DATELINE: A SECRET UNDERGROUND BUNKER, SOMEWHERE IN U.S.A.
So a PGA Championship in August means this is Glory’s Last Shot, right?
This season the PGA Championship is actually Glory’s First Shot. The Coronovirus kayoed world professional sports since March, leaving stadiums empty, athletes playing to pre-recorded crowd noise, and many events canceled outright. The 2020 Open Championship was one of them. They hadn’t canceled an Open since the 1940s when Royal St. George’s hosted the RAF instead of professional golfers.
So with the U.S. Open postponed until late-September and the Masters bumped to mid-November, The PGA now opens golf’s 2020 major season. That hasn’t happened since 1971 when it was played at PGA National in February to avoid the oppressive Florida heat. That year Jack Nicklaus won wire-to-wire over a cavalcade of Hall of Famers that included his house guest, Gary Player. According to rumor, Player kept kinda-sorta insulting Barbara Nicklaus’s cooking by putting ketchup on each meal she served him – morning, noon, and night.
“Steak, fried eggs, omelets: he puts ketchup on everything,” a joking Nicklaus told journalists before the final round. Player, whose locker was five stalls away, chimed in puckishly.
“You would too if you had a ketchup contract!” Player retorted. At that Nicklaus looked puzzled.
“I didn’t know you had a ketchup contract,” he replied.
“I don’t,” laughed Player, pointing to the assembled journalists. “But I will once these guys get done writing about this.”
Anyway, the hiatus turned the early season into a false start, but if you thought Coronavirus was the strangest thing to happen to golf this year, guess again. Because Bryson DeChambeau went from mad scientist to full-on, Elsinore Brewery overlord with his massive body transformation, incessant tinkering, and half-baked, psycho-babble ideas about changing how the entire world thinks about the golf swing. ***Insert recording of maniacal laughter here***
DeChambeau – whose torso grew so enormously he recently was re-classified by the Federal Highway Administration as a light truck – now has everyman golfers around the country who can’t break 100 thinking they should add 40 pounds of indifference around their haunches and cut every club down to the same length as their 7-iron because that’s the only club they can hit.
Think I’m kidding? That’s exactly what a reader emailed me asking if I thought it was a good idea. The problem is that instead of adding 40 pounds of muscle with…supplements? Diet? Lifting? Personal trainers? We’re not really sure how Bryson did it…but instead of doing it the Bryson DeChambeau way – which surely involves an all-day commitment as well as oodles of time and money – everyman golfers are considering doing it by “binge-eating poutine and cheesecake,” (actual quote from reader). In a year from now I’ll write a follow-up along the lines of “I’m checking back with you now. How did that work out?”
Hopefully, DeChambeau’s fads won’t take root and spread like some other noxious weeds that have previously, yet briefly, cursed golf: fads such as heavy putters, oversized gadget wedges, telescoping golf clubs, “foot golf,” and mock-neck shirts. (Sorry Tiger…fashion flop.)
Meanwhile DeChambeau winning golf tournaments only feeds that beast instead of slaying it, so it’s a tough call as to when saner heads will ultimately prevail. He has played solidly, winning at the intelligent and strategic Detroit Golf Club last month, and he was cruising at the Memorial until a screw came loose on the 15th during the second round and he took that baffling quintuple-bogey 10. So with his drives now exceeding 400 yards at an alarming rate, one would think he’d be a major factor to battle two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka for the Wanamaker Trophy, and two factors support that proposition.
First, Koepka finally seems to have turned a corner regarding his early-season knee problems. Yes, Koepka has waltzed to victory smoothly in the last two consecutive PGA Championships at Bellerive and Bethpage Black respectively, but recently he’s turned from superhuman back into a mere mortal. Not including the St. Jude Classic this past weekend, in his last 10 starts, Koepka missed five cuts and in the other five finished seventh, 32nd, 43rd, 47th, and 62nd. Of course, much like Tiger, he’s starting to round into form just as a major championship week dawns. He opened with a dazzling 62 and only a few missed short putts on Sunday were the difference between second and first.
