The tournament helped keep Sahalee Country Club on the Sammamish Plateau in Golf Digest’s list of top 100 American courses until this year.
The last time a major golf championship was held in Washington, Tiger Woods was 22 years old, the Monica Lewinsky scandal was boiling, and the big golf question was whether Mark O’Meara could win his third major of the year.
It was August 1998, and the movie “Titanic” had won 11 Oscars, Frank Sinatra had died three months earlier and Google was weeks from filing incorporation papers. Nationwide, gas cost an average of $1.15 a gallon.
The PGA Championship was at Sahalee Country Club on the Sammamish Plateau. The golf world was about to learn that the Puget Sound area was eager to watch the world’s best players. Fans here will get another chance to see the top players in June when the U.S. Open is played at Chambers Bay in University Place.
O’Meara was trying to become the first golfer since Ben Hogan in 1951 to win three majors in a year. He arrived at Sahalee having won the Masters and British Open.
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On the final day, O’Meara eagled the par-5 second hole and had a birdie on the fifth hole to get to 5 under, but fell out of contention with three consecutive bogeys. He finished tied for fourth.
The likable O’Meara was impressed with the fan support during his charge:
“In all the years I’ve played golf, I can’t remember hearing a crowd like that just for me,” he said.
Woods was the first-round leader with a soon-to-be-broken course record of 66. He couldn’t sustain that excellence and wound up tied for 10th. He said he liked Sahalee.
“It’s definitely a fair test,” he said. “It was set up perfectly. The course can be had if you hit to the right spots.”
The winner was Vijay Singh, who shot 9-under 271 and finished two strokes ahead of Steve Stricker, his playing partner for the final round.
Singh got a huge break on the par-5 11th hole where the green was guarded by a pair of trees that resembled football goal posts. His shot bounced off the inside of a goal post tree and wound up on the green, where he two-putted for a birdie.
The outcome was sealed on the 17th hole, where both players put their tee shots in the left bunker. Singh sank his 12-foot par putt, and Stricker missed his 11-footer.
As light rain fell, fans serenaded Singh after his first major title with “Singing in the Rain.” An hour later there was a downpour.
Jim Pike, Sahalee’s director of golf, said the success of the 1998 tournament undoubtedly is the reason Sahalee was chosen to host the 2002 World Golf Championship-NEC Invitational won by Australian Craig Parry and the 2010 U.S. Senior Open won by Bernhard Langer.
The PGA Championship also raised the status of the Sahalee Players Championship, the annual elite men’s amateur event that draws an international field.
The tournament helped keep Sahalee in Golf Digest’s list of top 100 American courses until this year.
Sahalee played at 6,906 yards for the PGA Championship and par was reduced from 72 to 70 as the sixth and 18th holes were played as par-4s instead of par-5s.
Sahalee translates from Native American as “high, heavenly ground,” and players arrived to find high trees bordering almost every hole.
Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen said, “I think the best way to prepare for this course would have been to go to a big city, like New York, and maybe play down Fifth Avenue.”
The tournament was a homecoming for Fred Couples, the O’Dea High School graduate who is the best male golfer in state history. Couples shot 74-71 and thought he had missed the cut and went out on a friend’s boat Friday afternoon. Fortunately for him, the cut turned out to be 5 over and he played the weekend. He shot 68 Sunday and finished tied for 13th.
Weekend crowds were about 25,000 each day.
Few people savored the success of the 1998 PGA Championship as the founding members of Sahalee. When it was over, the late Carl Jonson, said, “We have a place in history.”
Thirty years earlier, Jonson had spent weekends hitting golf balls down dirt fairways when the course was under construction to make sure it would be championship caliber. It was.
After the tournament, Jim Awtrey, the CEO of the PGA of America, said, “Absolutely, we want to come back to this area, and we want to come back to Sahalee.”
The PGA of America, which is the organization of club pros, conducts the PGA Championship and scheduled a return to Sahalee in 2010. However, the organization reversed its decision in 2005, citing concern that corporate money in 2010 would go to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Instead, the 2010 tournament was awarded to Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis., which had just hosted the profitable 2004 PGA Championship and can accommodate much larger crowds than Sahalee.
The PGA of America discussed a return to Sahalee when it yanked the 2010 tournament but nothing has happened.