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PGA Championship - Glory's Best Shot
Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the PGA Championship this week. Here's Jay's first report from Southern Hills.
Mysteriously, the PGA Championship has selected an incongruous, indeed tacky slogan to try to identify its idiom and set its reputation apart from the other majors. No other tournament brands itself, and "Glory's Last Shot" inspires fans even less than John Edwards does, no matter how much the focus groups try to tell us otherwise.
Nevertheless, the PGA Championship could be called "Glory's Best Shot" because of all the other majors and big tournaments on the professional golf calendar; it is the tournament that feels the most comfortable to the rank-and-file Tour player. With the PGA Championship producing more players that have only one career major than any other - even the U.S. Open, this is a player's best chance for a major breakthrough.
The PGA Championship has 31 winners who claimed it as their only major. In contrast, the U.S. Open has 22, the British Open 21 and the Masters a mere 14. While there is an enormous chasm between those who have won a major championship and those who have the talent to win one but haven't, the course set-up - the rough, fairway width and speed of the greens - and the accompanying comfort zone allow the rank-and-file player to proceed with his game plan just like they would during a normal week on the Tour. Look at this list of hunters who bagged their only big-game trophy at the PGA: Jeff Sluman, David Toms, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem, Mark Brooks, Steve Elkington, Wayne Grady, (WAYNE GRADY!), Bob Tway, and Jerry Barber.
That's not exactly a Murderer's Row or a list of Hall of Famers. In fact, even savvy golf fans might have a tough time picking some of these guys out of a lineup of Dizzy Gillespie's band. So why not expect to see Peter Hanson, Charley Hoffman, Stephen Leaney or Miguel Angel Jimenez holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday?
Padraig Harrington explained that the set-up and familiarity of the course will bring a lot more players into contention. "The courses [at the PGA Championship] are set up in a way to be not just fairer, but scoring tends to be lower in terms of par," he noted earnestly. "More players can feel comfortable when they are making birdies rather than just pars. So it tends, especially by the end of the week, there's a few more players in competition. You definitely have more people with a chance at the PGA," he finished with a knowing grin.
Harrington earned that grin. Like Zach Johnson and Angel Cabrera, he claimed his first major, winning this year's Open Championship by surviving Carnoustie. One reason we may see a fourth first-time major winner is that the PGA Championship doesn't restrict recovery shots to 60-degree lob wedges with 6-inch rough like the U.S. Open does. Instead of clamping a restrictor plate on the field, here the players can "cut their coat according to their cloth," as author Patrick O'Brian said about sea captains in battle. A player is not limited in what type of recovery shot to play - bump-and-run, pitch-and-check, putt from off the green, punch-and-backspin - the player can play to his individual strengths and his success or failure depends on execution or the lack thereof.
"There are some special shots available that are going to be really cool," remarked Phil Mickelson with his trademark friendly smile. "I liked the shaved parts behind several greens. This allows your short game to come out as well . . . with U.S. Open rough, there's no opportunity for guys to differentiate themselves. It's a 100-yard hack out of the rough and there's no skill in shotmaking. The PGA gives you a chance to get up and down around the greens. Guys can be aggressive and take chances on certain holes," he finished emphatically.
The rough is not only more forgiving around the greens, but all over the course. At a U.S. Open if you miss the fairway, it's chip out and do damage control. Take for example, the 2002 U.S. Open venue at Bethpage Black. The Black is set up with narrow fairways and vicious rough not only for when the Open is contested or when sportswriters come to visit on media day, but for everyday play. Weekend golfers in Greater New York City channel their inner Oakmont considerably. "We want a taste of what the U.S. Open is like every weekend," boasts Chuck Cordova, a "Sat-Sun" regular at the Black Course.
Cordova gets his wish. The rough at the Black is longer, thicker and features a stronger blade than the Bermuda rough at Southern Hills for the PGA Championship this week. The fairways are as slim as Petra Nemcova. The bands of rough lining the fairways are almost wider on either side than the fairway itself, yet weekend players gleefully line up for the slaughter with pride.
