angry Norman told his teammates that Graham’s exact words were, “This isn’t going to be the f—— Greg Norman show.”
“I know what it was all about,” Graham continued.
It also had to do with Steve Elkington’s displeasure over the way Graham handled a special request of his during the International team’s visit to the White House. Elkington’s wife was about 3 months pregnant, and they asked to leave the party early.
“I said, fine, I’ll get you a car,” Graham recalled. “He said, ‘We all have to go.’ I said, ‘There’s no way the whole team is going anywhere. End of story.’”
Norman has always denied that he had been the ringleader in Graham’s dismissal. The story is relevant again as Norman continues to disrupt the professional game.
“Knowing him the way I know him now, he probably wanted to be a playing captain,” Bodney said.
As Bodney remembers it, the decision to ask Graham to resign didn’t feel premeditated: “It just got completely out of whack and snowballed.”
As the players moved to take a vote of no confidence, Bodney recalls Norman taking a step back. “He became quiet as if he didn’t want it to be seen like it was his idea,” Bodney said.
Brian Allan, the executive director of the Australasian tour, was in the meeting, too, and pleaded with the players to think through the consequences of their actions.
“We made all the arguments,” Allan told Diaz, “that it would hurt the event. That it would be a black eye for golf. That it would make the players look like traitors. At one point, Bodney asked, ‘Has anyone given any thought to how David Graham is going to react to this?’ When the response was silence, I said, ‘I’ve known the bloke for 25 years. He is not going to take this gracefully. I can assure you he is going to s— on you from a great height.'”
New Zealand’s Michael Campbell abstained while the other nine players cast their ballots to oust Graham. Until Henrik Stenson opted to join Norman’s LIV Golf and was stripped of his post as European Ryder Cup captain in July in favor of Luke Donald, Graham had been the only captain for either of the Cups to be relieved of his duties.
David Graham won the 1979 PGA Championship and 1981 U.S. Open titles.
Replacing a man of great stature and esteem in the game was unnecessary and cast a shadow over the Presidents Cup. The competition didn’t need controversy in its infancy. As Diaz tried to report the story of the mutiny, he noticed that most of the players attempted to distance themselves from their role in the matter even though many of them had supported the move in the team room. To Diaz, the reputations of Robert Allenby, Elkington, Ernie Els, David Frost, Mark McNulty, Frank Nobilo, Norman, Craig Parry and Nick Price – had taken a hit. “At worst, they lived down to the stereotype of the selfish and stupid modern pro,” Diaz wrote. “At best, they behaved like sheep.”
“It raised the question of how much power should a team have, should the athlete have?” Diaz noted. “It was a time-honored tradition to do what the captain says and you don’t betray that tradition of my captain, right or wrong.”
Parry, an Australian pro, had the unenviable task of breaking the news to Graham, who called him from his home in Dallas and asked, “How did the meeting go?”
As Diaz wrote, Parry swallowed hard. “My first thought was, I’ve got to tell him,” Parry recounted. “I’m not going to lie about it or keep it from him.”
“David,” Parry heard himself say, “the players would like a new captain.”
Graham took the news hard.
“I about dropped the phone,” Graham said. “I honestly had no inkling that there was a problem. I said, ‘I’m dumbfounded. Do you have any idea how much work I’ve done?'”
In a later interview, Graham admitted that when he hung up the phone, he cried.
Bodney had two difficult tasks of his own: he tracked down another fellow Australian, a reluctant Peter Thomson, and asked him to assume the captaincy. Even worse, Bodney had to call his boss and break the news to PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.
“Tim lost it,” Bodney said. “But he understood the problem was the toothpaste was out of the tube.”
“I didn’t try to change their minds,” Finchem told Diaz at the time. “When I got to the British Open, this decision had been made. It had been communicated to David. Trying to force-feed something else was not in my province of authority and probably was unworkable. I feel responsible in many ways for what happened. We knew the eligible players on the International side some time ago, and we probably should have gotten them in a room somewhere and hashed out any problems.”
“He could’ve stopped it,” Graham said of Finchem’s role. “But he bowed to Norman and Elkington.”
Diaz noted that “Norman was once again held responsible for a rash and
All these years later, Graham expressed his displeasure that “neither Norman nor Elkington had the balls to call me.”
“I know one thing,” Graham told Diaz at the time, “I’ll never sign another shirt or hat with a shark logo.”
Graham never got an apology nor does he want one.
“It would be a worthless effort on anyone’s part,” he said. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve one. When asked about Norman’s role as CEO in the upstart LIV Golf, Graham said, “I think he’s laughing all the way to the bank. I think he’s loving all the attention. He’s clearly an egomaniac. He’s been like that forever.”
Graham would know. A gentleman golfer to the very end, Graham, now 76 and still playing golf every day, concludes that he regrets accepting the captaincy for a second time. The two-time major champion should never have been dishonored.
As our conversation winded down and we shifted to other pleasantries, Graham said, “You got more out of me than I intended.”