Delve inside the fi­nal ma­jor of 2017.

Golf World (UK) - - Contents - Robert Green’s blog is at robert­green­ and you can fol­low him on Twit­ter @ro­brt­green

With the fi­nal ma­jor of the year upon us, let us con­sider th­ese eight cru­cial ques­tions ahead of the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

Can Quail Hol­low step it up a notch? The North Carolina course has been a reg­u­lar PGA Tour stop in re­cent years.

Zac Blair’s mem­o­ries of Quail Hol­low aren’t ter­ri­bly good. The Salt Lake City na­tive, cur­rently in his third full year on the PGA tour, missed the cut in his first visit to the course for the 2015 Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship, and last year he was dis­qual­i­fied dur­ing the sec­ond round af­ter vi­o­lat­ing Rule 4-3b. On the par-5 5th, he missed a short birdie putt and hit him­self in the head with his put­ter, bend­ing the shaft. When he tapped in for par mo­ments later, he was no longer us­ing a con­form­ing club.

You might as­sume Blair, a stu­dent of course ar­chi­tec­ture, wouldn’t have a kind word to say about the place. But, like most PGA Tour play­ers, he is ac­tu­ally full of praise for the Ge­orge Cobb orig­i­nal that opened in 1961, and was sub­se­quently re­designed by Arnold Palmer in 1986 and Tom Fazio in 1997. Fazio also made mod­i­fi­ca­tions in 2003, the year Quail Hol­low first hosted the then Wa­chovia Cham­pi­onship, and over­saw the change to Miniverde putting sur­faces and made al­ter­ations to the 16th hole in 2013. “It’s a clas­sic – a re­ally solid test. And though I haven’t seen the changes, I’m ex­pect­ing good things, and that what was a good course be­fore is even bet­ter now.”

The changes Blair al­ludes to are all-new greens and ma­jor al­ter­ations to four holes that Fazio and the grounds crew be­gan mak­ing im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing the 2016 Wells Fargo Cham­pi­onship. Be­cause of con­tam­i­na­tion and pos­si­ble mu­ta­tion, the Miniverde greens in­stalled in 2013 had not been per­form­ing as de­sired. “The turf had a lot of off-type grass in it and wasn’t pure,” says Keith Wood, Quail Hol­low’s Su­per­in­ten­dent. “This could have


been due to many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, so we are care­ful not to blame the mak­ers of MiniVerde. It just wasn’t a pure stand of grass, and we couldn’t go for­ward with it for the PGA Cham­pi­onship.”

The prob­lem with hav­ing dif­fer­ent types of turf is that they grow at dif­fer­ent rates and re­act to in­puts (fer­til­izer, wa­ter, etc.) dif­fer­ently. “That pro­duces in­con­sis­tent growth pat­terns and leads to in­con­sis­tent putting qual­ity,” says Wood.

To re­place the Miniverde, the club chose Cham­pion Ber­muda, found on al­most 1,000 cour­ses pre­dom­i­nantly in the southern half of the USA. It has twice the den­sity of Tifd­warf from which it was born. It can be mowed to one-tenth of an inch (the height of the greens at Au­gusta Na­tional) without harm­ing the plant and it re­cov­ers quickly from in­jury. Its very slow ver­ti­cal growth pro­duces a very con­sis­tent putting sur­face.

All the feed­back Wood has re­ceived from mem­bers, their guests, and the hand­ful of Tour pros that stopped by ear­lier in the year has been pos­i­tive. “I think the change has been well re­ceived by ev­ery­one,” he adds. “I think com­peti­tors at the PGA Cham­pi­onship will re­ally en­joy putting on the new sur­faces.”

Work on the four holes that were al­tered took place while the greens were be­ing ren­o­vated, and was com­pleted within 90 days with in­put from three con­struc­tion firms. The club’s head pro­fes­sional Scott Dav­en­port says Fazio had been want­ing to make the changes for some time but didn’t have the op­por­tu­nity un­til last May. “Even then, we had a hard time con­vinc­ing the PGA of Amer­ica we would be fin­ished in three months,” he says. “The in­ten­tion wasn’t to make the course more dif­fi­cult nec­es­sar­ily, but with the firmer greens cut to ma­jor cham­pi­onship height (likely 0.1 – 0.105”), it may play half a shot harder now.”

Ma­jor rout­ing changes

In ad­di­tion to the ren­o­va­tions to the sur­faces of the greens, four holes have been given sig­nif­i­cant makeovers to strengthen the rout­ing of the course and bring it up to ma­jor cham­pi­onship stan­dard.

