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The PGA Championship: Glory's Best Shot for most everyone
In the 89 previous PGA Championships, 31 former champions claimed the famed Wanamaker Trophy as their only major. Perhaps that is why PGA.com contributor Jay Flemma -- and many others -- say the season's final major shouldn't be called "Glory's Last Shot," but "Glory's Best Shot."
By Jay Flemma, Special to PGA.com
The PGA Championship has adopted a slogan: "Glory's Last Shot." I've never seen the need to brand this august tournament, because the golf runs from the dramatic to the sublime. In fact, Fox broadcaster Steve Czaban once said that the PGA was second only to the Masters in terms of major championship excitement.
Perhaps the PGA is more appropriately referred to as "Glory's Best Shot," because of all the majors, it is the tournament that feels the most comfortable to the rank-and-file tour player. Almost uniformly, it is played on a parkland course with a setup similar to what players face each week. With the PGA Championship producing more players that have only one career major than any of the other majors -- 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 15. Some believe the course setup -- the rough, the fairway width and the speed of the greens -- and the accompanying comfort zone, allow the rank-and-file player to proceed with their game plan just like they would during a normal week on the PGA Tour. Look at this partial 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, Bob Tway and Jerry Barber. That's not exactly a murderer's row or a list of Hall of Famers.
Last year, Padraig Harrington confirmed that the setup and the familiarity of the course to the typical tour stop 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," Harrington 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."
There is a wild card this year, however. In his novel Slim and None, author Dan Jenkins described Oakland Hills' South Course, host to six prior U.S. Opens and two previous PGA Championships, as "the toughest course ever designed by man, ghoul, or Robert Trent Jones." For many decades, Jones was the most recognized golf architect in the world, but not everyone raved about his penal designs. Many believe his penal, centerline-only courses were too hard. "Hey Trent," joked Jimmy Demeret, "I saw a course you'd really like. You stand on the first tee and take a penalty drop."
A 'Monster" is Born
Oakland Hills was the face that launched a thousand lost golf balls. In preparation for the 1951 U.S. Open -- won by Ben Hogan with a Sunday 67 that was "Miller's 63" before there even was a Johnny Miller or a 63 -- the club directors gave Jones one brief, clear mandate in renovating Donald Ross's 1917 masterpiece: create the toughest course the players had ever encountered.
Jones obliged, seemingly gleefully. When a player reached for a club, Jones wanted any club but the driver to come out. He wanted "double-target golf," so he wasp-waisted all the fairways right where a driver would land. Balls even slightly off line would be swallowed by deep rough. He added 70 bunkers. Factor in the myriad of trees, undulating fairways, and fiendishly severe green contours, and everyone screamed "uncle," even Hogan, who admitted it was a "monster." In '51, no player broke par the first round and the scoring average that day was 78.4. That year, the par-4 14th played 480 yards, and no one made a birdie there all week.
Unfortunately, that became the archetypal Jones design or restoration and led to two generations of target-golf courses being built.
"Oakland Hills made Robert Trent Jones who he is," said one venerable local sportswriter. Some writers took more pointed position. Oakland Hills was the precursor of what we see now -- renovating every golf course to deal with new equipment technology. "Who in 1917 imagined that Ross's course would revolutionize tournament golf, but not necessarily for the better," wrote golf writer John Gordon. He dubbed the 1951 version of Oakland Hills as "the birthplace of target golf."
Nevertheless, the South Course's birth was steeped in great history. Donald Ross designed the South Course over 400 acres of rolling farmland. Jones wrote in his autobiography, "Ross' great greens, with their crowns, swales, terraces, and slopes, were large enough and needed little revamping." They continue to confound players for nine decades. The iconic former PGA Champion Walter Hagen was the club's first golf professional, although he only lasted one year. The 1922 Western Open, a major back then, was the first championship played on the South Course. Mike Brady, the host professional that year, won the event.
Major Surprises at Oakland Hills
Since then, at major championships the course has seen three true giants as winners, two good players, and three absolute flukes. In 1924, unknown Cyril Walker bested Bobby Jones by three shots. That was a bolt from the blue.
Next, Sam Snead played his first U.S. Open in 1937, and was the favorite. He finished 72 holes at 283, one stroke over the Open record aggregate at that time. He was standing around accepting congratulations when Ralph Guldahl raced around the front nine in 33, and then finished with a closing 69 for an aggregate of 281. Guldahl won a total of three majors, including back-to-back Opens, but the total is six in four years if you include his three Western Open wins.
After Hogan won in '51, the Open returned 10 years later and crowned as its champion Gene Littler, a good player but not a truly great one. People felt the same way about David Graham, the 1979 PGA Champion, who defeated the heavily favored Ben Crenshaw in a three-hole sudden death playoff.
"Crenshaw was the golden boy hadn't won a major, but that year he lost his first shot at winning one," explained quintessential Detroit sportswriter Varten Kupelian. "Ben was a great putter, but Graham's putter won the playoff. Nobody thought David would make a 25-foot putt on first extra hole to extend the playoff, let alone the twisting 20-footer for birdie he made on the par-3 third to win."
Indeed, since '51, the only Hall of Famer to win at Oakland Hills was Gary Player at the 1972 PGA, where he hit an incredible 9-iron on the iconic 16th hole to 3 feet after pushing his drive into the gnarly rough near the willow trees and pond guarding the knee of this murderously tight dog-leg right par-4.