If you look closely enough, you can still see the bones and ghosts of sportswriters haunting the course. Mark Cannizzaro of the New York Post is still somewhere over in the fescue between the 15th and 16th holes wondering why the heck he couldn't be at Jets training camp. Larry Fine of Reuters is still helplessly hoping his Hogan ball hovers nearby in grass to the right of No. 10. (That gnarly escarole looks more like the grasses of the Serengeti Plains where lions hide to stalk prey). Golf architecture writer Bill Vostinak is still looking for his Pro V-1 in the spinach on nine like he's hunting Private Ryan and, yes, with the right kind of eyes, you can see me flogging away at a Maxfli Noodle in the trees between Nos. 1 of the Black and the Green Courses like Captain Jack Aubrey whipping a wayward sailor aboard the H.M.S. Surprise. (That's a "Master and Commander" reference for those of you scoring at home.)
But that's the enormous difference between the U.S. Open and the PGA - playability and birdie ops. The blade of the Bermuda grass is thinner and holds less moisture. The rough is a full 2 inches shorter and is thinner here in Oklahoma as compared to Oakmont, Winged Foot or even Pinehurst. One club pro said, "I can get it out and advance it around 150 yards. It's not the U.S. Open where you must pitch back to the fairway, but it's hit or miss. With the thin blade, the ball sinks to the bottom and then it all depends on if it's long and on the thicker side or shorter and thinned out or trampled."
U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera agreed. "When you go into the rough, you have a chance to go for the green sometimes. Last week [at Firestone] you never had a chance to go for the green when you went into the rough." Cabrera, now the patron saint of bomb and gougers after firing a 69 on Sunday at Oakmont while hitting only a mind-boggling five fairways, knows something about turning tough rough on its ear. That's the stat of a man who shoots 79, not 69. If he can tame Oakmonster and bite Tiger, he can do exactly the same thing. Nevertheless, so can every other grinder.
Take Zach Johnson, for instance. The pride of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has a healthy respect for the rough, but that's Zach's game. Be respectful, humble and grateful - just like golfers like their champions. "You've got to hit the ball in the fairway, bottom line. The rough's not terribly long, but your ball might sit up in the rough once for the four days. It's very penal. It drops straight to the bottom." Johnson will have less of that problem since the fairways are wider and will encourage more drivers than were played at the 2001 U.S. Open.
That means players won't be walking on eggshells so much as tiptoeing around a minefield of double-bogeys, and confidence is a huge advantage. To win a major, you have to believe you can succeed. At the PGA, it's easy to believe because the tournament setup and the surrounding hullabaloo are not too unlike the rest of the year.
The Master is such a holy, hallowed place the aura of Augusta can be too intimidating. At the Players Championship, Sawgrass can wreak havoc on your mental state. At the U.S. Open, the difficulty takes players out of their practice regimens and comfort zone. It's the hardest to win, but it's the easiest to back into. The British Open is so different due to the nature of links courses and wind that it again resembles nothing like the tournaments the rest of the year. But the PGA is familiar territory, a comfort zone. "Every single player in the field has a chance to win. That's probably one of the reasons why you have three different winners this year. That definitely can happen again," said Angel Cabrera.
Like Cabrera, Johnson survived the crucible of winning his first major with Tiger Woods sharpening his claws right behind him. When asked if he'd rather have Tiger out of contention or in the mix, Johnson replied, "I think I would. I want to win regardless of the situation, but knowing you're going head-to-head with the best player . . . I'd want to have him there, whether I win or lose. It's just going to make me better in the end."
Now everyone else has the chance to do exactly the same thing. The bullet's in the chamber, the finger's on the trigger. Clubs are blazing in the sun from hilt to hosel. It's glory's best shot. Now comes the time to finish the job. Sure, there are some club pros here for photo ops and stories for the grandkids. But aside from a score of journeymen whacking about the place - slashing and chunking and three-jacking all over Perry Maxwell's course as though it were anywhere near as flat and forgiving as Sunriver Resort - all the rest of the field knows they have more than just a puncher's chance.
Sure, Tiger looks a prohibitive favorite, impregnable to even the casual slings and arrows. Being continually outshone is an occupational hazard of being his contemporary. But having to cross those swinging rope bridges spanning the chasm is part and parcel of winning a major. Dissipation of energy, fragmentation of vision, loss of momentum, lack of follow through - those are the vices of lesser people, of people who never become champions.
The clubs, caddie and yardage book are only as good as the player, and the player is only as good as his head. Putting is the same way. "All the skill in maneuvering a ship to within range of the enemy was of little use if the great guns could not hit them hard and fast." With confidence brimming in each competitor and with a setup that gives the slightest of nods to each player, it's glory's best shot. Carpe diem, gentlemen.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.