The PGA Championship brings some feelings of ambivalence for me for the designation of this tournament as a “major.” On one hand, it’s a championship that features the best players in the world taking dead aim at being the best in their craft. Scores are usually very low as the course setups are made for a double digit below par finishes. On the other hand, you would think that a major championship should test the professional player’s abilities in all facets of the game. The Championship turns out to be a competition between player against player instead of really beating the golf course. The golf course is going to be beaten-it’s just a matter of how much. Venues such as this week at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis are usually always played in hot humid weather. More often than not, play is usually interrupted (as it was this year) by a thunderstorm in these hot and humid conditions which softens the greens promoting the birdie fest that will follow the storms as the players can take dead aim at the pins with impunity. The TV coverage is pretty good thanks to the effort of Nick Faldo who gives the broadcast significant credibility offsetting the droning Jim Nance and the obnoxious Gary McCord. Coverage on TNT that precedes the national broadcast on CBS is very good with a fine team of experienced golfers such as Bill Krazert that add value and insight to the event. This year the “tracer” technology that follows the players ball flight was taken to the driving range so you can witness how the players warm up. Tiger Woods smacked every drive in his warmup 300 yards straight down the middle which illustrates that even the professional has to make a transition from the driving range to the golf course. (like the rest of us)
Leaderboards are usually chock full of the best players in the game. This year was no exception and after a few years absence, Tiger Woods was in contention to try to claim his first major in his comeback and his 5th PGA Championship. It seems that almost all the best players in the game are in contention with the exception of Phil Mickelsen who missed the cut. The leaderboard boasted the 2017 Champion, Justin Thomas, Adam Scott, Rickie Fowler and a host of others to chase the leader Brooks Koepka. The Final Round produced a lot of excitement but it didn’t come from the pack. One by one, all of them faded away for one reason or another. The biggest reason is that Brooks Koepka didn’t allow it to happen. He was not going to go backwards–you were going to have to go forward. The only person that really went forward was Tiger Woods.
Tiger played with extreme focus as we’ve hadn’t seen in a long time. He seemed to have taken the good play at the Open Championship to another level. It was clear that he was summoning all of his skills to get to the top of the leaderboard. In the past, when he was winning major championships, the competition was fading away and could not compete with his determination and his demeanor. Woods knows he has lost this “intimidation” factor to the new breed of golfers who spend 90 minutes in the gym before playing, belt it over 300 yards and cheer each other on to bring competition in the game to another level. Nevertheless, Woods played extremely well and shot 64 and it could have even been better. He had a putt that refused to drop for birdie with the ball leading over the hole. I was reminded of Justin Thomas’ situation in 2017 when such a putt dropped in after about 8 seconds propelling him to victory. Woods simply could not control his driver and missed most of the fairways on the front nine. On the third hole, which is a short par 4, Woods missed the fairway and the ball was nearly in the hazard with an awkward side hill lie. No problem, his wedge shot landed a few feet away from the hole for a birdie where a par would have been quite good. This situation occurred on many holes as Woods continued to drive it in the rough or worse left and right only to recover and make birdie or par with spectacular iron play. He also converted many putts that were necessary to make those birdies and pars and stay in contention. He made par on 17 after almost driving the ball in the water off to the right of the tee. He simply didn’t give up as he closed the round with a great birdie putt on 18 to finish second alone at 14 under par.
The word of the day was echoed by Brooks Koepka. The word “surreal” came to his mind as he described the day’s events and how he was able to march to victory. Koepka grew up watching Woods compete and win these major titles and now he was competing against him in a major event. Koepka seemed to have nerves of steel as his focus was relentless as he executed shot after shot including a number of short putts for birdies or pars. He hit a magnificent 4 iron on the 248 yard par 3–yes a 4 iron–to within 7 feel and then holed the putt for a birdie that would put in the lead again which he would not give up. He hit some terrific and difficult iron shots on the back nine and missed 2 very makable putts for birdie that might sowed things up early. Perhaps missing those 2 putts was equal to Tiger’s misses of 2 putts. Woods persevered to the end birdieing the last hole as if to tell Koepka, “You better not make mistakes coming in.” Koepka was not about to make any mistakes and he parred the last two holes to walk away with a 2 shot victory. It was Koepka’s second major victory of the year and his third major victory overall which places him in some elite company in the history of championship golf.
Woods proved that he was indeed back and has now leapt from +1000 in the world to 26th in one year. He is a legitimate Captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup and his new demeanor and dedication to the game would be a huge plus for an American team that has found a camaradie of good young players. One thing is for sure–he will be a factor at the Master’s in 2019 but for him to win, he will have to stomp this new group of elite players–Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Speith, Ricky Fowler and a host of others. The crowd and TV audience was certainly pulling hard for Tiger….viewership was up 70% over last year. Tiger is indeed BACK!