Hole 1 – The first hole has been length­ened from 418 yards to 524 yards. It is now a left-to-right dog-leg par 4 and a com­bi­na­tion of the orig­i­nal

open­ing hole and the old 178yard par-3 2nd.

Hole 4 – Be­cause of the loss of the old 2nd, a new short hole was con­structed from part of what used to be the long 5th. At 184 yards, the hole should be a 6 or 7-iron to clear three large, front bunkers and find a di­ag­o­nal green with a ridge.

Hole 5 – The old par 5 has been short­ened to a very birdieable 449-yard that doglegs gen­tly from left to right. Drives need to avoid fair­way bunkers left and right.

Hole 11 – Fazio found an ex­tra 36 yards and turned a sim­ple par 4 into a de­mand­ing 462yard hole where fours will be hard-earned. The new, el­e­vated green is pro­tected by two deep bunkers on the left.

What’s hap­pened to Jimmy Walker since his vic­tory? The de­fend­ing cham­pion has en­dured a dif­fi­cult 12 months since win­ning at Bal­tus­rol.

The night af­ter win­ning the PGA Cham­pi­onship at Bal­tus­rol, Jimmy Walker and wife Erin were back home in Austin, Texas. They were cel­e­brat­ing his first ma­jor vic­tory with friends and fam­ily at their house in Cordillera Ranch, and the drinks were flow­ing. It was the only night they’ve drank from the mas­sive Wana­maker tro­phy, which mea­sures over two feet tall and weighs 27 pounds and has a re­mov­able top. All man­ner of al­co­hol was con­sumed, from te­quila to Kum­mel, a sweet, colour­less liqueur flavoured with car­away seed, cumin and fen­nel.

“It’s ter­ri­ble!” laughs Erin. Her hus­band con­curs. Not even the taste of vic­tory could make it go down easy. Not that they cared. Life has been pretty sweet since.

A case of ei­ther zero or hero

Af­ter seal­ing the win with a testy three-footer on the fi­nal hole, Jimmy and Erin were flown to New York for a me­dia blitz around the Big Ap­ple the fol­low­ing morn­ing. Then it was back home to Texas be­fore jet­ting off to Las Ve­gas, to en­joy the suc­cess with Walker’s coach Butch Har­mon.

The cel­e­bra­tions were well de­served, if a lit­tle un­ex­pected. Af­ter an up-and-down year in which the then 37-year-old missed seven cuts in 25 starts, his most since 2011 when he missed eight in 24. “It was a bit of a sur­prise that he won,” con­cedes Erin. “We were hero or zero, and he missed more cuts than he has in a long time. That was dif­fer­ent for us. He was trending in the right di­rec­tion, but (the vic­tory) was a lit­tle out of nowhere. We would have ex­pected it the pre­vi­ous year or the year be­fore that. Last year was mas­sively high and low golf wise. But that week was just a Zen week. There were good vibes all week.”

Em­brac­ing the RV life­style

Un­like most top play­ers, the Walk­ers of­ten es­chew what­ever lux­ury ho­tel is at their dis­posal on any given week for the crea­ture comforts of their 45-foot cus­tom Fore­travel RV. It’s the cou­ple’s sec­ond mo­tor­coach, and it’s like bring­ing a slice of home on the road, com­plete with a full-sized re­frig­er­a­tor, a washer and dryer, dish­washer, bunk beds for their two young chil­dren and a king­sized bed for them.

They be­gan trav­el­ling this way – usu­ally some­one drives the RV to the next stop and it’s there wait­ing for them when they ar­rive – about six years ago, not long af­ter their first child was born. Walker had quickly grown tired of lug­ging around all the ne­ces­si­ties that go with hav­ing a young fam­ily in tow. “I was car­ry­ing all this crap around,” Walker says. “I couldn’t take it. I thought I was go­ing to blow my back out.”

Erin, who has a back­ground in horse shows, was used to the life­style of liv­ing out of a bus when on the road. “I was all for it,” she says. “It took him some con­vinc­ing but once we got the first one he’s loved it; we’ve both loved it. It’s been re­ally good for our fam­ily. It’s just easy. You have ev­ery­thing that you have at home. It’s just way eas­ier.”

