| U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship Pre­view

Who will lift the gi­ant Wana­maker Tro­phy on Sun­day 12th of Au­gust?

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Mike Wil­son

Some­times and of­ten un­fairly viewed as the runt of the Ma­jors, the U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship founded in 1916 comes of age this year, 100 not out. But the US$10.5m tour­na­ment, which has evolved from a match play event un­til 1957 is about to tran­si­tion into the third phase of its evo­lu­tion. The ven­er­a­ble event is re­main­ing a stroke play for­mat but mov­ing to mid-May in what is ar­guably the most sig­nif­i­cant sched­ul­ing change in PGA TOUR his­tory.

The 2016 U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship was im­pacted - ‘com­pro­mised’ might be a more ap­pro­pri­ate word - by golf’s read­mis­sion to the Olympic Games. Rio de Janeiro saw the sea­son’s fourth and fi­nal Ma­jor squeezed in be­tween the Open Cham­pi­onship and the Olympics.

And with the bi­en­nial Ry­der Cup, and to a lesser ex­tent the Pres­i­dent’s Cup de­mand­ing not only a place on the global golf sched­ule but also multi-mil­lion-dol­lar TV air­time and col­umn inches, some­thing had to give.

And it did. The tec­tonic plates of global golf shifted in­ex­orably; hav­ing un­der­gone a rel­a­tive­lymi­nor reschedul­ing for Au­gust to July 2016, world golf’s power­bro­kers, the PGA TOUR, de­cided sig­nif­i­cant surgery was re­quired. With the U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship brought for­ward to May from next year on­wards, per­fectly placed be­tween April’s Masters and June’s U.S. Open. With the Open Cham­pi­onship - the old­est and, ar­guably the most pres­ti­gious of all - draw­ing the ‘Grand Slam’ ros­ter to a close by main­tain­ing its mid-July slot.

But, given the log­jam sur­round­ing the world golf cal­en­dar and the com­pet­ing in­ter­ests - and the naked supremacy - of the PGA TOUR, any sched­ul­ing change in­evitable re­sults in cause and ef­fect, ac­tion and re­ac­tion. On this oc­ca­sion the - at best - weak­en­ing of the Euro­pean Tour’s flag­ship event, the BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship at worst - mov­ing the Went­worth event to a less at­trac­tive event, most prob­a­bly to­wards the end of the English sum­mer.

How­ever, the ‘big beasts’ of the golf­ing jun­gle, the U.S. PGA and the PGA TOUR, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively the lead­ers of the pack are un­ques­tion­ably de­lighted with the switch, ir­re­spec­tive of the im­pact on their transat­lantic cousins.

"In weigh­ing the com­plex evo­lu­tion of the golf cal­en­dar, the PGA of Amer­ica's key ob­jec­tives was to pro­mote the best in­ter­ests of our sig­na­ture spec­ta­tor Cham­pi­onship, do what is best for the game, and find the most ad­van­ta­geous plat­form to ful­fil our mis­sion of serv­ing our nearly 29,000 PGA Pro­fes­sion­als

and grow­ing the game," said PGA of Amer­ica Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer Pete Be­vac­qua.

He added, "Our anal­y­sis be­gan in 2013 and in­cluded an ex­ten­sive list of fac­tors, in­clud­ing hav­ing to shift the date ev­ery four years to ac­com­mo­date the Olympic Games,” con­tin­ued the PGA chief, adding, “In the end, we de­ter­mined that play­ing the PGA Cham­pi­onship the week prior to Me­mo­rial Day in May, mak­ing it the sec­ond Ma­jor cham­pi­onship of the [an­nual] golf cal­en­dar, will achieve those three ob­jec­tives.”

Tellingly, Be­vac­qua at­tested, “Tele­vi­sion mar­kets, in gen­eral, are stronger in May”.

Mean­while, PGA TOUR Com­mis­sioner Jay Mon­a­han said, “We are thrilled to an­nounce th­ese two sig­nif­i­cant changes, which will greatly en­hance the pro­fes­sional golf cal­en­dar start­ing in 2019,” adding, “Our thanks to the PGA of Amer­ica for its part­ner­ship in what will al­low both or­ga­ni­za­tions to meet our short- and longterm ob­jec­tives, while de­liv­er­ing in­cred­i­bly com­pelling golf to our fans around the world.

