LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Hey, I like human suffering as much as the next golf sadist. Watching the world’s best players flail in misery on a tricked-up course in a major is like watching actors get hit in the crotch in a slapstick comedy. Never gets old.
But Sunday will be kinder and gentler at Valhalla Golf Club. And I’m OK with that.
The lack of golfer trauma could translate to a surplus of drama. What this PGA Championship lacks in crushing difficulty can be erased by what promises to be a bonkers final round.
Golfers ranked No. 1 (Rory McIlroy), No. 9 (Jason Day), No. 13 (Phil Mickelson) and No. 18 (Rickie Fowler) in the world are all within three shots of the lead. McIlroy, bidding to win his third straight tournament and second straight major, is the leader at 13-under par. He’s paired with the designated unknown commodity among the leaders, Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, who before this tournament had made the cut in a major exactly once. Behind them are six players prominent on the list of Best Golfers Without a Major: Fowler at 11-under, Day at -10, Henrik Stenson at -9, Steve Stricker at -8, Lee Westwood at -7 and Hunter Mahan also at -7. Then there are the guys who already have skins on the wall: Mickelson and his five majors at 10-under, 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen at -9, 2013 Masters winner Adam Scott at -7 and 2003 U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk at -7.
A lot of big names. A lot of big games. Which should mean a year of boring Sundays in majors has a great chance to end with sweaty palms.
After watching nothing happen on the back nine at Augusta National and then runaways in the U.S. and British Opens, it’s high time for a competitive finish.
“Tomorrow standing on the first tee is going to feel different than how it felt a month ago at Hoylake,” said McIlroy, who had a six-shot lead in the British after three rounds and was never seriously threatened. “It’s going to be a shootout. You know the conditions are soft; guys are going to make birdies and you know that you’re going to have to make birdies as well to try and win.”
For the good of golf fans everywhere but Ireland, McIlroy did not go run and hide from the field like he has in other major victories. He scored some late birdies to card a second consecutive 67, but there were enough other low rounds to keep this thing close. He may drop the hammer Sunday, but there are a ton of guys within striking range if he misfires.
“This one’s out there for the taking, for sure,” Fowler said. “Anyone can go out and post a number tomorrow. With the way the golf course is playing, it’s not out of the question that someone can go shoot 8- or 9-under, being five, six, seven shots back, post early, and you never know what can happen. It’s wide open and someone is going to have to play some good, solid golf to win.”
If you have something against birdies and the occasional eagle, I’m sorry. Perhaps you should skip watching and inflict some golf pain on yourself at your local muni. Or spend the afternoon watching “Schindler’s List” if fun isn’t your thing.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will enjoy what should be a rollicking round of grip-and-rip gusto, a Southern-fried free-for-all with roars coming from everywhere.
“The course conditions are soft from the rain we’ve gotten,” Stricker said. “They have it set up great. It provides a lot of excitement. I think the fans are enjoying it.”
Frankly, the boisterous crowds in the bluegrass have become spoiled by dramatic finishes. Historically, the major events at Valhalla know of no other way to conclude than with dripping tension.
In the 1996 PGA, Kentucky native Kenny Perry was the leader in the clubhouse and sitting in the CBS television tower when Mark Brooks birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff. Unprepared for sudden death, Perry snapped his drive way left on the 73rd hole and opened the door for Brooks to win.
In 2000, Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their famous (and wholly unlikely) duel, which concluded with both of them holing birdie putts to force extra holes. Woods then prevailed in a three-hole playoff.
And in 2008, the United States pulled out a heart-pounding Ryder Cup upset of the Europeans that produced a fan-player celebration that looked like something you’d see in the Southeastern Conference during football season. If there were goalposts to tear down, they certainly would have been.
For better or worse over the years, the 18th hole at Valhalla has been where the climactic action occurs. You can say the hole is too easy – scoring average this week is just 4.43 on the 542-yard par-5 – and you’d be right. But any hole that offers a chance at eagle (10 of them so far this tourney) gives players a reason to go for it when the situation calls for it – and there is enough trouble (water to the right, steep hills to the left) to penalize the truly wayward.
Besides, does anyone hold it against Torrey Pines and its closing par-5 that produced the Tiger-Rocco Mediate thrill-o-rama U.S. Open in 2008? Didn’t think so.
Ending a major with a hole like that may offend the stiffnecks who prefer a 440-yard par-4 that produces pars. But big swings – of the driver and of momentum – are the hallmarks of Sunday at 18 at Valhalla. Let’s hope we’re rewarded with more of that this year, even if there is a lack of televised suffering along the way.
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