“I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor reached the top of the Billboard charts, while the antics of Jack, Janet, and Chrissy made “Three’s Company” the most watched show on television.
The storyline heading into the 1979 event regarded the windswept Sawgrass Country Club course and consecutive tournaments which did not produce an under-par winner. Neither Mark Hayes in 1977 or Jack Nicklaus in 1978 shot a round in the 60’s during their wins. In 1977, with winds blowing over 40 miles per hour, 50 players in the field comprised of the best golfers in the world failed to break 80 during the Friday round. Tellingly, Don Bies, who shot an 80, never lost the honor in his grouping and the cut line was an absurd 11-over par.
“I think the best thing that has happened to this tournament was ‘Black Friday,’” said Beman. “That day captured the imagination of the public… and I know the players still talk about it. It got us attention.”
The 1979 field featured 18 future members of the World Golf Hall of Fame, including a 21-year old Seve Ballesteros, the only non-PGA TOUR member in the field by virtue of his win at the Greater Greensboro Open in 1978. The quality of the field, coupled with the difficulty of the course and the high probability of windy conditions, truly made the tournament wide open and unpredictable.
“Wadkins survived and won the same way Nicklaus had last year, and the way Mark Hayes did the year before last. They can’t tell you how, but they can show you the scars.” – Rex Edmonson, sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal
Nicklaus entered the tournament having gone nine-consecutive rounds without breaking par. He quickly ended that streak with a 67 in the first round on a windless, ideal day for golf. He found himself in a three-way tie for second place alongside Andy North and Lanny Wadkins, just one shot behind leader Kermit Zarley, who took advantage of the conditions to shoot a course-record 66. By Friday afternoon, however, wind and rain turned conditions on the course upside down. Even under those adverse conditions, Wadkins shot a 68 and took a three-stroke lead over George Burns, who shot a 66 in the morning before the weather had turned.
“The course played a lot tougher,” said Wadkins, who called his round one of the finest he ever played. “To go without a bogey in that wind was quite an accomplishment.”
Nobody, not even Wadkins, had a chance on Saturday when conditions went from bad to worse. On a day reminiscent of “Black Friday,” wind gusts topping 40 miles per hour caused scores to balloon to an average of 77.5. Only Jack Renner, who shot a miraculous 71, managed to achieve par or better. With a four-over round, the jump Wadkins got on the field during the first two rounds allowed him to escape the carnage with a three-stroke lead.
While warming up for the final round, Wadkins ran into his friend Tom Weiskopf, who gave him a good piece of advice as the wind howled all around them.
“The one thing you can do in a lot of wind is second-guess yourself. You’re good at playing fast anyway,” Weiskopf said, “so the first thing you see, do it.”
Wadkins followed the advice, trusted his instincts, and grinded his way through a round of par golf, finishing as the only competitor to reach par or better that day. It wasn’t without its moments, however, as Wadkins bogeyed the first hole and found himself holding just a one-stroke lead when Bill Kratzert birdied two of his first four holes. Kratzert fell victim to the wind and faded fast on the back nine, while Wadkins avoided getting into too much trouble, and found his way out of trouble, with steady play. On a day when the field averaged a score of 78.5, Wadkins only had three bogeys to his credit. Wadkins captured the tournament by five strokes, a feat equaled only by Nick Price in 1993, and the largest margin of victory in the tournament until Steve Elkington set the record with a seven-stroke victory in 1997.
“I think that win ranks right up there because I won by five shots against arguably the best field in golf on a very difficult and demanding course,” Wadkins said. “I had a 3-shot lead going into Sunday and increased it. You can’t play poorly and do something like that.”
In His Own Words:
“I remember hitting an iron shot into the 9th hole. It was one of the best iron shots I ever hit in my life. I had to start it out over the water and let the wind move it in, it was blowing so hard. Then I remember backing off the putt three times. I couldn’t get over it to get set to putt, the wind was blowing so hard. You had to be tough mentally and just accept what the wind was going to do. It was a tough couple of days to play.” – Lanny Wadkins, January 2019