PGA Championship at Oak Hill is fitting conclusion for old-school major season

PGA Championship at Oak Hill is fitting conclusion for old-school major season

Tiger Woods hits a shot into 18 at Oak Hill Country Club in Upstate New York, a classic, old-time course like the year's three previous major venues.
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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — This has been such an old-fashioned, starched-shirt, East Coast kind of golf year. Once again we’re awash in Barbicide. The murky blue liquid. The tall glass. The drowning long combs, suitable for Walter Hagen and nobody else.

Hagen, a Rochester boy, logged a lot of rounds at Oak Hill, and Oak Hill is a Barbicide kind of place if ever there was one. So is Merion. And so, of course, is Augusta National, another club growing grass in the Eastern time zone. Muirfield, about the oldest of the old, is on the East Coast of Scotland, where all this began.

If Judge Smails were writing the history of golf, you’d think this is how it goes every year, gathering for majors four times a year at very private, old-timey, East Coast clubs. That has been golf’s image ever since F. Scott Fitzgerald, that son of the Midwest, came East to Princeton and later wrote up Jordan Baker, amateur golf champion, in The Great Gatsby. He dropped in the specter of a cheating scandal in her career — what a touch.

But the fact is, with all the modern and public and Midwestern and Western courses in the rotation, golf years like this one are rare. Rare — and here comes that holy of holies — indeed!

By my reckoning, 1997 was the last time we did the Full Herb. (Tipping the cap here to the tweedy Herbert Warren Wind, a Bostonian and a Yalie and an Anglophile who tolerated New York and wrote his ageless prose on yellow legal pads). The tour dates for the ’97 concert series took you to Augusta (Tiger’s first major), Congressional outside D.C. for the U.S. Open (Ernie’s second national title), and to Winged Foot in New York, where Davis Love III snagged Glory’s Last Shot right out of the stormy air. (Electric!) The Open was at Troon on the West Coast of Scotland, wee Justin Leonard presiding. We’re gonna let that one in. You ever try to play Troon unaccompanied? It’s kinda fussy. Royal Troon, founded 1878 — you’re in.

But ’97 has nothing on ’13. We got venues this year, we got winners, we got it all! So far, this year’s East Coast parade has sent three gents to the podium, each quite different from the other. Adam Scott at Augusta. And didn’t the club coat look vaguely Bondian on him? Justin Rose at Merion. Hyper-articulate, hyper-precise, hyper-polite, and kind of hyper. And then Phil, of course, working the firm East Lothian turf, and, of course, the autograph lines, playing Julius Boros golf, trying out his Scots accent, taking it all in. Now there’s one more to go.

Between now and Sunday night, on these ancient tobogganing hills, a fourth player (unless we get a repeat) will announce himself. The guess is that another excellent candidate will rise to the occasion and hoist heavy metal, your Wanamaker Trophy.

You know the leading candidates. A PGA title for Jim Furyk would secure him a spot in the Hall of Fame and make him a certain future U.S. Ryder Cup captain. If the big jug went to Lee Westwood of England or Kiradech Aphibarnr from Thailand, you’d be cool with that, wouldn’t you? You do get good years for golf, just as you get good years for wines, and this feels like one, wrapping it up here, way up north in a region that’s loaded with good golf.

Since Hagen’s time and likely before, upstate New York has produced fabulous, unpretentious, meat-and-potato courses and golfers, public and private. Hockey is strong in upstate New York, blown in by those Canadian winds across the Niagara. (The golf swing and the hockey swing share so much DNA.) In the 1980s and ‘90s, there were three stalwarts of Tour life from upstate New York, all with homemade swings, distinct personalities and pleasant demeanors: Joey Sindelar, Mike Hulbert and Jeff Sluman.

Sindelar, 55, the son of a mailman (letter carrier), is from the upstate town of Horseheads. He is a two-time winner of the national championship of upstate New York, the B.C. Open, and as a young Tour player in the mid-1980s, another Ohio State guy, Jack Nicklaus, asked him to look at his swing.

Hulbert, also 55 and also from Horseheads, was an assistant captain last year for Love’s Ryder Cup team. Among his three Tour wins is a B.C. Open that is, all together now, the national championship of upstate New York.

Sluman, 55, is a Rochester boy who, of course, won the national championship of upstate New York, the B.C. Open. He won another national championship, too, the one the club pros put on, the one being played this week. In ’88, he won the PGA at Oak Tree.

At a dinner in England a few years ago, Tom Watson made an indirect reference to the hole in his professional life. He has five British Open titles, one U.S. Open and two green coats. But he has zero PGA Championships. (He does have one in the senior division.) He and Sluman discussed a trade by which Sluman would get two of Watson’s British Opens for Sluman’s one PGA. By the end of dessert, no deal had been consummated.

Jim Thorpe, a large man who has lived large, has logged a lot of horse-racing nights and golfing days in upstate New York, most particularly in Buffalo. You want to include him in this upstate conversation, but you know his roots and his heart seem to be in North Carolina, where he grew up. Don’t get me wrong: he’s a fabulous player and he’s won a lot. He played beautifully early at Merion, at the Open there in ’81.

But in addition the North Carolina matter, he has another issue, a resume problem, just like Watson. J.T. never won B.C. Nope, he never won the national championship of upstate New York, played at a public course in Endicott.

I once worked with a woman who sold a family home in Buffalo to Thorpe, which Jim was buying for his mother. He showed up at closing with a suitcase filled with cash. Walter Hagen would have loved the guy. That may not be how business is done at Merion, but the East Coast is a big place. Upstate New York is like its own country. And here we are.