Embrace this imperfect PGA Championship; you’ll miss it when it’s gone

August 8, 2018

ST. LOUIS — Tuesday was a slog at the PGA Championship. Pros aimless milled about the clubhouse, making small talk in the locker room as sporadic rain showers saturated an already-soft Bellerive Country Club. Many players were antsy to get back out to study an unfamiliar course — Bellerive hasn’t been on Tour since 2008 — but were waylaid by multiple delays that dragged out their practice days for extra hours. Some retreated to their lodging, while others stayed to contest the rain and humidity. Most fans took the sticky conditions in stride, but tensions ran particularly high in one instance: two men jostling for Dustin Johnson’s autograph got into a full-blown fistfight.

Amidst it all, several pros seemed relieved to retreat to the interview room, although they had little to report about the golf course itself. “Today we only got in five holes and didn’t really get a chance to see a whole lot,” Tiger Woods told the assembled media. “I’ve only seen three of the greens,” Rory McIlroy echoed a short while later. “I haven’t seen the front nine yet, hopefully see it this afternoon if this rain holds off, but yeah, you just try to look at the yardage book,” said Brooks Koepka. With so much unknown, momentum seemed slow to build.

But it’s Tuesday, after all, and while hating on this edition of the PGA Championship seems particularly in vogue, I’d advise this: get excited! Forget the muddy practice rounds and the unknown, unexciting golf course and the weird spring-training vibe of pasty-calved players in shorts. It’s the dog days of summer in Missouri, but this is a major championship, dammit, and it’s the last one we’ll get for a while.

 

Limitless PGA Championship storylines

A little fresh perspective can get any golf fan invested in this competition. Majors make for the best stories, after all, and a cursory glance down a list of the world’s top-ranked players serves to remind just how much this week will mean to its winner. It starts at the top: World No. 1 Dustin Johnson has more wins than any other player on Tour in the last decade but holds just a single major championship; a second would elevate his status tremendously and cement himself as golf’s undisputed heavyweight champion. On the other hand, were Justin Thomas to defend his title, winning for the second consecutive week on Tour, he’d take over top dog status and likely lock up his second consecutive player of the year title.

There are plenty more. The enigmatic game of Rory McIlroy should find its comfort zone at the bomb-and-gouge shooting range that soggy Bellerive has become, and the Irishman is well aware of all our chatter — the talk that his game has been close but not quite there on some of the season’s biggest stages. “The only thing I haven’t done is win enough,” he said. “I’ve given myself a lot of chances.”

Then there are potential stories of missing pieces. Jordan Spieth could turn his entire topsy-turvy season into a roaring success; raising the Wanamaker would complete his set of Grand Slam titles. “This tournament will always be circled until I’m able to hopefully win it some day,” Spieth said. “It will always be circled to complete the career Grand Slam.” Beside Spieth in the world rankings is Rickie Fowler — the two have slipped to 8 and 9, respectively — and Fowler has even more to gain than his younger Ryder Cup teammate. Due to luck or coincidence or some intangible peculiarity of game or mind, Fowler hasn’t converted any of his spots in contention into major wins. He’s undoubtedly sick of answering the question about winning a major, and was mercifully spared a Tuesday presser where he’d have had to address the issue in several different diplomatic sentences.

 

The underdogs and the top dog

Just as likely as completing any neat storyline is, of course, a spoiler from the outside. Although the PGA professionals in the field are unlikely to make any sort of noise come Sunday, a host of competent pros are vying for the title with Ryder Cup implications on the mind, and with good reason: Keegan Bradley and Jimmy Walker are among those who have propelled their way onto U.S. squads by virtue of a PGA win in recent years. The bubble trouble is fascinating to watch, too, with Webb and Bryson and Xander and Kuchar and Finau and hard-charging Kyle Stanley among those in the mix for the final automatic spot.

Tiger PGA
Tiger Woods did his best to stay out of the rain on Tuesday at the PGA Championship.

And then, of course, there’s Tiger Woods — 51st in the world, 20th in Ryder Cup points — who reiterated his intention to play his way onto the U.S. squad with a top finish this week. At the moment, it feels unlikely. In the up-to-the-minute rollercoaster ride of evaluating Woods’s return, golf media seems collectively satisfied with a current description of Woods as “fatigued” and thus unlikely to contend.

They have evidence, too, citing this weekend’s 73-73 fugue, a decline in swing speeds and an inability to close out rounds in their most recent testimonials. “I wish I could figure that out,” Woods said, acknowledging his back nine struggles. “If I had an answer to it, I’d give it to you.” But many of those same media members left Woods’s career for dead less than a year ago and should be leery of the game’s greatest showman pulling out a final trick. A win for Woods would still mean the most of all.

 

Embrace the imperfection

These glorious possibilities come into conflict with the storyline that the PGA isn’t good enough to merit our attention. One thing is undeniable: compared with its peers, the PGA comes up short. But the artist formerly known as “Glory’s Last Shot” has been a vital part of the schedule for decades. It has changed entire careers, salvaged seasons and signaled rises to greatness, all in the shadow of the looming end of summer.

So let’s enjoy the the PGA for what it is while we can, before the move to May threatens its identity further (despite making plenty of sense). Anyone ready for Glory’s Second Shot? The drama of Bellerive is unlikely to be determined by the sogginess of the golf course or the speed of the greens but rather by the theater of the leaderboard as it unfolds. Golf at its best is a crowded Sunday leaderboard filled with twists and turns, subplots and mini-dramas.

So soak up all you can of this soggy fourth major. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.