The PGA Championship at Valhalla – It’s Still Glory’s Best Shot

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Some casual fans and a few media types with nothing better to talk about have decided in their infinite lack of wisdom that there’s something “wrong” with the PGA Championship, something missing, “something” that doesn’t elevate it to the status of the other majors. To them, it’s not as “buzz-worthy,” to use the common slang. They could not be more horribly, horribly wrong.

To quote Lady Guinevere, I see that in the idleness that comes with talking for a living, gossip spreads it own evil. (Guinnevere had green eyes by the way for those of you scoring at home.)

The Masters has its purity, the U.S. Open is the hardest, the Open Championship the most exotic, so the complaint of the haters is that the PGA is the most “normal;” it’s the most like a regular Tour event. “It doesn’t feel like anything special,” groused one writer over the Internet. But this myth – for that’s all it is, a myth, an artificial, picayune complaint – does a great disservice to the game, the fans, the players and the PGA of America. Because next to the Masters, if you want exciting golf, the PGA Championship has always had everything you need to mesmerize the fans. Why? Because they let the golfers play golf for the title.

“We’re not afraid of birdies here!” claimed past PGA of America president Allen Wronowski, who knows that more birdies means more excitement for the fans. “These are the greatest golfers in the world and we want to let them show what they can do.”

As a result, look at the leaderboard at the halfway point! Rory McIlroy has risen to rock star status; he’s become a household name. McIlroy won the Open Championship, his third career major, in an anticlimactic rout. Then just last weekend he caught Sergio Garcia from three shots behind and zoomed past him to win the Bridgestone. Now after opening with rounds of 66-67 he leads the PGA Championship at 9-under.

In fact, look the Tiger-esque run McIlroy has been on of late – he’s a whopping 41-under par in his last 10 competitive rounds of 2014: 9-under so far in the PGA, 15-under in winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and 17-under in winning the Open Championship. In fact, seven of McIlroy’s last 10 rounds in the PGA Championship are in the 60s, and his overall scoring average lifetime in the event (22 rounds) is a sterling 69.95.

The shot of the tournament so far has been his missile-accurate 5-wood at the par-5 seventh Friday. After a gargantuan drive – 357 yards – he belted that 5-wood from around 250 yards to eight feet for an eagle that powered him into the lead.

I’m checking back with you haters now. What part of that isn’t “buzz-worthy?”

If McIlroy holds on, he’ll join a small group Hall of Famers and certain-to-become Hall of Famers who won the season’s last two majors, including Walter Hagen, Nick Price, Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington. Pretty good for an event wrongly derided as “most like the other Tour events.”

McIlroy will have his work cut out for him though, because the rest of the leaderboard is a veritable Who’s Who of the PGA and European tours. He is just one shot clear of rising Aussie star Jason Day, who’s 65 was low round of the day Friday and vaulted him to 8-under, along with former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk. Rickie Fowler, playing the collective best of any golfer at this year’s majors combined, Ryan Palmer, and Finland’s Mikko Ilonen, a fixture on Open Championship leaderboards, are two back at 7-under. After a sizzling 66, including four birdies in his last five holes, fan favorite Phil Michelson is 6-under, along with the only puzzling stranger at the party, Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, who’s spawned a lot of Twitter jokes about mistakes in the kitchen at Five Guys.

“I ordered a Bernd Wiesberger for lunch, only to find that it’s three back at the PGA Championship,” quipped one Internet wag, while another said, “Shame. It would have paired well with a nice Joost Luiten and some onion rings . . .”

Luiten began Saturday at 5-under, by the way, with a group of six other players that includes 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, and former Players champion and FedEx Cup winner Henrik Stenson.

The course may be a modern example of the architectural excesses of the 1990s, but Valhalla does have a lot of half-par holes, and that means momentum swings and, therefore, excitement. Don’t think for a second that Rory is going to be taking a 36-hole victory lap in the sun while everyone else lays down for him. It’s like the Open where he was four shots clear of everyone at the halfway point. He has 19 players within five of him, including four former major champions. He knows that they can run him down if he stands still.

After all – Bob May tuned up Valhalla to the tune of 66-66-66 the last three days! If he can do it, someone in the pack of all-stars chasing McIlroy’s sure can and will. In fact, Valhalla plays as one of the easier major championship venues – the scoring average for the field thw first was a paltry 72.24, just a stroke and a quarter over par. At places like Winged Foot and Oakmont, scoring averages frequently exceed five strokes or more over par.

