Delve inside the final major of 2017.
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
‘WITH THE FIRMER GREENS CUT TO MAJOR HEIGHT IT MAY PLAY HALF A SHOT HARDER NOW’
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…
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
‘ANY CHANGE OF DATE TO THE PGA CHAMPIONSHIP SHOULDN’T HURT THE EUROPEAN TOUR. IT MAY EVEN HELP US OUT’
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
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.