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Forget Brooks Koepka, Michael Block won the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill


Forget Brooks Koepka, Michael Block won the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill

—by Jay Flemma, Golf News Net—

PITTSFORD, NY – Brooks Koepka may take the Wanamaker Trophy back to Mohammed bin Salman and Saudi Arabia, but club professional Michael Block won the 2023 PGA Championship.

He won all our hearts as well.

Block turned the year’s second golf major championship into his own personal fantasy camp. His line score, 70-70-70-71 = 1-over, T-15th would be an excellent week for any regular Tour player – a quarter of a million dollars and an exemption into next year’s PGA. But it’s a dream come true for a 46-year old club pro and the feel-good story of the season in golf.

Sometimes criticized for admitting 20 club professionals into the field, the PGA of America celebrates its own rich history and legacy with this tradition, and occasionally – not often, but occasionally – a club pro makes a splash. Back in 1986 Lonnie Neilsen, who went winless on the PGA Tour from 1976-1983, finished 11th at the 1986 PGA while working as a club pro. (That was the same year Bob Tway gutted Greg Norman, stealing the Wanamaker with a 60-yard pitch and run.)

But Neilsen had also won on the European Tour and collected a total of 39 professional wins world-wide. Moreover, he was only 32 years old in 1986, not 46 years old like Block is this year. By contrast, this PGA Championship is only the 25th PGA Tour event of Michael Block’s career, with zero victories. Now at 46 years of age and as a PGA Head Professional at a highly respected club, Arroyo Trabuco, Block spends more time running the girl’s junior club championship and teaching elderly Mrs. Brightsky how to stop topping her irons than he does collecting Tour paychecks.

But he also has the words “WHY NOT?” imprinted on his golf ball, and for one week that mantra came true, and every planet aligned in Block’s favor to make him the hero of the event.

That’s why the story is so good. An everyman pro, the quintessential local teaching professional – ministering swings like a priest with a penitent – shook off the shackles of middle-age and dazzled everyone from Madison Avenue to Frisco, Texas.

He was mic’ed up by ESPN for his opening round, and his aw-shucks demeanor, stellar putting, and feel-good story instantly enamored him with golf fans globally. An EVEN par 70 had him just three off the lead and early birdies in Friday actually had him atop the leader board for a few seconds.

He even made a birdies at 14 and 15 while doing a “walk and talk” interview with Jim Nantz and Trevor Immelman.

A late slide brought him back to EVEN par for the day and the tournament, but he had survived, even thrived, in the most brutal conditions of the week, a cold rain that turned Oak Hill’s already formidable rough into Velcro. He was, T-6th and paired with Justin Rose on Saturday at a major, every eye in the golf world fixed firmly on him.

Another EVEN par 70 had him T-4 and paired with Rory McIlroy the following day.

“Wow,” he said, eyebrows flying to the ceiling. Then he did a 360 on his heel, chuckled and said, “We’ll have fun.”

That was the understatement of the golf year.

Block then headed straight to the nearby Pittsford Pub to hang out with locals in the same clothes he wore during his round. Although this was the night before he could earn himself an automatic exemption into next year’s PGA, he wasn’t about to change his demeanor or his rhythms. Any time he’d gotten too nervous or ahead of himself, he’d failed, he told the assembled media. He was just going to be the same as always.

The ovation when he and McIlroy were introduced was deafening. By 2:00pm Sunday everyone had heard of Block’s magnanimous gesture in carousing with the golf fans the night before, and now he was the hometown favorite. They gave him their all with that ovation. Little did they know, they could and would top that.

The shot of the tournament wasn’t the driver Koepka used at 14 to drive the green, or the wedge at 16 to four feet that set up the birdie that all but cemented the victory, it was Block’s miraculous slam dunk hole-in-one at 15.

“I could hit a hard 8,” Block explained, “but all day long when I tried to hit anything hard, I was pulling it. So I was, like, I’m going to flight a little 7 in there into the breeze from 150. It was playing about 167 in my head. So I hit it, and it’s just right at it…and all of the you sudden it disappears.”

Slam. Dunk. The rarest feat of all! Not just a hole-in-one, but into the cup on the fly.

“No way…no way!” Block breathed incredulously while McIlroy jumped all over him laughing.

“Straight into the hole!” McIlroy chortled gleefully.

The only things missing from the never-ending ovation was some ticker-tape and the duckboats. You’d have thought he’d just returned from a moon landing. In 1989 four holes-in-one were recorded at Oak Hill’s then par-3 sixth hole and four hole-in-one ovations roared out. This ovation sounded like four. They heard it all the way from Buffalo to Utica.

And after the round, they presented him with the flag from 15. They should have given him the key to the city.

The two strokes under par out him back into a tie for 15th and an automatic exemption to Valhalla and PGA Championship 2024, but there was still work to do. You have to “get it to the house” as golf writer Dan Jenkins always said. And that’s easier said than done at a major.

But miracles are frequently on the clearance table at Oak Hill, and Block had to more hair-raising up-and-down to negotiate at 17 and 18, two holes so long – both roughly 500 yards – that he played them as short par-5s.

““I made some crazy up-and-downs on 17 and 18,” Block stated, grinning. “If you put me at 120 yards out on 17, hitting my third shot, and if you put me on 18 hitting my third shot from that 40 yards, sidehill lie out of the rough to a tight pin on 18, and you’re telling me I’m going to get up-and-down on both of those to make next year’s PGA Championship, there’s no way in God’s green earth I would have done it….I was just grinding my butt off and I did it.”

For only the second time in 37 years, a club professional qualified for the following PGA Championship through that avenue of exemption.

“This week’s been absolutely a dream. I didn’t know it was going to happen, but I knew if I just played my darned game, right, that I could do this. I always knew it,” he noted gratefully, fighting back tears. “Sunday at a major with the crowd here at Rochester was unreal.”

That night, the PGA Tour invited Block to compete at following week’s Charles Schwab Challenge on a sponsor’s exemption at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Block also received a special exemption into the RBC Canadian Open, which takes place in June right before the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club. He made his 26th PGA Tour appearance at Colonial. It was also his third PGA tournament this season; Block missed the cut at the American Express and the Farmer’s Insurance Open in Southern California.

The other winners were Rochester and I-90 golf fans. They’re always great whether its rock concerts or sports events. From Buffalo to Albany, they have to be hardy to endure cruelly cold and long winters, so they come out and they are vocal. And when it comes to golf particularly, these fans devour everything they can watch or read about golf. Like Minnesotans and North Carolinians, golf is in the DNA of upstate NY, their all their fervor and devotion were on display in their wondrous hospitality and full-throated support.

Best golf Block Party ever.

So let’s start a grass roots craze. There is plenty of time to get organized. Call us all Blockheads. Start manufacturing hats with cinder blocks of top of them, sort of like the Cheesehead hats for the Green Bay Packers. Sell them on Tour. Block is rthe kind of golfer fans can get behind – accessible. Where Brooks Koepka Tweets out the world a picture of the Wanamaker Trophy from his private plane; Block goes and drinks with the locals, like Graeme McDowell did in 2010 after winning at Pebble Beach.

“The game of golf…I live it, breathe it,” he concluded humbly. “I’m going to go to the golf course no matter what, whether I’m working outside service cleaning clubs on the weekend or cleaning shoes or running the club. I don’t care what it is. I’m going to drive over that hill, and I’m going to go to the golf course in a polo and live my dream.”