It was all set up so perfectly. Jordan Spieth, the kid with the iron will, the steely nerves, the Hogan stare, the Texas-tough pedigree, the Hollywood good looks, the smooth, savvy presence with the media, once-in-a-generation talent, and the aplomb to not let all the hullabaloo distract him from the Claret Jug was two holes – just 861 yards - from the Triple Crown, the first since Ben Hogan in 1953.
And then, as it usually does, the Road Hole ended the dream for all of us.
Still, even without the Slam pursuit, the PGA Championship will be gripping drama, as it almost always is. Between Spieth on his 20115 World Domination Tour, all the rest of the game’s young lions roaring equally loudly, (by all winning at least once this year), and the cloak-and-dagger tension of Pete Dye’s phenomenal Whistling Straits course, the last thing the PGA of America needs to do is remind everyone “This is Major” – believe me, every pro golfer and ardent fan already knows it.
OH DAMN, NO SLAM
It was a gallant run for Spieth, every bit as riveting and nail-biting as Palmer in 1960 and Nicklaus in 1972. They too fell short by one stroke, to Kel Nagle and Lee Trevino, respectively.
“It won't hurt too bad,” the plucky kid said candidly, though the picture of his sad face melted hearts across multiple time zones. “It's not like I really lost it on the last hole, and 17 was brutally challenging. I just didn't hit a great putt there, and I just picked the wrong wedge out of the bag on 18. I made a lot of the right decisions down the stretch and certainly closed plenty of tournaments out, and this just wasn't one of those. It's hard to do that every single time. I won't beat myself up too bad because I do understand that.”
How’s that for even-keeled? Sincere? Classy? With poise and maturity well beyond his years, golf can rejoice in a new hero, even more-newly minted than Rory McIlroy, who had to spend the weekend looking like the swallowed a box of tacks; Rupturing an ankle tendon and missing out on a chance to lock horns with his number one competition for the title of World’s Number 1 Golfer will sour your mood and dim your outlook. Meanwhile Spieth is not only in full ascension, the first and foremost obstacle in his path to the winner’s circle is likely sidelined for the PGA Championship as well.
Usually when a guy wins his first major, he gets caught up in the media tsunami and fades a bit. Letterman, you say? With musical guests Foo Fighters? Hell yes! Photo op atop the Empire State building with a leggy model? Of course! Yuk it up with Matt Lauer and Savannah, then hit balls at Chelsea Piers with Cara Robinson? Twist my arm!
A golfer winning his first major usually gets overwhelmed with the attention and the obligations. Things go from “dull roar” to “New Year's Eve Crazy” in terms of commitments…and distraction. But Spieth took it all with the same phlegmatic demeanor that won him those first two majors. It took Woods until age 26 to win the Masters and the U.S. Open back-to-back. Nicklaus was 32 when he did it and Hogan was 40. The kid’s precocious, and he’s a role model to boot.
“He's a phenomenal talent, and I'm telling you right now, a lot of you guys know him, he's a better person than he is golfer,” said an always gracious Zach Johnson, who gave Spieth a ride back to the States in his private jet, along with a few swigs out of the Claret Jug.
Besides, as far as places to have a tombstone erected, the Road Hole is as honorable and venerable a place as any. After all, it’s interred Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, although in Spieth’s case he’s too young to have it be the place where his major championship glory will end for good. Watson and Ballesteros never one another major after the Road Hole ended their hopes in the ’84 and ‘89 Open Championships respectively, but in all majors.
THE NEXT GENERATION IS NOW
Grand Slam or no, it’s been a superb year in golf. Only the most vacuous, superficial, Tiger-philic dumkopf could be dis-satisfied. All of the brightest young stars have won, the future of golf has arrived - right here, right now - young lions all, and they are roaring. The list of winners on the PGA TYour this season reads like an All-star lineup: Patrick Reed, Jimmy Walker (twice), Jason Day (twice), Bill Haas (who $10 million once upon a time), Brandt Snedecker, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth (four times), Rickie Fowler (three times), Rory McIlroy (twice) and Bubba Watson.
I’ll take a breath and add a few other multiple major winners to that list: Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk, Justin Rose and, of course, Zach Johnson, winner at St. Andrews, who was last seen using the mouth of the Claret Jug as a corn-on-the-cob holder. It’s enough to make a golf fan not miss Tiger Woods, unless you’re a broadcaster desperate for those casual eyeballs.
