The final men’s Major of the year – the PGA Championship – is upon us and when it comes to calling a winner it’s one of the most unpredictable of any tournament, writes GARY LEMKE in Compleat Golfer.
This time last year, it was all about Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, facing the media as they each prepared to appear in their 100th Major tournament.
The venue was Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, North Carolina,and the Major in question was The PGA Championship.
Els’ first Major came at the 1989 Open Championship, while Mickelson’s arrived at the following year’s US Open. They had become the 13th and 14th players to reach 100 Majors, a list that starts with Jack Nicklaus and his 164. He is followed by Gary Player, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer, Raymond Floyd, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw, Gene Sarazen, Tom Kite, Mark O’Meara, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo.
‘Phil has had a great time, winning five Majors. I’ve won four,’ Els told the gathering. ‘But we’ve been in the hunt many, many other times and it didn’t quite come off. But it’s a hell of a thrill. It’s what we play for, what we practise for. And you want to pull off great shots in the bigger stage.’
Both players could have, should have, won more, but standing between them and double-digit Major tallies was Tiger Woods. ‘Tiger arrived in 1997, and him winning The Masters in the way he did kind of threw me off a little bit,’ Els admitted. ‘I thought I was one of the top players, which I was, but that was a pretty special display of golf. I could have obviously won a couple more, but as Phil says, this guy was so special. He absolutely changed the game. He got us to elevate our games, brought so much attention to the sport and obviously a lot more dollars to play for. So we’ve got to thank him.’
We’ve also got to thank Els – one of South Africa’s sporting royalty – and Mickelson for what they gave to the game for over three decades. Both missed the cut at their 100th Major – Els recovering with a second-round 70 after an opening 80, but falling two shots short, while Mickelson was three behind that – but they added spice to the final Major of 2017.
This year it’s the turn of The PGA Championship to celebrate its centenary, the 100th instalment being held at the par-71 Bellerive Country Club in Missouri.
As a PGA winner (2005) Mickelson qualifies automatically for a spot in the 156-player field, although no such exemption applies to Els. South Africans haven’t had as successful a run at this Major as they have at the other three, with ‘only’ Gary Player (1962 and 1972) and our adopted Nick Price (1992 and 1994) winning in the century that the tournament has been held.
However, there have been positive signs that the times are a-changing. Last year Louis Oosthuizen finished in a group of three tied for second spot behind Justin Thomas, two shots back, on six under par. An eagle on the par-five 15th raised expectation that Oosthuizen could close on Thomas, but he immediately dropped a shot at the 16th and despite making birdie on his closing hole, he still ended up a couple short.
The year before (2016) Branden Grace strung together rounds of 70, 68, 66 and 67 to finish in a tie for fourth behind Jimmy Walker. At the time, every golf commentator in the world was predicting it would be a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the South African would join the winner’s circle of Major champions. It hasn’t happened, yet, but there is always hype, hope and expectation when Grace tees up and he gets another chance to try tobreak the duck in Missouri.
Recent history suggests that whoever comes out on top at Bellerive will be winning this particular Major for the first time. Nine of the last 10 champions have fitted that profile, with only Rory McIlroy winning twice (2012 and 2014) in that period. If one follows that trend, the punters among us will immediately draw a line through the winning chances of Thomas, Walker, Jason Day, Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Martin Kaymer, YE Yang and Padraig Harrington.
From a South African perspective, though, hands will be tightly clasped together that the Major drought dating back to Els winning the 2012 Open Championship is about to break. It isn’t getting any easier, but with Brandon Stone and Justin Harding winning in Europe and Asia respectively, the hope is that the likes of Oosthuizen, Grace and Charl Schwartzel will do something special on US soil.
One of the biggest upsets in championship history took place in 2009 when YE Yang became the first male Asian golfer to win a Major. He did it in dramatic fashion. Tiger Woods had entered the final round with a two-shot lead over Padraig Harrington and Yang. Woods had never surrendered a 54-hole lead at a Major championship. However, with a chip-in eagle at the par-four 14th, Yang claimed the lead. The South Korean put the final touch on his masterpiece with a gorgeous 210-yard approach shot at the 18th that stopped within 10 feet of the hole to set up a birdie to finish in style.
This will be the second time in its 100-year history that The PGA Championship will be held at Bellerive Country Club. The last time it was staged in St Louis, in 1992, Zimbabwe’s Nick Price won by three shots over John Cook, Nick Faldo, Jim Gallagher and Gene Sauers. The winning total was six-under 278. ‘I feel like I’ve gotten a monkey off my back, a big one,’ said Price. ‘So often in Major championships, I’ve been the one who made mistakes. The most important thing to me was to not make mistakes.’ And that will be key to whoever prevails in 2018. The course is challenging and its difficulty is best demonstrated by holes 14 through 16, known as ‘the Ridge’. All the holes on ‘the Ridge’ play into the prevailing southerly wind.
– This article first appeared in the August issue of Compleat Golfer, now on sale