Conditions and conformity changed at PGA Championship


AKRON, Ohio – There was a telling story making its way through golf's inner circle this past week. One agent was speaking with his player and – in classic agent-speak – told him, 'I really like your chances at the PGA Championship.'

To which the player, a world-class talent enjoying a standout season, replied: 'How can you like my chances?'

Without missing a chance to pump up his man, the agent countered: 'You're playing really well and that course suits your game and you've been playing well in majors and...'

The player stopped him with a reminder: 'There are 156 players in the field. Every one of them has a chance to win. So my chances are 1-in-156. They're terrible.'

Such is life in golf’s Brave New World, where the list of contenders is nearly equal to the entry list. That notion is even more prevalent at major championships, the last 16 of which have been won by 16 different players, giving the game’s elite tournaments a revolving door sensation.

Tee times: Rounds 1 and 2 at the 94th PGA Championship

Tee to green: Nobilo's video tour of The Ocean Course

Here’s a significant sign of the times: Of the top 10 players currently listed on oddsmakers’ boards for this week’s PGA Championship, only three have won a major before.

“It’s just really tough to win out here. You’ve got maybe a 1 or 2 percent chance of winning the events you enter over your career,” said Jason Dufner, who needed 164 starts to win his first title, then replicated the feat two starts later. “What happens at the majors is the cream of the crop rises to the top. They give themselves a better chance to win. The higher your skillset is on tougher golf courses, generally speaking, the better you’re going to play.”

It’s that last notion which compels four-time major champion Phil Mickelson to proffer a conflicting opinion.

“No, it’s not harder than trying to win a major with Tiger [Woods] at his best,” he said of the 14-time major champion. “Nobody has ever played to the level that he has.”

On the eve of the PGA, it can be debated whether it’s tougher for players to win based on the current climate or easier due to the lack of a singular dominant force. What can’t be argued is that the current landscape has indeed changed in recent years.

That’s speaking metaphorically, of course, but the literal landscape will take on a different dynamic this week on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.

In advance of the tournament, the PGA of America made the following announcement: “All sandy areas at the Ocean Course will be regarded as ‘through the green’ and not designated as ‘bunkers,’ for the 94th PGA Championship.”

On the surface, it could be considered the Dustin Johnson Rule, in effect absolving any player of the same judgment error that caused Johnson to lose a chance at winning the PGA two years ago at Whistling Straits. In reality, though, it’s a local rule which has been employed in other events on this course in the past; this year’s decision simply falls in line with those of prior years.

And yet, it’s still going to look awfully strange.

Think about it: With sandy areas not designated as bunkers, competitors will be given the opportunity to not only ground their clubs, but move any loose impediments and even take practice swings. Imagine that? There could be a player standing in a greenside bunker – er, “sandy area” – on the final hole Sunday afternoon with a one-shot lead and rather than being at the will of the unknown, he will be able to test the playing surface by taking a few whacks  at the sand.

The question remains, though: As creatures of habit who are accustomed to hovering a club over the ball in these situations, what will they do?

“I don’t know,” Mickelson admitted. “I really don’t have an answer. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ll probably treat it like a bunker, I guess. I don’t think I’ll pick away sand behind the ball. I don’t think – but maybe if I’m in a fairway bunker-sand-waste area, I might. I don’t know.”

““It will be strange in a greenside bunker,” Matt Kuchar claimed. “Taking a practice swing will be weird.”

“There’s no advantage to it, I think,” Johnson explained. “It’s actually a little strange if you’re in a greenside bunker and ground your club. I mean, I’m not going to.”

“I’m not all of a sudden going to start grounding my club,” said Bo Van Pelt. “You can take a practice swing in there, so from that standpoint it’s a good thing. You can test and see how much sand there is.”

There’s no doubt that throughout this week’s PGA Championship, it will be compared with the 1991 Ryder Cup that was held on the same venue and dubbed, “War by the Shore.” If this week’s event needs a nickname, it could do worse than, “A Changed Landscape.”

The look of golf’s turnstile of major champions has been altered in the past four years, but that may pale in comparison to the vision of the world’s best players grounding clubs, moving loose impediments and taking practice swings around the sand-laden Ocean Course.

It may not provide a specific advantage to anyone, but that’s just part of the norm. It seems like nobody has an advantage at the majors these days anyway.