“This has been the best year on the PGA Tour in over a decade,” explained golf expert Bruce Moulton. “We had a legitimate shot at a Grand Slam, (and we still may get a three-legged, Grand Triangle of sorts), and all the other young guys that will be the lifeblood of the Tour for the next decade are winning too, fighting it out like gladiators in the Coliseum. Every tournament, especially the majors had either drama, a record-setting performance, or both.
“And, happily, McIlroy is bouncing back from that ankle injury,” Moulton continued. “Even if he can’t start in Wisconsin, there’s still great news: this isn’t career threatening. It should heal fully, not keep him hobbling for a year or two. All indications are that he’ll be back to 100 percent pretty soon.”
Putting aside all the medical gobbledygook about tendons and ruptures, McIlroy suffered a severely rolled ankle - rolled outward to be exact – an injury that, while painful and frightening (you collapse in a heap instantly when it happens…I know from personal experience), it also heals quickly.
“At the end of the day, you can come back from that injury quickly with modern medicine being what it is, sometimes as little as a few weeks,” opined Eminent Sports surgeon Dr. Russ LaFrance.
Remember Curt Schilling. He rolled his ankle against the Angels, but mere days later came back to beat both the Jeter-Sheffield-A-Rod-Matsui-led Yankees, and the Edmonds-Pujols-Rolen-powered St. Louis Cardinals, dominating both teams as the Red Sox marched inexorably to their first World Series in 86 years.
[Author’s Note: As we go to press, McIlroy’s fate is still in doubt: initial reports indicated he would try out the ankle in a Saturday practice round on the Straits course, later reports denied that. With no practice round scheduled as of Friday morning, it seemed unlikely he will start on Thursday. However, Friday morning he posted over social media – via a ridiculous strings of emojis, a rebus puzzle more worthy of a club chick drama queen texting her frenemies - that he was coming to Wisconsin for a practice round.]
If McIlroy can’t start, so what? Tiger Woods missed the 2008 Open Championship and PGA, but both were won by Padraig Harrington in dramatic, almost Tiger-esque fashion as he won three majors in six starts. In 2011, Rory McIlroy shattered most of both Woods' and the U.S. Open’s scoring records at Congressional, while Darren Clarke warmed the hearts of all golfers stepping out of the mists of history to claim a Claret Jug no one ever expected him to win.
And if he can start, all the better. Add one more name to the mix. McIlroy may no have played competitively in 7-1/2 weeks, but he can stay afloat and hang around, and if the wind blows, slow and steady golf might get him into contention.
“He also took seven weeks off last winter and came back in Abu Dhabi to finish second,” wrote seminal Irish golf writer Brian Keogh, who has been spectacular at chronicling McIlroy’s every move, his Irish Golf Desk being indispensable for all things Irish in golf.
“With or without Rory, we had a agreat Open Championship and the PGA should be no different. It’s great to see all the other players get the exposure they’ve long deserved,” concluded Moulton. “The torch has passed from Tiger, and the talent pool is both broad and deep. Tiger beat up on a lot of stiffs. There were some weird leaderboards under his name and rarely was there a marquis duel. But now leaderboards are choc-a-bloc with superstars and four or five guys are coming down the stretch all with a chance to win. It’s the best show in sports.”
It all comes to a boil this week at Whistling Straits, Pete Dye’s manufactured links on the shores of Lake Michigan, the typical marvel of golf course architecture and engineering we’ve come to expect from golf design’s cross between Seth Raynor and a Hammer film.
“Well, I went out there with Mr. Kohler and that’s what there was this flat plateau, and its 70 feet above the lake, and Mr. Kohler said, ‘The next time I see this land, I want it to look like Ballybunion.’ And I was about to say , ‘Are you crazy?’ But I knew him pretty well, and I had enough sense not to say anything. Besides, I had already built the two courses at Blackwolf Run for him, so we started to get permits, and started talking to the Army Corps of Engineers,” began Dye, explaining the genesis of the Straits Course, which now hosts its third PGA Championship in 15 years.
“People think I brought in a lot of land to build that course, but I didn’t. When we started, we were 70 feet above the lake. What I did was I took that land closest to the water, and cut it down as close to the lake as I could get. Sometimes 10-15 feet, sometimes a little more, but I took it way down, so that when you play, you feel like you’re right on the lake. I used bulldozers and earthmoving machines, and cleared all that earth, and moved it away from the lake and built nine holes along the lake,” Dye continued. “It was 70 feet up, and now it’s 20 feet up, and I have a bank against the edge on the side away from the water that’s 50 feet high. I took that dirt, and went and built the other nine holes are no the top of the bank I created. I didn’t bring in the dirt from somewhere else, I just moved what I found there.”
