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PGA Championship 2016: Lessons From Baltusrol

Photo: Carlos M. Saavedra for Sports Illustrated

The 17th hole at Baltusrol has been an absolute bear, even for the long-hitting pros of the PGA Tour.

The Big Three came up short, while another first-timer added his name to the roll of champions. From Phil's pizza joint, to a diminished 63, our staff recaps what stood out at Baltusrol. 

The 649-Yard Hell March

How long does it take to walk the 649-yard brute that is the par-5 17th at Baltusrol?

Well, it’s sooooooooo long, I can write this story in the time it takes me to stride from tee to green—in 90° heat—at 10:18 a.m. on Thursday following Phil, Rory and Jason.

And wow, Phil just yanked one off the tee. Fore right!

O.K., here we go.

The 17th is long—the fourth-longest hole in major history—but it’s great for spectating. A balcony frames the entire left side, which is the home of the merchandise tent and some corporate tents.

Phil gouges his ball back into the fairway but isn’t able to advance it far. Day lays up out of the fairway bunker, and Rory does the same from the fairway.

Onward.

Here comes Phil again, from the rough just in front of the cross bunkers. Did I mention it is 90°? Phil hits a hybrid and looks like he’s on the green or over it. We’ll see. The green seems like it’s still a train ride away.

Day is deciding what club to hit from about 115 yards. He sticks it. He’s one under and could be in good shape at the turn—this group started on 10—with another par-5 coming up on 18.

Rory, I must say, has picked an odd yardage to lay up to. He is about 50 paces out, but employing a three-quarters swing with a wedge, he knocks it tight. What do I know?

I walk by a leader board, and it tells me that Jimmy Walker is leading at four under, and Stuard—Brian, right? (Fact check: yes)—is three under. I wonder how these names will have held up by the time you read this.

Phil is over the green and needs to get up and down for par, but his chip is so average that he is still away. Sorry for second-guessing you, Rory! I crouch behind a hill right of the green, so the spectators can see, and also so these Jersey folks don’t get rough with me. Their reaction says Phil has made his par, and Rory is next. He misses. Man, he’s missed a lot of putts already today. Day up now to finish this off. He misses.

Three pars. The crowd around the 18th tee erupts as the marquee group looms, and I reach the back of the green at 10:38 a.m.— 20 minutes and, let me check my phone, 927 steps later.

A 14-notebook-page, 429-word hole!? I miss par-3s.

—Josh Berhow

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All In The Family

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Saturday at a major championship. To most, it’s Moving Day. But to me, Saturday at Baltusrol was Bring Your Family to Work Day.

Inviting my mother and father and boyfriend to the PGA Championship was a three-for-one deal: a 2015 Father’s Day gift come to fruition, a belated birthday celebration for Mom and a mini two-year work anniversary party for me. My boyfriend was just thrilled to be here for the golf.

For months, my dad agonized over the parking, hotels and logistics. As we monitored the forecasts, my heart sank. On Saturday, months of planning were washed away by torrential downpours. We got five holes in before rushing for cover.

Dejected and soaked, we found comfort in a nice dinner together. We devised a plan to tackle the course on Sunday, no matter the weather, my family intent on seeing as much golf as possible. Alarm clocks went off at 6 a.m.

By some miracle (thank you, golf gods!), the thunderstorms that were expected to ruin our day dissipated as the hours passed my dad and boyfriend taking in one, two, three hours of golf before the first weather warning of the day. At that point, they went to pick up my mother, and vowed to return if the rain let up.

“No way this is going to finish on Sunday,” was the consensus of most spectators, who were dismayed at the prospect of having to head home without seeing a winner crowned.

But finish on Sunday the tournament did. My family found a spot on top of the hill adjacent to the clubhouse on 18 and watched Rickie Fowler, Jordan Spieth, Adam Scott, Jason Day and, finally, Jimmy Walker putt out to roars and hands flying through the air. My boyfriend was tickled that everything worked out perfectly. My parents, who had never been to a tournament, were awed by the “larger-than-life characters” and the feats they were accomplishing mere feet in front of them. And while Walker’s hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy was itself a highlight, Day’s eagle was the high point all around.

I returned to work before that, duty calling. But it was enough to hear the roars from the media center and know my family was witnessing history. I have a feeling it won’t be long before I get another request for Bring Your Family to Work day. Let the planning begin.

—Marika Washchyshyn

Back On The Beem

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The crowd to the right of and above the 5th green created a pocket, and Rich Beem walked into it. He eyed his ball, on a sodden patch of mud.

“Just mark it and throw it anywhere?”

The crowd tittered as Beem looked up inquiringly at the rules official, who said no. Beem drew the club back, made solid contact and watched his ball land on the fringe and trickle into the hole. Bedlam. The pocket collapsed on Beem and his caddie, New Jersey’s own Joe Damiano.

“All I could think about was the guy behind me with the light blue shirt and the beer,” Beem said. “I was like, I’m going to high-five that guy first because I asked him to move, and he did. And then I just kind of enjoyed it and went monkey-nuts with everybody else.”

Back in the day, Beem was known as the former cell phone salesman who led the Tour in letting the good times roll. He also had a ton of game.

These days he has no status on any tour, and he barely even practices. He had no tour bag, few endorsements and surely no hope when he got to Balty. He got into the field as a former PGA champ and scored a set of PXG clubs. When the rep tried to bill his credit card, the $2,800 charge was rejected. (After PXG told Beem it would be taken care of, he gave his eternal gratitude for not having to explain the charge to his wife.)

