CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Better savor this while we can, a PGA Championship that stays true to its identity as golf’s final major.
That won’t be true in two years, after one of the sport’s worst-kept secrets was made public: Beginning in 2019, the PGA will slide from its traditional August date to the third week in May.
The benefits look good on a PowerPoint presentation – ending the season before football begins, opening up venues around the country and offering five consecutive months of big-time tournaments – but there’s no doubt that the PGA’s core identity will change.
That’s a shame, because this week offers a reminder of precisely what makes this tournament unique. It’s the final opportunity to bag a major before eight months of reflection and excruciating buildup.
For Rory McIlroy, that means one last shot to reaffirm his status as golf’s alpha dog.
For Dustin Johnson and Jason Day, it’s one last shot to redeem a lost major season.
And for Jordan Spieth, well, it’s one last shot to make this a historic year.
This week he has a chance to – all together now – become the sixth player to complete the career Grand Slam, and at 24, he’d be the youngest to accomplish the feat.
Listening to Spieth, though, you’d never know what’s at stake. Perhaps in an effort to deflect attention, he opined that he isn’t the favorite this week – your serve, Rory – nor is he burdened by the possibilities in front of him.
Become the youngest to win all four majors? Nope, not a “burning desire.”
Check off the Grand Slam on his career to-do list? Eh, there’s plenty of time – this is his first of 30 PGAs.
Already with a major this year, Spieth is approaching this week with the casualness of a Panthers preseason game.
“I’m free-rolling,” he said, “and it feels good. I’m as free and relaxed at a major as I think I’ve ever felt.”
Must be nice, because the scrutiny of McIlroy has rarely been this intense.
What could have been a monster season has been reduced to a “transitional” year after a rib injury, a wedding, an equipment change and a caddie split. And yet here we are, at Quail Hollow, in a major that seems like his destiny ever since it was announced in 2010. In seven career trips around this place, McIlroy has two wins, a playoff loss and three other finishes inside the top 10.
“Once you go back to a place where you do have great memories,” he said, “all that starts to come flooding back to you and it makes you feel good about yourself.”
On Wednesday, McIlroy carried drives 365 yards (with only 7 feet of curve!) and cracked 3-woods three bills off the deck, rendering the range useless. Historically, Quail Hollow has been the launching pad for some of the best driving performances of his career, but all of that firepower will be of little use if he can’t control his wedges.
Last week at Firestone, he pounded driver all over the lot and had 35 approach shots from inside 125 yards. He played those holes in – gulp – 4 under par. From 125-150 yards, McIlroy would rank dead last in proximity to the hole this season if he had enough rounds to qualify.
This week, he has added a 3-iron but eliminated one of his wedges, a curious move, because it leaves a six-degree gap (48, 54 and 60) that will require even more precision with his shorter clubs.
Now three years removed from his last major title – and with his chief rival, Spieth, claiming three in that span – there is a sense of urgency for McIlroy to reassert his authority, even if the former Boy Wonder continues to stress patience.
“I don’t want to be in the mindset this week of wanting to make any type of statement or go out and prove myself. I’m past that point,” he said. “I’ve proven myself over the last nine years of my career.”
So have Johnson and Day, but unlike in previous years they’ve fallen flat in the majors in 2017.
Running off three titles in a row, and playing the best golf of his life, Johnson entered the Masters as the prohibitive favorite. Then he slipped on a set of stairs, injuring his back, defusing his explosive driver and leading to a string of middling results, a rarity for one of the game’s most consistent performers. Now, though, he says that his body feels good. And so does his swing. And so, most importantly, does his driver.
“I feel it’s close to when I was playing really well before Augusta,” Johnson said, but failing to snag major No. 2, or at least contend, would be a disappointment for a player who this spring appeared on the verge of utter domination.
Day, meanwhile, admitted that he’s still searching, that he’s growing increasingly impatient with the “plateau” in his game that has dropped his world ranking from No. 1 to No. 7 in the past six months. His slide is most noticeable in the big events: He has posted 10 major top-10s since 2013, but this year hasn’t finished better than 22nd.
“You’re not panicking or anything,” he said, “you’re just wondering why. You’re up at night thinking, OK, what do I need to do to get back to that winning form?”
Day posed that question to Phil Mickelson Tuesday night at the PGA Champions Dinner. Mickelson explained that the key to busting out of a slump is to keep practicing and stay disciplined, because players at this level are usually one small tweak away.
“You just never know what’s around the corner,” Day said.
Well, what we do know is that after this week, there isn’t a career-defining event for the next eight months. That’s the subtle beauty of the PGA. Enjoy it while it lasts.