It’s called terracing, and it’s used to great effect in many excellent modern links layouts such as Bayonne, Streamsong and Tallgrass. It’s a natural defense, following the terrain of the land. Granted that there was a lot of earth moved at Whistling Straits, but it was designed to replicate natural erosion off the lake, so it looks and plays like a classic links, even though Pete’s inimitable and indelible artistic brushstrokes are there in the shaping and in the angles. As usual, Position A is also cheek-and-jowl with the most dangerous hazard, while those who steer away from trouble find themselves with tougher angles into pins.
“Now they’re gonna essentially be playing the same course they did in 2010, which was also essentially the same course they played in 2004,” Dye explained. “We moved tee box on the [par-3] 17th, but it’s still 200 yards. We also softened the approach on number 18. There was a bunker on the right hand side on the tee shot, and we took that out.”
Then he brightened and added, “But we didn’t take out the bunker Dustin Johnson hit it in.”
Ahh, Dustin Johnson. To paraphrase Roberto DiVicenzo, what a stupid he was. He comes to the 72nd hole with a one shot lead and hits it 70 yards right, into a bunker.
Now let’s forever put to bed the nonsense inadvertently caused by the CBS broadcast back in 2010 when they reported from the wrong place on the 18th hole. Here’s the truth, from Pete Dye, the proverbial horse’s mouth, spoken to yours truly moments after it happened:
“It’s a bunker. I know it’s a bunker because I put it there. And what’s he doing 70 yards right on the 72nd hole anyway?” said Dye as it happened, your author on one side of him and, Kohler on the other. Dye recalled the incident again for this article:
“I remember watching with you and saying, ‘What the heck’s he doing all the way up there? That’s no good at all,’" Dye remarked, chuckling. “He was out of play, and then he grounded his club, and was penalized. And he should have been penalized - it was posted all over creation.”
When asked what Dye would do to solve the “Are they bunkers/are they not bunkers?” imbroglio, he took a purist, yet pragmatic view:
“If it’s got sand in it, it’s a hazard. I’d play them all as bunkers,” he stated laconically.
Regarding the Straits Course, Dye thinks scores will be higher here than at Kiawah Island, which surrendered a record 16-under 272 to Rory McIlroy in 2012. Dye predicted that exact score, by the way, the day before the tournament started.
“Kiawah Island and Whistling Straits should play about the same, but I knew they would shoot 16-under at Kiawah - there’s four par-5s and the winner would birdie all of them. Kiawah also did get some rain that year and it did soften things up,” Dye said, chuckling. “I think the winning score in Wisconsin will still between 12-15 under. The greens are in good shape, and the fairways are in good shape, and everything else is in good shape too, and the pro are hitting it father because of the clubs and the balls.”
It was an 11-under total that won in 2010 when Martin Kaymer beat Bubba Watson in a playoff, picking up the Wanamaker trophy Dustin Johnson left in that bunker. Vijay Singh also won in a playoff in 2004. He fired a ghastly 76 to close at 8 under for the tournament (highest final round ever by a PGA Championship winner), and fell into a three-way tie with Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard.
“The weather will be the deciding factor for the winning score,” opined Moulton. “It’d be nice to see the wind blow. The last two times we were there, you could sun yourself on the beach all week.”
No matter what the weather at the tournament, it’s always sunny when you’re around Wisconsinites.
“The two states with the most golfers per capita are Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Dye once said to me in an earlier interview. “They love their golf, and it’s one of my favorite memories watching them stand up and cheer, and sing, and do that thing they do…”
“It’s called ‘The Wave,’ Pete,” his wife Alice chimed in.
“Well that looked like some good clean Midwestern fun!” beamed Dye.
Looks that way for this week too, Pete. Looks that way for this week too…
Adam Scott to win, with Fowler, Day, Kaymer and Spieth rounding out the top five.
Like tennis players that play well on all surfaces, Adam Scott plays well on all types of major courses: He can slug it with you at Augusta, iron you to death at the U.S. Open, creatively outthink you at a links course (he had the British Open at Lytham sewn up in 2012, before melting down like Chernobyl), and go low at the more routine courses the PGA Championship sometimes visits.