Before Internet and television responsibilities invaded my previous life as a golf writer, much of our research was conducted at courses within a few miles of the actual tournament site. Two of my six aces were holed while on assignment at a major championship. One of the best rounds I’ve ever played was at Royal Birkdale the day after Mark O’Meara won the 1998 British Open.
It’s funny how I wasn’t quite able to finish my story that Monday morning without considerable help from longtime colleague Tim Rosaforte, but a couple hours of sleep later, I had the energy to fire a 74 in the northern England breeze. Now before you go thinking I was just another over-entitled journalist taking advantage of the situation, you’re right, but I had company.
That FedEx commercial where Mr. Chambers is seen checking into the hotel without his clubs, causing his co-workers to flip out and start heaving their bags all over the lobby? Yeah, right. My editor was a better player than any of us. And my big boss once spent an entire week playing the murderers row of British links courses with a single golf ball.
For all the good fortune my occupation has given me, however, I still haven’t won a spot in the media lottery to play Augusta National the morning after the Masters. I’d ask you to share in my pain, but I’m sure most of you would rather double it.
IF OLD HABITS die hard, silly perceptions don’t exactly disappear overnight. One of golf’s silliest is the notion that the PGA Championship isn’t as important as the three other majors. Each of the four offers a different dynamic, and if the PGA bears the strongest resemblance to a standard PGA Tour event, that is hardly a crime.
The reason smart-aleck writers and reasonable purists dismiss all fifth-major claims is simply a method of upholding the sanctity of the four that do exist. And please, spare me the tired contention that letting 20 club pros into the field weakens the tournament. The Masters has its old-timers, the U.S. Open its hometown qualifiers.
Besides, go back 30 years and break down the competitive element at each major; it becomes pretty evident the PGA has done more than hold its own. Measuring excitement levels is the ultimate subjective exercise, but the PGA has clearly produced more stunning winners – and those Cinderella stories on steroids often were surprise victories, not someone else’s loss.
On my live chat here last Friday, I asked the audience to vote on the five biggest PGA upsets over those 30 years. The results…
• John Daly from nowhere (1991): 35 percent.
• Shaun Micheel at Oak Hill (2003): 10 percent.
• Bob Tway over Greg Norman (1986): five percent.
• Rich Beem at Hazeltine (2002): three percent.
I’d rank them in a very similar order, with one notable exception.
1. Daly: One of the most astonishing triumphs of the modern era, if you ask me. Not just the fact that he was a ninth alternate and drove all night from Memphis to central Indiana to make his tee time, but that he was on the leaderboard for the entire tournament, had sole possession by one stroke after 36 holes and never wobbled as the tale grew to mythical proportions.
A couple of chatters suggested Daly’s victory was less shocking because he won the British Open four years later, but that was merely a validation of his talent. The guy basically became a superstar in 72 hours, and in 1991, the game really needed someone to come along and turn logic upside-down. Greg Norman was stuck in the worst stretch of his career. The top European players weren’t spending a lot of time in the U.S., and Fred Couples still hadn’t evolved into the matinee idol we know now.
2. Yang: Sooner or later, Woods was going to lose a major after holding the 54-hole lead. He had destroyed the laws of probability by going on to win 14 consecutive times, but it was the way Yang carried himself in the final pairing, proceeding with such purpose while ignoring Woods to an almost arrogant extreme, that obliterated the Red Shirt Intimidation Factor once and for all.
Four years after the earthquake at Hazeltine, the competitive landscape continues to tremble as Woods keeps searching for his 15th major. Yang had won the Honda Classic earlier that season, however, and finished solo fifth at the Buick Open two weeks before the PGA. He wasn’t some invisible man, as was the case with Daly.
3. Micheel: Stunning, for sure, but also a rare case when the game’s best players all had off weeks at the same major. Ernie Els was the only top-tier guy with a chance heading into Sunday. Jim Furyk finished T-18, Phil Mickelson T-23, Vijay Singh T-34, Woods T-39. Micheel performed exceptionally well down the stretch, but among the seven or eight guys chasing him that afternoon, the best score was one under par.
4. Tway: If Larry Mize hadn’t done the same thing to Norman at the Masters eight months later, this one might register. As if to prove that history leaves clues, the Shark threw this one away.
5. Beem: He’d won the International the previous week, but whenever Woods comes charging, as he did that day in ’02, it really doesn’t matter what you did seven days ago. Justin Leonard led by three on the first tee and was out of the picture by the turn. That didn’t hurt Beem’s cause, either.
JUST WONDERING. In the latest PGA Tour commercial paying homage to our golfing superheroes, Mickelson reveals that he dreamed of playing golf even before he was old enough to walk. I’m no child psychologist, but is that even vaguely possible? Most kids give up crawling somewhere around their first birthday. I can’t remember a darn thing from under age 4, and those memories are just snapshots that got stuck in my brain and wouldn’t leave.
LOTS OF PEOPLE want to know who’s going to win the PGA. I’ve confessed to having no idea, but I do have a list of guys who need to get their act together if they want to salvage 2013.
• Bo Van Pelt. Currently 82nd in the FedEx Cup derby after placing 23rd last year, when he had 10 top-10 finishes and a whopping 16 top-25s. This year has been a huge bust for a guy many consider to have top-tier potential. A T-6 in Charlotte is Bo’s only top-10, meaning he has has one more high finish than Scott Van Pelt.
• John Huh. The Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year has left the building, which is easier to do when you fall from 65th to 147th in putting. From 25th to 90th in FedEx points, we’re talking about a kid who spends more time in the fairway than John Deere but is pretty awful with his short irons. I’d advise him to start driving it sideways, but you’d say, “huh?”
• Padraig Harrington. Perhaps the end is near, although that won’t stop Harrington from waking up in the middle of the night to re-examine his spine angle at the top of the backswing. The eyeglasses haven’t helped; Paddy’s numbers are dreadful from top to bottom, which has him loitering on the FedEx Cup bubble (123rd). Harrington does rank second on the Tour in putting from outside 25 feet. From the look of things, he’s been standing over a lot of those.
• Ben Curtis. From 29th in the standings to 152nd – somebody get this man a parachute. Always a steady player who did his best work on difficult courses, Curtis has turned every venue into a monster in 2013. It’s hard to make money in this league when you’re 182nd in total driving.
• Ryo Ishikawa. OK, I totally don’t get it. Understandably heralded as the greatest thing to come out of Japan since the Toyota, the Bashful Prince has played in 21 events and has one top-25. A putting stroke envied by none other than Tom Watson at the Masters a couple of years ago has gone psycho. Ishikawa ranks 183rd in that department. I didn’t even know they kept track of guys that high.
There have been whispers of some personal issues over the last 18 months, but the golf ball doesn’t have to know your life is asunder. At 158th in FedExville, Ryo is at least three cans of spinach from even sniffing the playoffs. Whoever stole this prince’s ridiculously bright future, please return it immediately.