The last two major winners have been downright zany. Czaban wrote, "the entire 1985 U.S. Open should be stricken from the record books completely," as a statistical outlier and a deadly bore. Unknown Taiwanese player T.C. Chen not only led the Open for three days, but was running away with it before taking the now infamous quadruple-bogey 8, where he double-hit a greenside chip for a two-stroke penalty. His four-shot lead vanished in a heartbeat like a rabbit in a conjuring trick. Andy North, who won a grand total of three tournaments in his PGA Tour career -- but two of them U.S. Opens -- held off Chen -- now known forever as "Two-Chip" instead of "Tse-Chung" -- and a bunch of career bit players like Dave Barr and Denis Watson. The real star that year was the golf course, which confounded everyone by playing harder than the previous years' Opens at Winged Foot, Oakmont, Pebble Beach, Merion, Baltusrol, Inverness, and Cherry Hill respectively. Even par was the winning score.
Finally, Steve Jones, another perennial also-ran during his career, somehow found the same magic as Walker and North. He finished as the leader in the clubhouse, but not on the scoreboard. Both Tom Lehman and Davis Love III were ahead by one when Jones finished. But both Love and Tom Lehman made bogeys to fall out of the lead and let him back into the title.
"Love had 15-footer for birdie to win the whole thing" explained Kupelian, "and three-putted and lost the chance to force a playoff." Similarly, Tom Lehman needed par at the 72nd to tie Jones, but drove into a fairway bunker and bogeyed. "It was a bunker he didn't think he could get to off the tee, and which nobody had reached all week," Kupelian stated energetically, recalling the shock he and every writer and fan felt as, inexplicably, Lehman did the impossible. Never underestimate the adrenaline. With the pressure of trying to win what would have been his first major, he was all jacked up, for a golfer.
The Long and No Short of It
With the length of the golf course, adrenaline may not be a bad thing. Look at some of these bloated yardages: the par-3 ninth is 257 yards, the par-4 14th is 505, the 15th is 460 and has a cross-bunker to carry or lay up short of, the par-3 17th is 237 uphill, and the par-4 18th, usually a par 5 for members, plays 497. But length is not the only defense, for the fairway contours and bunkering are employed strategically as well.
Take for example the par-4 10th, which Kapelian called the best hole on the course. "It's a terrific par-4 with a sloping fairway and a large crowned green. Bobby Jones played it 6 over that week and that's why Walker beat him." Also, don't overlook the difficulty presented by the 11th, a 457-yard, par-4 with a big saddle in left of fairway. Players must drive 290 to carry it. If they are successful, then the ball filters to the 150-yard marker. If, however, they don't carry the saddle, the approach is 200 yards in, to a tiny green with a gargantuan false front. Additionally, 505-yard, par-4 14th hole has a green sloping front to back. Try stopping a long iron or hybrid on that consistently.
There are a few holes where players can be aggressive, most notably the short par-3 13th. The front of the green is a bowl and, for certain, the flag will be there at least one day. Players will take dead aim at it and we may see a hole-in-one or two. For the 2004 Ryder Cup, fans camped out for hours on that hole in hopes of seeing an ace and the fan popularity may spur the bowl to be used during the weekend.
Still, 13 is the exception, not the rule. Players must carry the deep and dangerous cross bunker at 15, or have a long shot into a narrow green encircled by deep bunkers. Sixteen features rough, water, and trees all within reach of a driver. Seventeen is a brutally long par-3 and is surrounded by penal bunkers, some of which are so deep, players can't see the flag when playing their shots. Eighteen is a par-5 transparently masquerading as a par-4.
So that's Oakland Hills: a relentlessly tough course requiring pin-point accuracy on every shot. Here, the winner isn't always the player who makes the most good shots, but the one who makes the fewest mistakes. Perhaps Oakland Hills forces, indeed requires, defensive play, and perhaps that's why Oakland Hills often crowns good champions, but not great champions. Ralph Guldahl won instead of Sam Snead. David Graham won instead of Ben Crenshaw. Cyril Walker won instead of Bobby Jones. Steve Jones won instead of Davis Love and Tom Lehman. Andy North won instead of ... anyone else.
The course favors straight hitters over long-hitting superstars. It will play like Augusta National does now: long, tight, and rough covered with fast, undulating greens. Yes, you must be long, but more importantly the winner must be accurate and have a great short game. With difficulty on every stroke -- every drive, every approach, and every putt -- go with an American who hits it straight, perhaps Jim Furyk, who is straight and has a magical short game, or Padraig Harrington or Sergio Garcia, who have the most complete games of the Europeans and play best on the widest variety of courses. Unflappable Geoff Ogilvy should contend as well. But at Oakland Hills, who can tell? Some random name could just hang around until Sunday and -- oops! -- be atop the leaderboard after the happy accident of the event ending at the 72nd hole, instead of the 71st or 73rd.
It's ironic: in Slim and None, Jenkins's protagonist, a 45-year-old journeyman professional named Bobby Joe Grooves, wins his only major at Oakland Hills, just like some real-life players. Moreover, the PGA Championship is susceptible to "off-brand" winners, and Oakland Hills has seen some strange things. Andy North won here -- and only twice more in his life. Steve Jones won here, and most people couldn't pick Steve Jones out of a line-up of the Detroit Lions. So who's to say we won't see Briny Baird or Eric Axley or Boo Weekley lifting the Wanamaker Trophy come Sunday night? Without Tiger, it's a wide-open field at a course that favors no one.
It's Glory's Best Shot.