For the first time ever, golf saved its best major till last.
This year’s first three majors might have been the most soporific trio in golf history. They were like getting new underwear for Christmas. Three times. Whoop-de-doo.
April saw Bubba Watson wrap up the Masters before he reached the tenth tee on Sunday. The gravity of the situation had already consumed his only challenger, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who was making his first appearance as a major contender.
So much for the Masters beginning on the back nine on Sunday.
June saw Martin Kaymer destroy Pinehurst No. 2, not to mention the entire field, winning the US Open by 30 shots. Okay, it was only eight, but who remained awake to witness the finish and be sure?
So much for No. 2’s 2011 renovation.
Then came The Open championship, where young Rory McIlroy returned to prominence amid the fresh air, sunshine, and gentle zephyrs of Royal Liverpool. McIlroy won by two, at 17 under, but could just as easily have named his score and margin.
So much for visiting Royal Liverpool for the first time in 39 years.
Against this backdrop devoid of excitement, we didn’t expect much from the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville. Not that we would have anyway.
The PGA has long been the ugly cousin of the majors, and with good reason. It usually defines “anticlimactic.” The test is never as stern as the US Open, and measures up to The Open only with weather permitting. It also lacks their vast history.
It can’t compete with the drama, course familiarity, and tradition of Augusta National, either.
No wonder that the CBS tag line for the week had to remind us that “This is Major.”
The PGA has also produced a roster of champions that aren’t exactly household names. Winning a major is a fantastic accomplishment, don’t get me wrong. But when you start thinking of great golfers, does the name Yang Yong-eun come immediately to mind? He was the 2009 champion. How about Shaun Michael (2003) or Rich Beem (2002)?
Okay, Trevor Immelman won the Masters, Lucas Glover won the US Open, and Todd Hamilton won The Open, so it happens. But more often in the PGA.
And no other major has been held year-round. The only months in which the PGA championship hasn’t been held are January, March, and April. For the longest time it was held the week after The Open. Talk about second billing.
In fact, no one thought of the PGA as a major until 1960, by most accounts. After winning the Masters and US Open that year, Arnold Palmer declared that if he could win The Open and the PGA, then he would complete the modern Grand Slam of four majors. And it stuck, thanks to journalists like Bob Drum and Herbert Warren Wind.
So what we witnessed Sunday defied all sorts of logic, history, and tradition. We saw great golf, shot after shot.
The lead teetered back and forth—with a five-way tie at one point. We saw the outcome remain in doubt until the final hole, which the final two groups played simultaneously in an effort to beat nightfall.
The late finish came thanks to a midday downpour which delayed play for two hours. It added the unpredictably of soggy conditions, including trying to predict the flight of a ball caked with mud.
Which made the golf we witnessed all the more impressive. Three of the top six finishers shot 66. The other three shot 68.
McIlroy shot a 68, but his final nine was a sizzling 32. He trailed by three shots as he hit his second shot on the par-5, 10th hole. Then he hit the shot of the tournament.
“I hit a three-wood from, I think it was 284, total,” McIlroy said at his post-tournament press conference. “The ball flight was probably around 30 feet lower than I intended. It was lucky, it really was. You need a little bit of luck in major championships to win, and that was my lucky break. I didn’t hit a very good shot there but it worked out well and I made eagle from it.”
McIlroy would make birdie putts at 13 and 17, but he received two other breaks as well.
Rickie Fowler, who continued his run of fabulous play in the majors with a third-place finish, two shots back, made a crucial bogey at the par-3 14th. “Just wasn’t fully committed,” he said at his press conference. “Just a little bit of mental error. Usually I’m not going to make a bad swing if I’m committed and know exactly what I’m doing.
And the par putt for the save?
“I saw a lot of the hole, and it came out the other side. You need those to go in.”
Phil Mickelson finished second, just a stroke behind. That shot was a bogey on 16, when he almost holed out a chip, only to have the ball careen well past the hole. Mickelson left the par putt agonizingly short.
“I flew it way too far,” Mickelson said after the round. “Came out fast. It had a chance. I needed a lucky break there. If it one-hops in, like it almost did—it caught the lip—it would have been a two-shot swing.”
And that resolved this thrilling tournament. With all the excellent golf being played Sunday afternoon, and all that great golf being equal, the tournament turned on the luck of the Irish.
Great stuff. Entertaining. Major worthy.
Denton Ashway is a columnist for The Times. His column appears on Wednesday.