But Beem, 45, came to Baltusrol with a secret. On a trip to Skibo Castle in Scotland he’d gotten a tip from the head pro to widen his swing. It worked. His wife’s uncle, an orthopedic surgeon, treated his shoulder tendinitis. That worked too. He shot an opening-round 69, positioning himself to make the cut for the first time since 2012.

He didn’t really make noise, though, until his chip-in on Sunday, an echo of the day he electrified the golf world in turning back Tiger Woods and everyone else to win the 2002 PGA at Hazeltine.

Older, wiser, shorter off the tee, the Beemer signed for a final-round 71, finishing four over par and miles behind Jimmy Walker. But he pocketed $17,450, and he authored an unforgettable highlight. “I think they were looking for a reason to kind of lose their mind for a few minutes,” Beem said, “and I’m glad I could provide that opportunity.”

He laughed and headed inside to change shirts and shoes, and have a bite and a beer (“I earned it”) before returning to the course as an analyst for Sky Sports. He’ll be 50 in less than five years; until then, he’s not quitting his day job.   

—Cameron Morfit

Our Perks Runneth Over

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There was a massage parlor in the media center at Baltusrol last week. For just $1 a minute (all major credit cards accepted!), aching scribes could burrow their sweaty brows into a padded massage table and have their knots, if not their buried ledes and split infinitives, kneaded out by a licensed therapist. Massages, you’re thinking—what a bunch of prima donna sissies!

But that’s unfair. Over several long, hard days in sweltering Springfield, N.J., we ink-stained, Twittering wretches had to endure a workspace with overactive air conditioning, freezers loaded with an assortment of delicious ice-cream bars (thanks for ruining our beach figures, PGA of America!), and don’t even get me started on the 2013 Mouton Cadet Bordeaux on offer at the media bar. Everyone knows 2012 was a superior vintage.

Here’s what I’m driving at: Covering a big-time tournament in 2016 can feel downright gluttonous. And we’re not just talking about the Polo golf shirt gifted to every writer, the dessert table in media dining (gooey brownies and strawberries? Don’t mind if I do!), or the bomb-sniffing German shepherd at the entrance. (In all my years in the business I’ve never felt safer over my MacBook Pro.)

Also impressive was the arsenal of reporting tools at our disposal—from massive monitors displaying hole-by-hole scores of the field, to flat-screens beaming in post-round interviews, to ThinkPad laptops armed with every stat you could ever need, and some you would never need. Every writer also was provided with a handheld radio that transmitted audio from the telecast, the SiriusXM broadcast, even the interview room (in case you didn’t feel up to making the 10-second walk from your work station).

Sometimes I wonder what previous generations’ writers, such as the great Herbert Warren Wind, would have made of our modern conveniences. When the tweed-coated one was on the beat, he paced the fairways with his trusty binoculars, talked to players in rickety press tents (that were actual tents) and spent weeks poring over his notebooks to produce voluminous dispatches for the pages of SI and The New Yorker. Surely Wind would scoff at our real-time stats feeds, jumbo monitors and ice-cream bars. But after a long walk on a hot day even he might not be able to resist a massage.

—Alan Bastable

Another 63? Ho-Hum!

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The number 63 has lost its magic. I’m not blaming Robert Streb, even though he was the last straw for me on Friday at Baltusrol. I’m not blaming Royal Troon, which gave up 63s to Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson a few days apart. I’m not even blaming Hiroshi Iwata, who posted a 63 a year ago at Whistling Straits even though, in all honesty, I didn’t know his name at the time.

Sixty-three was stunning when Johnny Miller did it with persimmon and balata. At Oakmont, of all places (with softened greens). In the final round of the U.S. Open. To win.

Sixty-three was crazy when Nick Price shot it at the 1986 Masters and lipped out for 62 on the last hole, blaming the ghost of Bobby Jones for giving his ball the Dikembe Mutombo rejection treatment. Lloyd Mangrum’s Augusta National course record of 64 had stood, remarkably, since 1940.

We have now seen 30 rounds of 63 in a major. It’s a great score. Let me repeat: a great score. But advances in technology and equipment and agronomy and fitness have devalued the 63. Golf meets deflation.

Streb and Iwata and the rest rip apart any course that doesn’t have big winds or is stupidly tricked up. Streb’s round was nice, but par wasn’t really 70 at Baltusrol, it was closer to 68. The pro game is getting away from us. We’ve seen 20 under par win the British Open and last year’s PGA. We saw 19 under at the 2015 Masters, before Jordan Spieth slipped back to win at 18 under. And Rory McIlroy crushed Congressional’s U.S. Open layout at 16 under and won by eight. The lowest major scores of all-time have happened within five years.

The modern game and the arrival of the 330-yard drive as commonplace are rendering golf history obsolete, not to mention many layouts. Bobby Jones played a completely different game with hickory shafts. Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player played a different game with persimmon woods and balata balls. How much longer before we have to say that golf from the Tiger Woods era is nothing like what’s being played now?

Miller’s 63 has stood the test of time. There is a 61, a 60 or even a 59 coming to a major in our future. The game is far too easy for the pros when 380-yard drives are no longer just for Happy Gilmore. Square grooves have been banned. So has anchored putting. Drivers have COR and MOI limits.

Only the ball remains unchanged. Hello? Is anybody home at the USGA? Anybody? Bueller?

—Gary Van Sickle

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