And the PGA Championship is doing all this while one of its other rock stars has missed the cut. Scowl, trunk slam, screech of tires: Tiger Woods, the man who had two entire networks lovingly devoted to every breath he takes on the course is gone after finishing 6-over. Never even close to contending, he spent both days floundering in the deep nether-reaches of the leaderboard.

“He looks more like a lousy opening act instead of the superstar headliner he once was,” remarked golf expert Bruce Moulton.

Opening act? He was more like a sideshow for the three days he was in Louisville. He strolled in late, usurped everyone else’s gallery, and brought everything around him (including us), all to a screeching halt. And for what? 74-74. Thanks for nothing.

He did cuss out a cameraman though. It’s nice to know that he’s still the same ol’ Tiger.

No, the other reason why golf is so riveting right now – and especially this PGA Championship – is that we’re witnessing a changing of the guard. The new crop of talent hasn’t just arrived – they are coming into their own. McIlroy may be dominating right now, but Sergio and Fowler are nipping closely at his heels. Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer rose to the status of multiple-major winners this year, and Justin Rose, Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Keegan Bradley all newly-minted major champions – look to have both staying power and star power.

And take note television executives: that translates to ratings and money both on Madison Avenue and Middle America. So quit wasting time and losing viewers chasing stale acts that are long past their sell-by date and cover the Tour’s hot new commodities. Otherwise, you’ll be missing a great story the rest of us already see.

“Is it over?” asked one vapid broadcaster on Twitter, again trading lowest-common denominator babble for analytical analysis. Of course it’s not! They play golf for the title at the PGA Championship, and downright sublime golf at that.

“This is major!” boasts the PGA of America’s ad campaign. You’re darn right it is! And PGA of America, don’t think for one second that you have to remind a single right-minded ardent golf fan of that, nor any of the players, who’d all bust a gut to take home the Wanamaker trophy Sunday night – golf’s largest piece of hardware, by the way.

So get ready for fireworks on the weekend. The PGA Championship is already the best party of the four majors; nobody lets their hair down, rocks harder and embraces their human side, their “regular guy and girl” side, with all its sincerity like the PGA of America. Remember last year when three of the top PGA of America officials tweeted a picture of themselves Dufnering! You won’t see that at Augusta, Far Hills or St. Andrews.

It’s not Glory’s Last Shot (as the old slogan read). It’s Glory’s Best Shot, and with the PGA Championship being open season for birdie-hunting, it’s there for the talking. So lock and load, aim and fire, boys. You just have to go get it.

NEWS, NOTES, AND QUOTES

5-HOUR AGONY? AGAIN?

Furyk is having another great major championship early, but will he have enough to keep pace with Rory? He’s been the Heartbreak Kid time and again of late: Oakmont, Winged Foot, Oak Hill and Olympic Club . . . the law of averages says he should have cashed in one of those. But with Rory rising so swiftly and strongly, Furyk may be overmatched come late Sunday afternoon, even though countless journalists and media would love to write his victory story.

“He’s one of the best guys out there – honest and generous with his time,” observed Moulton.

YOU DON’T SAY?

Meanwhile Luke Donald won’t be giving Socrates a run for his money in the wisdom department. Check out the breakdown of the week so far that Donald posted to Twitter:

“Well 10 birdies through my 1st 2 rounds is encouraging, just need to minimize my mistakes a bit better.”

Well, duh! He’s even par! Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

PHILLY GROOVY?

The two most dangerous names on the leaderboard seem to be Day and Mickelson because both can heat up like a microwave, both are fearless and both tend to charge on Sunday. ut of the two, it’s Mickelson who’s closed the deal, while Jason seeks his first. He may be aging, and he may have had a lackluster year thus far, but after Muirfield in 2013 you can’t discount Mickelson just yet. He’s swinging well, and all he has to do is put himself in position for one more Sunday charge and we could see magic again.

SPECIAL THANKS EVERYONE

Thank you to everyone saying prayers and sending fond wishes to my mom Jeanne as she recovers from injury to her ribs. Ever the golfer, she got by hit by a runaway golf cart . . . driven by my 90-year-old dad.

“He tried to put it in reverse and missed . . .” Mom said, rolling her eyes. Then she made the whole room laugh when she said, “I know we’re a golfing family, so I should have expected something like this.”

***UPDATE*** Please keep the prayers coming. She did take a bit of a turn for the worse yesterday.

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Jay Flemma