SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Every major has its own distinct genetic fingerprint, which is why, variety being the spice of life, the Grand Slam gatherings hold a singular distinction in the crowded golf landscape.
It’s why Baskin-Robbins has 31 flavors; not everyone likes Rocky Road. The Masters slowly builds to a crescendo and Sunday roars, the U.S. Open is the annual endurance test and the Open Championship captivates through the uncertainty of Mother Nature.
The PGA Championship also manufactures its share of drama, although not always of the desired variety (see Johnson, Dustin 2010), via a mixture of relatively low scoring for majors and a history of leaderboards so crowded, contenders often need nametags.
Whistling Straits PGAs in particular have a tendency to draw large crowds both outside the ropes and atop the leaderboard. Simply put, Rory McIlroy doesn’t win by eight at Herb Kohler’s creation, a byproduct of acres of aches and pains combined with pressure that surfaces only at the game’s Grand Slam stops.
Consider that the PGA’s two previous trips to the land of 100,000 mosquitos and the golf course of more than 1,000 bunkers have produced just as many playoff finishes. As an aside, just imagine what could be in the offing for the 2020 Ryder Cup that will be played on this slice of Middle American farmland?
Given that historical penchant for playoffs, it’s not a stretch to imagine how things are going to play out on Sunday even with Jason Day’s two-stroke advantage after 54 holes, to say nothing of the affable Australian’s full recovery from the vertigo that derailed his title bid at June’s U.S. Open.
If history truly repeats itself, Whistling Straits appears locked in a familiar loop – play, playoff, repeat.
The modus operandi stayed to script on Saturday, with Matt Jones cruising to a two-stroke lead until the ninth hole. In a Straits Course twist the Australian scrambled from the porch of a corporate tent built atop a collection of bunkers for a bogey. The irony being that Dustin Johnson was penalized two strokes at the 2010 PGA when he grounded his club in a bunker adjacent to the 18th hole that is now covered by a corporate tent.
Four players – Branden Grace, Jones, Day and Tony Finau – were tied at 12 under late into a postcard-perfect afternoon, before Day pulled away with a driver-pitching wedge combo on the 563-yard, par-5 11th hole for eagle.
Day, a major bridesmaid on nine occasions including the 2010 PGA here at Whistling Straits, added birdies at Nos. 13 and 14 to move to 16 under and three clear of the field before needing two swings to get out of a bunker on the 15th hole on his way to a double bogey.
Things can change that quickly in a Wisconsin minute and it at least partially explains why so many have come so close at Whistling Straits.
It was signature Straits, prolonged periods of grinding defense broken up by the occasional fast break. And it will happen again if history holds.
“You can’t count the guys out behind us because there's especially a lot of long hitters,” said Day, who will head out in Sunday’s final group for the second major this season following a third-round 66. “Tomorrow is just going to be fun, it really is going to be a lot of fun. I'm really excited just to get to tomorrow.”
It’ll be a familiar object in his rearview mirror on Sunday, although these days Jordan Spieth is always closer than he appears.
Spieth kept his hopes of winning the Triple Crown of American major championships in a single season intact, with the top-ranked player from the United States scorching the inward nine with six birdies for a 7-under 65 on Day 3 and 13-under total.
Spieth’s charge also kept the prospect of an American Slam alive, with the 22-year-old having won the Masters and U.S. Open followed by Zach Johnson’s victory at the Open Championship, and set the stage for the final chapter of a truly historic season.
Spieth can become the first player to win the three American-based majors in the same season. It’s an opportunity Spieth has chosen to not take lightly.
“We don't get to play another event like this until April of next year,” said Spieth, who is 50 under par in the majors this year. “That makes you think, wow, there really only are a few of these, and they are precious, and you need to make the most of them.”
But the cast of potential party crashers doesn’t stop at golf’s newest wunderkind.
At the 2010 PGA, eventual champion Martin Kaymer began the final round four shots out of the lead. On Sunday, he will start the day in the same position at 11 under par along with seven other players within six strokes of Day.
Among that group will be major champion Justin Rose and Grace, who posted the day’s best score on Saturday (64), with Johnson – the tragic figure from the 2010 PGA whose brushes with major greatness have become frequent and unforgiving – in a large group tied at 9 under par.
Another playoff seems likely. Another eventful finish seems almost certain.
Pete Dye’s golf course designs are generally considered diabolical and always unique, but the essence of Whistling Straits goes beyond narrow fairways and bunkers as far as the eye can see. The Straits Course seems defined by its ability to deliver drama and derail any potential blowout.
“It's not a golf course someone will run away shooting two or three 65s. You need to keep your score together,” said Kaymer, who moved into the hunt again at Whistling Straits with a third-round 65 “You need to be very, very patient and wait for your chances. You can’t really force it.”
And the way things have gone the first three days you can’t really expect anything different on Sunday, not at this major and certainly not on this golf course.