Sleep­ing in a church car park

It was par­tic­u­larly easy the week of the PGA Cham­pi­onship. There are some primo park­ing spots the Walk­ers have through­out the year – on a cliff in Mal­ibu over­look­ing the Pa­cific Ocean dur­ing the tour’s Los An­ge­les stop is the best, ac­cord­ing to them – and be­ing in a church car park across the street from Bal­tus­rol was par­tic­u­larly use­ful. With weather de­lays plagu­ing the event on the week­end and a 36-hole fin­ish on the Sun­day, Walker didn’t have to hang around the locker room for long pe­ri­ods, or drive back and forth to a nearby ho­tel. In­stead, he sim­ply walked to and from work. That in­cluded be­tween the third and fourth rounds when he re­treated to the RV for a mas­sage, a shower and a nap.

“I have my TV with all my chan­nels on it, my bed; it’s com­fort­ing,” re­veals Walker. “On Sun­day it gave me the chance to hit re­boot, kind of restart the com­puter a lit­tle bit. That’s what it felt like. It was only 10 min­utes, but it sure felt good.”

The re­sult: Clos­ing rounds of 68 and 67 and a one-shot win over world No.1 Jason Day.

Rel­ish­ing the big stage

De­spite be­ing a five-time PGA Tour win­ner be­fore his PGA Cham­pi­onship vic­tory, Walker had never been slapped with the back­handed la­bel of ‘best player never to win a ma­jor’. In that re­gard, he has al­ways flown un­der the radar, which is fine by him. But that’s not to be con­fused with a lack of de­sire, for he has longed to reach this place, which is why he be­gan work­ing with Butch Har­mon four years ago.

“I like the big stage,” he ad­mits. “I want that op­por­tu­nity. Sh*t yeah, I en­joy it. If you don’t, then why are you play­ing?” Walker has strug­gled for form in the 12 months since his breakthrough – he’s had only two top 10s and six missed cuts in 21 events up to and in­clud­ing this year’s US Open. Be­ing a ma­jor cham­pion brings greater ex­pec­ta­tions but, more sig­nif­i­cantly, he was di­ag­nosed with Lyme’s Dis­ease in April af­ter months of bat­tling ill­ness and fa­tigue.

“I don’t put more pres­sure on my­self, but it’s an­other step in that di­rec­tion,” Walker says of be­ing a ma­jor win­ner. “Once you know you can do some­thing, you know you can do it again. It’s like when I won for the first time. I knew that I’d done it be­fore and could do it again. Now that I’ve won a ma­jor, I know I can do that again. The at­ten­tion, it’s more mag­ni­fied now. But it’s what you want. It means you’re play­ing well. It’s part of the deal, and you’ve got to be com­fort­able with that.”

Which play­ers have the game to raise the Wana­maker Tro­phy? We run the num­bers to iden­tify the top con­tenders for ma­jor glory at Quail Hol­low.

The up­side of hold­ing the US PGA at a course that’s hosted a PGA Tour event in each of the last 14 sea­sons is that it makes it far eas­ier to iden­tify the skills golfers will need to lift the Wana­maker Tro­phy. So what are the keys to com­ing out on top at Quail Hol­low? We an­a­lysed how all the pre­vi­ous win­ners per­formed dur­ing the week of their vic­tory. • The last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked inside the top 25 in ‘driv­ing dis­tance’. • Seven of the last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked in the top 12 for ‘strokes gained - off the tee’.

• The last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked in the top 12 for ‘par-4 scor­ing’. • Nine of the last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked inside the top 20 for ‘birdie or bet­ter per­cent­age from 200+ yards’. • Eight of the last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked inside the top 25 for ‘scram­bling’.

• Each of the last 10 cham­pi­ons ranked inside the top 30 for ‘greens in reg­u­la­tion’.

We cross-ref­er­enced the US PGA field with their rank­ing in each of th­ese cat­e­gories to iden­tify the six play­ers most likely to win the sea­son’s fi­nal ma­jor ac­cord­ing to the sta­tis­tics.

Is it mov­ing time for the US PGA Cham­pi­onship? A switch to May could rein­vig­o­rate the golf­ing cal­en­dar.

On May 25 this year, a story in the

Daily Tele­graph seemed to con­firm one of the game’s worst-kept se­crets, writes Robert Green. “With it now ap­pear­ing in­creas­ingly likely that the US PGA Cham­pi­onship will move from Au­gust to May from 2019,” it re­ported, and what has been whis­pered about for some time seemed to be near­ing an of­fi­cial an­nounce­ment.