And Euro­pean Tour CEO Keith Pel­ley tried to shore-up the sit­u­a­tion, pre­sent­ing it as a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment rather than the threat it in­evitably is, com­ment­ing, “Sig­nif­i­cant changes to the global golf­ing cal­en­dar have given us the op­por­tu­nity to move the BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship to a more favourable date from 2019 on­wards.”

But, lest we get ahead of our­selves, there is the small mat­ter of the 100th U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship to con­sider. And it prom­ises to of­fer its tra­di­tional au­tum­nal date a rous­ing send-off, at the Robert Trent Jones-de­signed Bel­lerive Coun­try Club, near St. Louis in Mis­souri, USA.

Hav­ing hosted the U.S. Open in 1965, when Gary Player took the ti­tle - and, with it, the South African achiev­ing the ca­reer Grand Slam fol­low­ing an 18-hole play-off against Aus­tralian Kel Na­gle - Bel­lerive has staged the U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship once be­fore. In 1992, Zim­bab­wean Nick Price won the first of his three Ma­jor ti­tles, win­ning the PGA again in 1994, hav­ing bro­ken Greg Nor­man’s heart ear­lier that year by snatch­ing the Open Cham­pi­onship from the jaws of the ‘Great White Shark.’

The course was sub­se­quently up­graded to meet the de­mands of 21st-cen­tury golf and its awe­some, tech­nol­ogy-driven power and dis­tance by Rees Jones, son of the so-called, ‘Fa­ther of mod­ern golf course de­sign.’

To­day, Bel­lerive stands at 7,500-yards, a mus­cu­lar Par-71, and a true test of golf for the event which tips a wink to its in­flu­en­tial

mem­bers of the PGA of Amer­ica by re­serv­ing slots for the 20 low­est scor­ers from its PGA Pro­fes­sional Na­tional Cham­pi­onship out of its near 20,000-strong mem­ber­ship.

Bel­lerive, which is only the third course in the USA to have hosted all of the coun­try’s recog­nised blue-chip events, the U.S. Open, U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship, U.S. Se­nior Open and Se­nior PGA Cham­pi­onship. At first glance, a feel of Au­gusta Na­tional about it, beau­ti­fully, but per­haps overly man­i­cured, tree-lined, nar­row fair­ways and enough sand and wa­ter to trip-up those tak­ing lib­er­ties with RTJ’s cre­ation.

The front nine should hold few fears. The sixth hole, a tricky 215-yard Par-3 is wellde­fended by wa­ter, sand and thick, ma­ture de­cid­u­ous wood­land. The eighth, a frac­tion over 600-yards will of­fer-up as many birdies as it does bo­geys over the week, a big hit­ter’s paradise.

But it is the back-nine in gen­eral, and the fin­ish­ing stretch, called ‘The Ridge,’ com­pris­ing five fin­ish­ing holes at Bel­lerive which will test the nerve of those in con­tention for the Wana­maker Tro­phy come Sun­day af­ter­noon, when those pesky U.S. PGA of­fi­cials plant the pins in their most se­vere po­si­tions.

Hole 15 is viewed by many as a clas­sic Robert Trent Jones hole. Par-4, five-yards short of 500, into the pre­vail­ing southerly wind, well pro­tected by bunkers. The con­tenders will be happy to come through on level fours for the week. The 16th, a long Par-3 into an up­turned saucer­shaped green where birdies will be at a pre­mium.

17th is a typ­i­cal risk-and-re­ward hole. 603-yards, long by the club golfer’s stan­dard, reach­able in two for a fi­nal birdie op­por­tu­nity for the 156 top pro­fes­sion­als in the field. 18th is a de­mand­ing 462-yard Par-4, Sun­day’s pin po­si­tion, and score­board pres­sure could be crit­i­cal.