Secondly, Harding Park could be a bomber’s paradise. Yes, PGA of America course set-up maven Kerry Haigh narrowed fairways significantly, and the lush northern California rough will be framed by the ubiquitous Cypress, Monterey Pines, and Eucalyptus trees, so you can’t just go bashing the ball all over the park. They lose balls in trees in San Francisco, because the branches grow horizontally and the bristles are tight and strong. When a storm blows through Olympic Club, for example, you’ll sometimes come back outside from the safety of the clubhouse to find 50 golf balls per hole that have been blown down out of the tree branches by the wind. Just ask Rory McIlroy who had exactly that happen to him during the 2012 U.S. Open.
“Harding Park shouldn’t a Bryson-DJ-Koepka kind of course, it’s a Ken Venturi kind of course,” said life-long San Francisco denizen and sports writer Art Spander. “A basher won’t win here, a shot-shaper will.” Spander, who can recall eight decades of San Francisco sports events, covered Tom Watson playing in the august San Francisco City Championship as a college student in the middle-‘60s. “Harding Park gave Watson and Venturi and Johnny Miller all they could handle.” Likewise, the course held its own against the world’s best during the 2009 President’s Cup, when it played to a cumulative of roughly 1-under par for that week. It also held its own against the field for the 2005 World Golf Championship event when Tiger won with a score of 10-under 270.
That being said, Harding Park is not Olympic Club. They may look alike, but they do not play alike, despite the fact that they are just across the lake from each other. Harding Park’s greens are far flatter than the Lake Course, host of five U.S. Opens and planned site of the 2028 PGA Championship. Harding Park also has flatter fairways, while Olympic Club’s famous reverse cambered fairways test both distance control and accuracy. Finally, Harding is shorter, playing just 7,234 yards with a par of 70. So we can’t dismiss DeChambeau altogether, just like we can’t dismiss either Brooks Koepka or Tiger Woods, both of whom have the uncanny ability to cycle to their best performance at majors, even though the former has been hobbled and the latter has played exactly one competitive tournament in the last five months. (Tiger finished 40th at the Memorial.)
Other than DeChambeau, three of the biggest marquis names to win since the restart are Webb Simpson (at the Heritage), Dustin Johnson (the Travelers) and John Rahm (the Memorial): …three bombers the size of Bulgarian weightlifters and one shot-shaper skinny as a cheerleader.
Simpson, the cheerleader and the shot-shaper, won the 2012 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, and fits Spander’s description of someone well-suited to Harding Park perfectly. Webb is getting a lot of attention from pundits due to both his recent win at Harbour Town and because he won the last major in S.F.
“Webb is a solid choice,” added Spander, right on cue. “He fits the classic mold of someone who does well here.”
Other names to watch include PGA Tour scoring and FedEx Cup leader Justin Thomas, winner of the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow and last week’s St. Jude Classic and former-Ryder Cupper and 2018 Masters Champion Patrick Reed. Good sleeper picks include 2019 U.S. Open Champion Gary Woodland who finished second to Rory McIlroy in the 2015 Match Play Championship contested here, rising star Xander Schauffle, and Norway’s Viktor Hovland, who won in Puerto Rico in February and who has been in and around the top-10 consistently since the re-boot.
Finally, you can’t discount either Phil Mickelson, who has grown steadily stronger with each passing start, or Tiger Woods despite Tiger’s lack of competitive rounds coming into this week. Both Phil and Tiger both play particularly well in California. Woods in particular went 5-0-0 at Harding Park during the ’09 President’s Cup, so he could be ready to rope-a-dope the field come Sunday like he did at the Masters last year.
For Woods, that would be another chance to emulate Jack Nicklaus. In 1971, like Tiger, Jack came in to the PGA Championship with one lukewarm start in a long stretch over several months. But Jack had been practicing at courses near and around PGA National – Seminole was particularly named – and then went out and lapped the field. Neither Phil nor Tiger will runaway with this major, but they might just hang around on Sunday long enough to pick up a Wanamaker Trophy someone else might leave lying on the ground.
And as for Gary Player? Nicklaus’s house guest in 1971? You don’t have to feel too badly for him. The following year he came back and won the PGA Championship at stately old Oakland Hills and took home his second Wanamaker Trophy. Knowing him, he probably put ketchup on it too.