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I went to the PGA Championship in St. Louis last Monday with my pal, Edward. When your friend texts you a picture of tickets and asks, “you in?” You go. I did the thing where I don’t let on to the guys in my family and drop a pic in the group text to see their reaction. Then Eddie Bob sent the above pick to our friend in another group text so he’d be sufficiently jealous. By 9:45 AM it was a successful day.
That makes 3/4 of the majors. Maybe in my 35th year on this planet, I’ll cross the Atlantic to complete fan Grand Slam. But really, what’s a Grand Slam without The Players? I’m coming for you in 2019, Sawgrass!
Just a few notes on the experience and what I saw in light of how the tournament finished.
First, I have become saturated with golf architecture criticism. I joked about it in my piece for Men’s Journal, but I don’t get the insistence on their own way. Yes, there are standards of beauty and skill. The great art and science of architecture is the construction of what cultures hold most valuable. That’s how anthropologists determine what matters to civilizations as they unearth them and find their ruins. So when it comes to deciding if a golf course is laid out well, what is the value system determining that? Otherwise, we are quibbling about apples and oranges.
For the PGA Championship, the value system was creating a horse race that allowed the biggest (literally) and best players to flex their ability and outscore each other. That’s why they chose Bellerive. It isn’t an immensely complex course. It has easy sight lines and shot shapes. It does not require a variety of golf shots from tee to green. It is certainly a relic of the late 20thC and the rapid changing in golf equipment (and agronomy). It isn’t easy. It has excellent undulation, penal green complexes, it’ narrow, and the rough should cost you about a stroke. I’m not sure why that isn’t good enough to determine a champion for one of the five major golf associations? What other type of golfer would be preferred over those who hit it straight, fairly long, and have accurate short games?
You know how football and basketball games that have great defense and low scoring are boring to watch? You know how the NBA created freedom of movement after the early 00’s because the game became unwatchable or how the NFL doesn’t let a DB touch a WR? There are reasons for that. Deep, philosophical reasons. The biggest is that human nature has built into it the desire for progress and achievement. When we watch golfers conquer a course, it is rewarding. When the course is challenging and not in the way, then we get the drama of man vs. man.
When a course (or association… cough… USGA… cough) insists on asserting itself, it is like the referees of a game asserting their position because they are the arbiters of the game. For spectator and TV purposes, when the course moved out of the way, and Koepka fired a four iron to four feet at a 240+ par 3, it was electric. When Tiger stuffed it to one foot, the crowd lost it. If in this life, the most significant measure of our existence is the relationship we have with each other, then the competition should be between golfers, not the course. Nature always wins. The earth is billions of years old, and humans last about 75. So creating a championship to allow the human competition to thrive is essential.
In basketball or football, when you have the better team, more possessions benefits you. When you have the most skilled golfers in the world, let’s give them chance after chance to score. Or, you can ask for more varieties to attack a hole because professionals don’t like variety and they need to be uncomfortable. If only there was a sport where players could roll a ball across grass to a target? I didn’t understand the dismissal of the greens and complexes. Clearly based on Sunday, they weren’t easy to putt. Missing them resulted in penalizing up and downs. But the refrain was more penalizing greens and bunkers and rough and brown grass because sour beers are better than every beer and luck can determine the winner.
Second, I didn’t see Tiger or Koepka. 🙁 I did see Tiger’s caddy walking the course and taking notes. I saw Rory’s dad cruising around and hanging with everyone. He was with Rory’s caddy, and they were taking notes as well.
One of my Twitter followers made fun of me recently because I tweet about Rory so much. After a decade of coaching and studying physiology and a lifetime of golf, Rory is a conundrum. He should be doing what DJ, Brooks, and JT are doing to fields. I watched him on the practice tee. He hit butter soft wedges over and over again. He worked on the takeaway and the plane. In a press conference, he discussed the ability to hit the ball so well off the tee hurts him with his wedges. His hips rotate too quickly, his muscles fire too violently. Wedges are a finesse part of the game, and their shots are not easily corrected by manufacturing companies creating more forgiving club faces. I was hoping he’d figure something out this week. He didn’t.
Much was made of his shank. It was on TV, it was replayed in slow motion. It is was portrayed as a nadir of his season. Shanks are really close mishits. My dad used to caddy for and was mentored by Tommy Bolt. Tommy used to say that shanks were just a fraction off of what you wanted to hit. The issue with Rory isn’t the shank. That happens when trying something new. The issue is the impulse he creates on the face with his wedge. Today, Faldo, on the DP Show, said he used to want the ball to stay on the face as long as possible. It’s golfer speak for saying that with irons, you want to meet the ball at impact and keep your hands neutral to increase the impulse so it does exactly what you want. Rory doesn’t do that on the course.
I don’t know if he has ingrained his swing so resolutely that he cannot change his iron swing, but I cannot imagine it is a hard fix. Justin Thomas hits it as far or farther than Rory and has impeccable wedges. Clearly, Koepka does, too. Obviously, Tiger is the cream of the crop, leading the tournament with proximity to the hole.
My thought is threefold. First, he has become so fit, his muscles are purely fast twitch, which can be difficult to dial back. It’d be like asking Usain Bolt to run a mile. It’s hard to go slow when you have trained everything to go fast. Second, he is the victim of aging past 25. Executive Function is a real thing where the brain fully develops at the age of 25. It determines wise decisions, avoids risk, and generally plans ahead. This is what ADD and ADHD don’t have but eventually grow into. It’s also why car rental companies don’t let anyone under 25 rent. They don’t make good decisions. Rory was an elite golfer from a young age. He achieved, and he did it with bravado and fearlessness, the things that made him so attractive to cheer for. Now, that fearlessness is gone because age. He admitted earlier this year when he said something along the lines of “there are things I wish 28 year old me didn’t think about [on the course].” Third, just hire a short game coach and practice flighting shots to different distances. It’s not rocket surgery. It doesn’t have to be consistent with the rest of his swing. It’s a changeup. Just find a shot to complement the weapon of a drive.
Third, I saw the longest, most beautiful drive I have ever seen. Dustin Johnson was on 17 tee and hit two drives. The first was a mid trajectory little cut down the right side. Classic DJ. The TaylorMade rep gave him another driver. I assume it had different settings and maybe a different shaft. His brother gave him a different ball, too. I could tell when he pulled a few from his pocket and looked at their markings. Me thinks he was matching up spin rates. Then DJ swung, and I giggled. I just laughed and the absurdity of the shot. It was so high, so straight, and so far. He even admired it. I was certain he’d win this week. There is no defense for a shot like that. It turns out Koepka proved it to be true.
I saw Sneds’ caddy help some kids get their hats signed by walking up the fairway with it and getting Brandt to sign them. I also so Sneds nearly kill some gallery members and then hit a crispy long iron under a branch and around a tree to the front of 18 green. It was so effortless.
The back nine layout was set up so crowds piled onto each other. The front nine had much more space between holes.
The concession stands were in weird and, sometimes, hard to get to spots. Two near the main pavilion ran out of cold drinks and food. Sad!
The merch tent was like a merch city. And the air conditioning. Oh, the air conditioning. Only place on site where non C-Suite ticket holders could feel the air. Almost like they had that planned.
I may have walked the course three times total. It felt like Disney World but longer.
I did get a beer deal where I paid by the ounce up front. Totally worth it.
Shawn is a former teacher and current golf cart relocation specialist (aka cart guy). He is a lifetime golfer and enjoys writing about the human and spiritual nature in golf. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son.