SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – Welcome to the traffic-jam portion of golf’s strangest ever schedule.
After months of adjusting routines and estimating burnout, players have reached the crucible of two major championships sardined into a three-week span.
The PGA Championship is, of course, a major, both in the eyes of the players and based on the signage that reminds you of that fact every few hundred yards at Baltusrol Golf Club. One player will hoist the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday, and it could very well be a life-changing win that will be revered and remembered long after the cramped nature of this summer slate is forgotten.
This week’s field is also the strongest on record for any tournament, at least according to Official World Golf Ranking calculators that date back to 1986, with 97 of the top 100 players in the world.
Despite those credentials, though, it’s easy to feel like this tournament has a very minor spot on the calendar, wedged in between the daunting pillars of The Open and the Olympics.
After all, defending champion and world No. 1 Jason Day hadn’t even seen the course before his Wednesday practice round. While players plan scouting trips to Augusta National and the U.S. Open venue each spring, this week they’re largely flying blind and hoping to find their footing with a quick loop or two around Baltusrol before things get started.
The PGA Championship is the highest-profile victim of a patchwork 2016 calendar, as event dates have been jostled to accommodate a detour to Rio. Annually a mainstay in mid-August, the season’s final major is now in the sweltering conditions of late July, marking the first time since 1968 that two majors have been held in the same calendar month.
To be fair, this awkward spot in the schedule is not entirely the fault of the PGA of America. It stuck its flag in Baltusrol as a host back in 2008, a year before golf was voted back into the Olympics.
The pile-up that occurred as a result is one in which they had a hand but hardly control, as every governing body involved decided that they could simply shoehorn the Olympics into an already-packed schedule without significant sacrifices or consequences.
Uh, not quite.
“When you have to put an extra week in the middle of the schedule, where that week has to be there, it’s difficult,” said Sergio Garcia. “It’s difficult to kind of rest, or really get in a rhythm of playing. So it’s not ideal, I would say, at least for me.”
Garcia’s views are shared by a number of top players, some of who began altering their schedule months ago to accommodate this torrid stretch. The common sentiment appears to be that, while there’s still a coveted trophy at stake, a better alternative would have included at least one more week off between the third and fourth majors.
“I wish it wasn’t as condensed, especially going Open Championship straight in,” said Rory McIlroy. “I’d like to see the PGA just stay where it is in the middle of August, but if that can’t happen, we’re just going to work around it.”
For their part, the PGA of America has a sunny view of the situation: a compressed schedule does nothing to take away from the prestige of this event, and – as echoed by several players – the quick turnaround could actually benefit those who were playing well at Royal Troon just a few days ago.
“When we thought about it, we knew it was going to be different. We knew the schedule was going to be condensed,” said PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua. “I think it’s worked well. It’s been a stress on the entire golf world, but for good reason.”
The sport as a whole may be shouldering the stress, but only one major championship had to find a new spot in the schedule this year. As Jordan Spieth pointed out, the Olympics are not exactly going to change dates to accommodate the spacing of golf’s majors.
To that end, Bevacqua added that his organization plans to do a thorough analysis of the unique elements surrounding the staging of this year’s tournament. The PGA Championship will be at TPC Harding Park outside San Francisco in 2020, when the Olympics head to Tokyo, and Bevacqua said the PGA is “considering all options” for a possible spot on the calendar.
“I would say it’s on the table in terms of should the date of the PGA Championship move in an Olympic year. We need to analyze that,” Bevacqua said. “We’re going to have to jostle the schedule a little bit. I think everybody is aware of that. We have no conclusions, we have made no decisions, but yes, it’s absolutely on our radar screen.”
In the interim, a championship will be contested this week, despite the fact that Henrik Stenson has barely had a chance to sip from the claret jug he lifted 10 days ago.
It’s a major, sure, and also the shining example of what a major headache this year’s schedule has become.