Now, that was some PGA Championship. One of the best PGAs in years, right up there with the top-16 that made the CBS playoff bracket that the network highlighted all week.
Winner Brooks Koepka proved himself an incredibly focused player, one with the strength to hold up under the pressure without flinching while being chased by the likes of Tiger Woods, Adam Scott and Justin Thomas. Maybe Koepka is bionic. He’s certainly impervious to pressure. And as we saw when he holed out on the last green ahead of playing partner Scott, Koepka seems oblivious to the moment. Maybe that’s what it takes these days to screen out the media, 45,000 screaming fans and thoughts of a third major win in 14 months.
On the basis of three days on the grounds and three more watching coverage of the event, here are my four takeaways from the 2018 PGA Championship:
1. Golf is more interesting when Tiger Woods competes.
He’s simply amazing. At his age, 42. After four back surgeries. To hit iron shots like he did all week and as he did when he needed to produce on Sunday. It’s fine to have a gang of 20-something millionaires like Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Thomas competing as if they were fraternity brothers. But Woods brings a level of athleticism and grit that transforms a golf tournament into a drama theater. He might not be able to bring people out to play golf, but he certainly draws fans to watch him on the course, on the internet and on TV. The crowds were transfixed by him all week, as they are on no other golfer.
2. The PGA of America put on a helluva show.
For years, the professional trade group of club professionals has languished in reputation. No more. What they achieved at Bellerive was spectacular – creating a football stadium for the week, one full of spectator interaction like nothing we have seen in that or any other major.
The course was outfitted with a 3-acre esplanade framing the driving range. It became a gathering point for thousands of spectators. The entrance/exit ramps brought folks right there, alongside an acre-large merchandise tent that was humming all week.
Kerry Haigh, the PGA of America’s senior director of competitions, said it best during a press conference when asked what he thought of some of the missteps committed by the USGA and R&A in their championship setups. He didn’t answer directly; he simply said, “we want the players to be the story.” They were all week, and spectators had access to them thanks to an ideal circulation system throughout the golf course that allowed throngs ten-deep to follow elite groups and get around – or to rest under trees and park themselves within easy access of refreshments. In short, Bellerive provided it an ideal venue for fans and players alike.
3. Bellerive Superintendent Carlos Arraya occupies a unique position in the industry in terms of the confidence, thoughtfulness and respect he commands – and conveys.
Part of letting the players be the story was not letting the golf courses get in the way. Arraya, his staff and the volunteers who helped them from throughout the profession did an astonishing job making up for perennially weak greens. In what should be a case study in agronomic crisis management, Arraya decided a month before the championship to replace all of the struggling zoysia greens collars with Bermudagrass. He and his staff punched those collars in, ironed them out and made sure they played seamlessly. The results by the weekend were remarkable. So, too, were the quality of putting surfaces that these greens produced, despite a frigid spring followed by a torrid summer. For the last two months before the PGA, Bellerive members were relegated to temporary greens when temperatures exceeded 90 degrees. Concerns during practice rounds about greens on the verge of collapse did not materialize. The surfaces proved fine. Arraya did an amazing job keeping Bellerive’s greens out of the headlines and letting the players be the story.
4. A Whole New Ball Game
Bellerive’s original course designer, Robert Trent Jones Sr., developed a catchy design motto to hype his own work, one that is proving increasingly irrelevant if it ever made any sense before: "A hard par but an easy bogey." To that end, he ignored classical design complexity (with its offset, scattershot bunkering style) for big, long, courses with the bunkers set on the side of ideal landing areas at a designed length. Needless to say, the work he did at Bellerive in 1960 grew outdated, and his son, Rees Jones, has been trying ever since to find that right formula of carry distance to catch the pros.
Well, that exercise is hopeless, as we saw all week. On Sunday, Koepka hit the 496-yard par-4 15th hole playing with driver/pitching wedge to 10 feet for a birdie. He followed it up on the 248-yard par-3 16th hole with a dead straight 4-iron to eight feet for another birdie. All week, it was standard to see players hit 2-iron off the tee and an 8-iron approach to a 450-yard par four. And when players did lay up on par fours, the biggest risk they faced was landing in a divot caused by all the other players laying up to the exact same point.
Players regularly reached the par fives – the 602-yard eighth hole and the 597-yard 17th – in two shots, often with irons for second shots. And this in wet conditions with relatively little roll all week. And it’s not just distance that’s the issue. It's also the precision of world-class players with a wedge or short iron in hand. In the second round, nobody in the field made a bogey on the 132-yard par-3 third hole. That has to be a first in major championship history.
Something is awry here. Which is to take nothing away from Koepka’s victory or the incredible drama of Sunday’s golf. But it does suggest that if you plan for finite skills in world-class golfers, they’ll find a way to out-power you. The trick in setting up championship courses is to provide variety, strategy, alternatives and different paths to the green. Dry playing surfaces help, But so do alternative routes in the journey to the hole.