By Dan Reardon
It’s been an upside-down year on the PGA Tour. Third-round leaders became final-day top 10s. Young players performed like veterans, and veterans occupied rookie slots on the leaderboards. Twenty-five and under produced like 30 and older. First-time winners outpaced recognizable names.
It was therefore appropriate that when this year’s U.S. Open turned into the PGA Championship that the PGA Championship should turn into the U.S. Open.
Long-time golf writer Ron Green Jr. observed that traditionally the Masters is pretty, the U.S. Open is demanding, the Open is blustery and the PGA is cordial. In 2017 the Masters was visually muted but the toughest of the four Grand Slam events. The U.S. Open was a video game that laid waste to more than a century of scoring records. The Open was benign at times and reduced to Jordan Spieth’s 13th hole Walk on the Wild Side and five holes of brilliance.
It’s been awhile since we have seen the year’s final major, the PGA Championship, become one of the year’s most challenging majors, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the players.
Former U.S. Open Champion Webb Simpson is a member at Quail Hollow, and after the third round, offered his thoughts on his home-course setup. “We are dealing with a long golf course, tons of rough and crazy-fast greens. I don’t think historically that’s what the PGA — I don’t think that’s the stereotype of a PGA Championship. I feel like I’m out there trying to survive. Similar feelings to how when I play a U.S. Open. You shoot even par, you have done really well. In past PGAs even par is not that good. It’s definitely something to get used to,” he said. “The players I’ve talked to this year, they love coming to Charlotte, they love Quail Hollow, they love our club. I think the big vote is it’s maybe a little too difficult.”
I pause to wipe the tears from my keyboard. Keep in mind this is the same Webb Simpson who won his only major sitting in the locker room with his wife, Dowd, at his side watching on TV as The Olympic Club, a bantamweight at 6900 yards, destroyed the leaders coming in behind him.
And this isn’t a course setup that will historically rank as brutal. This isn’t the Massacre at Winged Foot. This IS the stereotype of what major championships have been for a century.
This was a setup that said to the players, “Think before you choose a club on the tee.” This is a golf course that said, “Consider where to miss if you don’t execute.” This is a course that said to Jason Day, “You want to test me, bring it on.”
Simpson said par was a good score for tournament week but left out Hideki Matsuyama and Francesco Molinari shot 64 on Friday. He omitted that blue-collar Kevin Kisner shot a pair of 67s the first two days to lead. Par at the end of the week would have kept you out of the top 10. The fact that Kerry Haigh and Johnny Davis chose to give the players a 14-club golf course should be to their credit and hopefully a text that showed up on the phone of Mike Davis at Golf House.
Justin Thomas’s win was punctuated by three birdies over the final nine holes. For the week the new PGA Champion posted three consecutive rounds in the 60s. Twenty-seven players broke par on Sunday at lethal Quail Hollow. In the back-nine scramble on Sunday, Thomas’s closest pursuers, Francesco Molinari, Patrick Reed and Louis Oosthuizen amassed eight birdies and an eagle with the title in the balance on a course that was set up “too hard.”
Simpson is right in one sense. Thomas’s 8-under total was the highest score in relationship to par since Keegan Bradley won at Atlanta Athletic in 2011.
Majors should be about more than a big trophy and an even bigger merchandise tent. Major winners get a place in history, and to do so they should be asked to play historically well. Major championship golf should be a test, and not true or false, not multiple choice, not even fill in the blank. It is an essay test. And over 72 holes, you should be expected to pen brilliance for the world to read. This year it’s Justin Thomas who earned the “A.”
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.