SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Golf is an outdoor sport and as such is subject to the worst Mother Nature can throw our way. Rounds are delayed, suspended and resumed with regularity and those who follow the circus from city to city accept that as an occupational hazard.
What shouldn’t be accepted, however, is a curious indifference to the facts on the ground. Storms have been in the forecast this week since players arrived for this week’s PGA Championship. Officials acknowledged as much, albeit with a healthy amount of optimism.
“I am so excited for the championship to come tomorrow. I wish it were tomorrow,” Kerry Haigh, the PGA’s chief championships officer, said Wednesday. “But we have some weather possibilities; we do have a 30 percent chance of sunshine on Friday, so we're looking very positive on that.”
That answer prompted a playful response from the PGA official running Wednesday’s press conference, “Kerry 'the glass is always half-full' Haigh, ladies and gentlemen.”
But when the weather warning horn drove players off Baltusrol on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. (ET), 30 minutes before the last group was scheduled to tee off, the playfulness had faded.
Weather delays may be unavoidable, but they can be mitigated. Officials could have sent players off both the first and 10th tees in threesomes on Saturday beginning at 7 a.m., which was the starting time for Rounds 1 and 2.
Under that proactive scenario the leaders would have headed out at 9:20 a.m. and would have been somewhere around the 15th or 16th holes, depending on pace of play, before the skies opened.
Instead, officials stayed with the traditional championship window, with groups heading off the first tee in twosomes starting at 7:35 a.m. with an eye toward a 7 p.m. finish. Maybe it was nothing more than a botched forecast, maybe it was misguided optimism, maybe it was pressure from the PGA’s television partners to keep the event in prime time.
Either way, it was the wrong choice.
It’s a decision that will likely be compounded by a less-than-stellar forecast for Sunday, when the rain chance hovers around 60 percent for most of the day.
“It's a major championship, and we want it to be ran and perform as a major championship,” Haigh said when asked why the PGA didn’t go to a two-tee start for Round 3. “We feel it's important for all the players, in an ideal world, to play from the first tee and play the holes in order.”
The game clings to its history, often for all the right reasons. But in this case, particularly for the third round, there was precedent for a two-tee start.
In 2014 at Royal Liverpool the R&A, which holds to tradition like few others, sent groups off both sets of tees earlier than normal to beat an approaching storm for the first time in that championship’s history. The final group completed that round just as the storm arrived, validating what was certainly a difficult decision.
PGA officials will press hard on Sunday to finish on schedule, resuming third-round play at 7 a.m. and sending groups off for Round 4 beginning at 8:40 a.m. with the leaders heading out at approximately 3:25 p.m. They could still finish on schedule, but the margin of error has been narrowed dramatically.
“The forecast, actually the last three days, has called for very similar weather, summer weather; it's 90 degrees with a chance of afternoon storms,” Haigh said. “Our hope is that those showers or storms hit elsewhere.”
Perhaps Haigh & Co. got the wrong end of the forecast, but doesn’t luck favor the prepared?
The desire to keep things on schedule and in prime time is understandable, but the alternative of a Monday finish does no one any good. Crowds are predictably thinner, the audience watching at home a fraction of what it would have been and the buzz normally associated with the final round of a major much more subdued.
There’s also the issue of this year’s condensed scheduled. The PGA got started less than two weeks after Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson traded blows at Royal Troon, which had its own weather woes, sans lightning, but still managed to crown a champion on schedule.
In five days Stenson and a handful of others are scheduled to fly to Rio to participate in the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics. A Monday finish will only make what is already a difficult schedule that much more demanding.
“I was a little surprised they didn’t do threesomes; we were talking about maybe there was too many guys; I don’t really know the answer,” said co-leader Robert Streb. “I don’t know if they would have gotten done, but they would have been close; but it’s not our tournament to run, it’s theirs.”
There’s nothing in the small print that says a championship must end on Sunday, and when a Grand Slam title is on the line 72 holes is a perfectly understandable requirement. But when a schedule adjustment could have prevented, or at least mitigated, unexpected delays it seems like an opportunity lost at best and a blunder at worst.
There will be a champion crowned at Baltusrol this week just as there was at the 2005 PGA when Phil Mickelson waited out the delays for his Monday coronation at Baltusrol. The PGA took a chance and Mother Nature won, it happens. But it might have been avoided.
As novelist George Santayana once famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”