The U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship has thrown-up an in­trigu­ing mix of cham­pi­ons in the quar­terof-a-cen­tury since the event was last at Bel­lerive. From thor­ough­breds like Rory McIl­roy, twice in 2012 and 2014, at the peak of his pow­ers; Tiger Woods four times whilst at the pin­na­cle of his ca­reer; Ja­son Day win­ning at Whistling Straits in 2015 fol­low­ing a raft of near misses, de­fend­ing cham­pion Justin Thomas break­ing his Ma­jors’ duck last year.

But, for ev­ery Woods and McIl­roy, there is a Ja­son Dufner, YE Yang and Mark Brooks, cham­pi­ons in 2013, 2009 and 1996 re­spec­tively.

And, whilst many of the great names in world golf in the post-war era ap­pear on the U.S. PGA Cham­pi­onship roll of hon­our, Lee Trevino, Jack Nick­laus and Gary Player amongst them, only one, Tiger Woods has suc­cess­fully

re­tained the Wana­maker Tro­phy, sug­gest­ing Justin Thomas may not be the man on the podium at Bel­lerive this month.

Asked about the in­flu­ence of Woods on his fledgeling ca­reer, Thomas, briefly world #1 ear­lier this year, says, “Oh, huge deal, he mo­ti­vated me to get where I am now.” Per­haps ac­cen­tu­at­ing the gen­er­a­tion gap and a chang­ing of the guard, ex­plain­ing, “When you're seven or eight or nine or ten, and you're up there on the putting green, I was mak­ing putts to try to beat Tiger Woods in my head [and] it's great to have him back now.”

Look­ing back 12-months to his first Ma­jor vic­tory, which many ob­servers be­lieve will prove to be one of many, Thomas re­flects, “It was just kind of one of those crazy weeks that you may have once a round in your ca­reer or one, two, three times a week in your ca­reer where just ev­ery­thing is on and ev­ery­thing is click­ing, and pretty much you just try to stay un­con­scious as long as you can,” adding, “The shot that I hit at 17th in the PGA was I would call the best shot of my ca­reer.”

So, will it be a thor­ough­bred, like McIl­roy; a two-time U.S. Open cham­pion like Brooks Koekpa; a stalk­ing horse like Justin Rose, at #3 on the OWGR, vic­tory at Bel­lerive might take the English­man to the sum­mit. DJ who has the game to over­power the 7,500-yard St. Louis track. Per­haps an Ital­ian job, Francesco Moli­nari, run­ner-up last year, win­ner of the BMW PGA Cham­pi­onship this, 15th on OWGR, fourth on the Race to Dubai, a maiden Ma­jor ti­tle for the coun­try that will host the 2022 Ry­der Cup.

Or, might it be one of the 100-plus journeyman pro­fes­sion­als, those in the lower reaches of the PGA TOUR rank­ing and those club pro­fes­sion­als who have made it through to the cul­mi­na­tion of their ca­reer?

Ryan Ver­meer, Sean McCarty, Bob Sowards the top three in the PGA Pro­fes­sional Cham­pi­onship held in Cal­i­for­nia in June. Ever heard of them?

No, me nei­ther and it’s un­likely they will ever be heard of again. The odds of a U.S. PGA club pro­fes­sional top­ping the leader­board of the flag­ship event at 5,000 - 1, much the same as an ex­tra-ter­res­trial me­teor hit­ting earth of a club golfer mak­ing a hole-in-one.

Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure. Who­ever lifts the gi­ant Wana­maker Tro­phy come Sun­day 12th of Au­gust will en­joy the short­est reign of a Ma­jor cham­pion as the U.S. PGA, at 100 not out, jumps the queue into a prime date in May 2019, just nine months be­fore he has to de­fend his hard-won crown at Beth­page next year.

Who will lift the gi­ant Wana­maker Tro­phy on Sun­day 12th of Au­gust?

Pete Be­vac­qua, CEO of PGA of Amer­ica

The Robert Trent Jones­de­signed Bel­lerive Coun­try Club, near St. Louis in Mis­souri

Only one, Tiger Woods has suc­cess­fully re­tained the Wana­maker Tro­phy, can Justin Thomas win it again this year?

Per­haps an Ital­ian job, Francesco Moli­nari, run­ner-up last year?

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