There’s everything to play for as the final men’s Major of the year takes place at Quail Hollow, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
When Jimmy Walker closed out his round to win the 2016 PGA Championship, he became the fifth successive golfer to win their first Major.
The run started with Jason Day’s victory at the 2015 PGA Championship. Danny Willett (The Masters), Dustin Johnson (US Open), Henrik Stenson (The Open Championship) and then Walker ensured that all 2016’s Major champions were first-time winners.
Sergio Garcia stretched that sequence to six golfers when he tamed Augusta, and was handed the Green Jacket by Willett, before Brooks Koepka unbelievably made it a seventh straight new face when he closed out the US Open. The men’s Majors came thick and fast, with The Masters in April followed by the US Open in June, The Open in July and The PGA Championship in August.
The last Major of the year is by some distance the one that has to sit at the back of the queue when it comes to ‘importance’, but try telling that to a golfer who wins it.
A Major is, after all, a Major.
Last year it was Walker’s turn. The then 37-year-old had not had an easy path to the highest echelon of golf. Though he first played on the PGA Tour in 2005, he was frequently sent back to the equivalent of the minor leagues and had to requalify for the Tour three times.
It was not until 2011 that he began to establish himself. Still, Walker, who played his collegiate golf at Baylor University, competed at 187 Tour events before claiming his first victory at the end of 2013. He went on to win two of the next seven events. Last year on the Tour was not his best, with his highest finish a tie for fourth, but his performance at Baltusrol Golf Club got rid of all the demons.
Walker also became the first wire-to-wire winner of the PGA Championship since Phil Mickelson, who ironically also won at Baltusrol in 2005.
It wasn’t necessarily that Walker was an unknown, given he has been in and out of the world’s top 20 since 2014. In fact, victory at the 2015 Valero Texas Open – following a win at the Sony Hawaii Open that year – had moved him to No 10 in the world, before he signed off 2015 at No 25 in the rankings. His first Major championship sent him upwards again to No 15, but by the end of July he had slipped to 39th in the hurly-burly of the men’s professional game.
The PGA Championship also holds the distinction of being the only one that has had to change formats, kicking off in 1916 as a match play event before changing to stroke play in 1958, when Dow Finsterwald shot four under to claim his only Major championship.
The tournament has also produced a list of surprise winners, which suggests that this year’s event at Quail Hollow might also see a less familiar name rise towards the top of the leaderboard.
Although the likes of Rory McIlroy (twice) and Jason Day have won in recent years, and in his heyday Tiger Woods lifted the trophy four times, there are also a host of ‘Did You Knows’ that have been thrown up.
It was in 2009, for instance, that Asia produced its first – and, surprisingly, only – Major champion when YE Yang carded rounds of 73, 70, 67 and 70 for an eight-under 280 at Hazeltine National Golf Club. And what an occasion it was. The Korean was ranked 460 in the world when he won his first PGA Tour event that year, the Honda Classic. But that third-round 67, the lowest of the day, moved him into a tie for second, two shots behind Woods.
Bearing in mind that the then 33-year-old Woods had won 47 of 50 events when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead, and hadn’t lost an outright lead after the third round since he was a 20-year-old, the bookies had stopped taking bets on the winner.
As for Yang, the son of a vegetable farmer on the island province of Jeju-do, he hadn’t broken par until he was 22. He was now, in 2009, a 37-year-old going nowhere particularly fast.
But what unfolded was stunning, as Yang hunted down the Tiger. One clubhouse attendant who was near a locker-room TV down the stretch said, ‘You have no idea how many players were down here cheering Yang on, guys jumping up and down on the couch just to see Tiger finally get beat.’
Yang told the media, ‘You never know in life. This might be my last win as a golfer.’
It wasn’t. Although Yang – these days floating just under 500 in the world – didn’t win again in the US, he did continue his 2009 form into 2010, winning the China Open and Korean Open. But his only Major championship has been one of those for golfing folklore.
The PGA Championship has also not been that kind to South Africans over the years. Gary Player did win it twice, in 1962 and 1972, but that’s where the success stopped, a drought lasting 45 years.
It is also one of only two Majors Ernie Els has missed since 1994. Back in 2005 he was ranked No 3 in the world, but missed the tournament after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament when his body twisted on the knee while on a sailing holiday with his family in the Mediterranean.
It was unfortunate timing, as the South African was considered one of the favourites, due to his lofty ranking and the fact he’d already won three times that year.
So, who will rise to the top this time? Using a pin while blindfolded to find the winner might be more reliable than the rankings and form guide, if history repeats.
– This article first appeared in the August issue of Compleat Golfer