The most re­cent of­fi­cial line from the PGA of Amer­ica, which runs the tour­na­ment, is that no de­ci­sion has been made on the sub­ject and there is no dead­line as to when any de­ci­sion might be made. But it is hard to avoid the im­pres­sion that the CEO of the or­gan­i­sa­tion, Pete Be­vac­qua, is on ma­noeu­vres.

“I think it’s 95 per cent cer­tain to hap­pen,” says Chubby Chan­dler, head of the ISM group. “The PGA of Amer­ica wants it to hap­pen and so does the PGA Tour.” If that is the case, then within three years the head­line golf cal­en­dar would be re­shaped to look as shown in the box (over page).

Such a change would leave Septem­ber through to Novem­ber to be re­con­fig­ured, a sub­ject we shall re­turn to shortly, but Chan­dler sees this as a win/win for the two gov­ern­ing bod­ies in the States. “The PGA of Amer­ica think their cham­pi­onship will get bet­ter viewing fig­ures in May than in Au­gust,” he says. “For the PGA Tour, they would have to shift the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship back to March, where it used to be, but that sit­u­a­tion would be much bet­ter for the FedEx Cup and the

Tour Cham­pi­onship be­cause then they would not be try­ing to com­pete with the NFL [Amer­i­can foot­ball] in terms of tele­vi­sion cov­er­age. And it would mean that golf-wise, Au­gust would all be about the con­clu­sion of the FedEx Cup and the Tour Cham­pi­onship.”

It was as a re­sult of be­ing leaned on by the PGA Tour that, in 2013, the PGA of Amer­ica dropped its pro­mo­tional line for the PGA Cham­pi­onship, ‘Glory’s Last Shot’, be­cause it im­plied that the FedEx Cup was re­ally just the dregs. This sce­nario would also elim­i­nate that pre­vi­ous con­flict.

Be­vac­qua’s pre­de­ces­sor was Ted Bishop, who floated the no­tion of the PGA Cham­pi­onship some­times be­ing played out­side the United States, in a bid to el­e­vate its pro­file be­yond be­ing the fourth of golf’s four ma­jors, and not only in terms of its place on the cal­en­dar.

How­ever, Be­vac­qua said re­cently that talk of a trav­el­ling PGA Cham­pi­onship was pre­ma­ture. “For the mo­ment [the idea] is on the back­burner,” he said. And per­haps that’s where it might stay; the move from Au­gust to May might pro­vide all the stim­u­la­tion nec­es­sary. This isn’t, though, the PGA of Amer­ica’s first at­tempt to rein­vent its old­est as­set…

Golf­ing sui­cide

The his­tory of the cham­pi­onship is a rather che­quered one. In a way, it’s per­haps symp­to­matic of its ex­is­tence that no sooner had it be­gun, in 1916, than it was sus­pended for two years due to Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in World War I. And aside from the drama reg­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with any ma­jor golf tour­na­ment, the PGA’s most renowned brushes with his­tory have of­ten been through ab­sence rather than achieve­ment.

For ex­am­ple, be­fore Tiger Woods held all four ma­jors at the same time af­ter win­ning the 2001 Masters, the most sin­gu­lar ac­com­plish­ment in the pro­fes­sional game had prob­a­bly been Ben Ho­gan’s Triple Crown of 1953 – win­ning the Masters, US Open and the Open Cham­pi­onship. By then he didn’t bother with the PGA be­cause his near-fa­tal car crash in 1949 meant he could no longer cope


with so much match­play golf.

Be­ing a match­play event was the PGA’s chief sell­ing point – it was the world’s most im­por­tant knock-out tour­na­ment. How­ever, the for­mat was aban­doned in 1958, its own­ers ul­ti­mately brow­beaten by TV ex­ec­u­tives whose idea of top sports on tele­vi­sion wasn’t Chick Har­bert beat­ing Wal­ter Burkemo 4&3 over 36 holes.

Two years on from the change, talk arose of Arnold Palmer pos­si­bly com­plet­ing the pro­fes­sional Grand Slam. Palmer had won the Masters and the US Open in 1960 but Kel Na­gle spoiled that party by beat­ing Arnie by a shot in the Cen­te­nary Open at St An­drews. Thus the PGA was de­nied the chance of pro­vid­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary cli­max to the sea­son. The same thing oc­curred in 1972, when Lee Trevino beat Nick­laus by a shot in the Open, so de­priv­ing him of the chance to win all four ma­jors in the same sea­son when he headed to Oak­land Hills. The Mark McCor­mack Golf An­nual that sea­son rue­fully ob­served: “The 1972 PGA Cham­pi­onship came within a Lee Trevino chip shot of be­ing the sport­ing event of the year and one of the most sig­nif­i­cant tour­na­ments in golf­ing his­tory.”

By then, though, the his­tory of the PGA of Amer­ica and its flag­ship tour­na­ment had been ir­re­vo­ca­bly al­tered. In 1967, Nick­laus, the best golfer in the game, had said: “The PGA of Amer­ica is killing its own tour­na­ment. The Bri­tish Open is a ma­jor tour­na­ment and sched­ul­ing the PGA right be­hind it in July is not very smart.” He also com­plained that they were try­ing “to make golf cour­ses fa­mous by play­ing the PGA on them in­stead of play­ing the PGA on fa­mous cour­ses”.

The fol­low­ing year, the tour play­ers broke away from the PGA of Amer­ica to set up the

APG, what is now the PGA Tour. A log­i­cal con­se­quence of this was the cre­ation of the Tour­na­ment Play­ers Cham­pi­onship, the so-called ‘fifth ma­jor’, the first stag­ing of which, in 1974, was con­cluded over the La­bor Day week­end, on Septem­ber 1, be­fore the tour­na­ment moved back to Au­gust, then all the way back into Fe­bru­ary, be­fore set­tling on March from 1977 un­til 2007, when it moved to May. Un­til, per­haps, 2019 when it might re­turn to March. Are you keep­ing up? Any­way, that’s kind of where we came in

Europe’s Dilemma

The like­li­hood is that in the near fu­ture, La­bor Day week­end (the first one of Septem­ber) will wit­ness the con­clu­sion of the Tour Cham­pi­onship. Or that may even hap­pen a week ear­lier.

Venues for the US PGA Cham­pi­onship have been an­nounced through to 2023. The five from 2019 are Beth­page Black in New York, Harding Park in San Fran­cisco, Ki­awah Is­land in South Carolina, and Trump Na­tional and Oak Hill, both in New York. Hold­ing tour­na­ments in New York state in May should not be a prob­lem, and ob­vi­ously it wouldn’t be in Cal­i­for­nia or the Caroli­nas, but the shift of month might put paid to Chicago, for ex­am­ple, ever get­ting the cham­pi­onship again. Like­wise, Whistling Straits in Wis­con­sin.

But what might the likely con­se­quences be for the Euro­pean Tour? It has its three Mid­dle East events in Jan­uary/ Fe­bru­ary, which are against the West Coast swing on the PGA Tour. Af­ter that it is tough for tour­na­ments in Europe to at­tract the world’s best golfers other than in per­haps the cou­ple of weeks prior to the Open Cham­pi­onship and/or af­ter the FedEx Cup.

The BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship has reg­u­larly found this to be the case with its May dates and it is prob­a­bly rel­e­vant to note that it is the only one of the Tour’s new Rolex Se­ries that is not staged ei­ther shortly be­fore the Open or in the au­tumn.

With the PGA Tour es­sen­tially va­cat­ing Septem­ber, Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber, surely this rep­re­sents a po­ten­tial op­por­tu­nity for Keith Pel­ley and his merry men at Went­worth?

There would still be the Ry­der Cup/Pres­i­dents Cup to be ac­com­mo­dated, the WGC/ HSBC Cham­pi­ons in China is un­likely to be go­ing away any time soon, and granted the PGA Tour may launch a new event or two out­side the US. But there would seem to be no rea­son for the Euro­pean Tour to view pro­ceed­ings with too much trep­i­da­tion.

“I cer­tainly don’t think it would hurt the Euro­pean Tour,” says Chan­dler. “It may help it from Septem­ber on­wards, draw­ing some PGA Tour play­ers to com­pete in the Race to Dubai. I think the BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship would have to move, though. It might go to where the Irish Open is now [this year from July 6-9], nearer the Open Cham­pi­onship. But it could go into Septem­ber.”

Sooner rather than later, we shall see. But as­sum­ing the US PGA Cham­pi­onship does move to May, it is hard to see any­thing other than it re­main­ing re­garded as the fourth of the four ma­jor cham­pi­onships in terms of pres­tige. No move of date or coun­try of lo­ca­tion is go­ing to al­ter that. But hey, fourth isn’t bad. Bet­ter than be­ing fifth, any­how.

The US PGA Cham­pi­onship may move from Au­gust to May.

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