ST. LOUS — is probably a phrase you heard either during last week’s tournament or in the days leading up to it. I think I even said or wrote it myself a few times. However, after four rounds in St. Louis at Bellerive Country Club — in a PGA that delivered us Brooks Koepka’s third major title but nearly delivered Tiger Woods’ 15th — I’m not positive this is actually true.
There was (and is) a lot going on here. Between a course that had architecture nerds (and people like me who draft off them) thumbing their noses, conditions that felt more suitable for a St. Louis Open than a major championship, and a wild, rollicking sea of fans on the grounds, we need to try and unwind the spool a little bit.
For all the criticism you might have about this major and its unmemorable course selections and benign setups — and those are not unwarranted criticisms — the PGA of America, once the tournament starts, does a terrific job of knowing who it is and what it’s supposed to be doing. They know how to provide exactly what we as golf fans want to see.
And certainly, while Carnoustie, Augusta National and Shinnecock Hills probably delivered better, more deserving eventual champions, I’m not sure they delivered better
The real criticism here probably has more to do with the politics and power that unfold years before the actual event in terms of choosing course locations. Why does this organization decide to go to Sonic and Subway when they could be going to somewhere with multiple Michelin stars? I do not have the answer to that question, and it’s not the essence of this examination.
So we can (and should) argue about this organization choosing better backdrops for its annual event, but we should also probably appreciate the fact that they lean into their brand. In mid-June, when people are wailing about par and stimpmeters and Mike Davis’ handicap, the PGA of America has to be salivating.
Their tournament is essentially the exact opposite of the U.S. Open. This is a good thing! If the PGA is going to remain a 72-hole stroke play test, then maybe it should be known as the ultimate weekend shootout. That’s something to look forward to in the way the U.S. Open is not.
The good gentlemen over at No Laying Up opined on this on Saturday, but the PGA of America should have set the course up as easy as possible on the weekend at Bellerive. And maybe they did. If you shot par 70 on the weekend, you were losing strokes to a field that averaged just over 69 strokes to play the course. Again, that might not produce the best winner out of the field, but it produces some enthralling theater.
Here is the crux of the matter: We crave great, diverse courses with innumerable options because they ostensibly provide us with the best champions. However, in a world where PGA Tour pros are conditioned to play golf every week in the same way the PGA Championship demands they play, the best players on the PGA Tour are often the best players at the PGA Championship. Drivers and wedges. Rinse and repeat. This is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong. It’s just the way it is.
This tournament has produced some low-key epic leaderboards over the last five years, and as we all know, great boards make great tournaments. Look at these.
The 2014 PGA Championship final leaderboard.
The 2015 PGA Championship final leaderboard.
The 2016 PGA Championship final leaderboard.
The 2017 PGA Championship final leaderboard.
The 2018 PGA Championship final leaderboard.
To highlight this point, the last 11 Masters champions have 18 total majors. The last 11 PGA Championship champions have 18 total majors. And many of the last few PGAs have been sort of epic. The Rory McIlroy-Phil Mickelson-Rickie Fowler slugfest in 2014, Jordan Spieth duking it out with Jason Day in 2015; Justin Thomas’ rise in 2017 and now this.
Just as it’s fun to have variety within a golf course, it’s fun to have variety in the to a championship. I’ve learned to love the U.S. Open, not despite its flaws but because of them. The same is true of the PGA. In a world of PGA Tour events that are indistinguishable from one another, this tournament is at the very least the best and most important of the bunch.
The following can all be true at the same time:
– PGA offers high drama and crowns major-worthy champs
– PGA trails other 3 majors in interest & intrigue
– Bellerive produced a stacked leaderboard and drew eye-popping StL crowds
– Bellerive is a monotonous and unmemorable layout
— Will Gray (@WillGrayGC) August 12, 2018
You could feel the importance on the weekend this year, too. That was mostly because of Tiger, but it was also due to the St. Louis crowds. They were unfathomably good, and multiple major winners noted that this was the most humans they believe they’ve ever seen in a golf crowd.
“I’ve never seen this many people at a golf tournament,” said Koepka. “They were as energetic and loud as I’ve ever seen. … I mean, I don’t even know what to say. … I know that it’s a big sports town, which is awesome, and then to see all these people come out and support the golf tournament, I love it. I wish it was like that every week.”
“The people here were so positive, the energy was incredible,” added Woods. “Everyone was willing every shot that everyone hit. There was no negative comments, no one was jeering, no one was making snide remarks. Everyone was just very positive. They’re excited, yeah. They sometimes pick sides, yes. But they were respectful. I wish we could play in front of crowds like this every single week because this is a true pleasure.”
Often, the U.S. Open has to visit far-flung courses to get the architecture they crave. This is a good thing, don’t mistake what I’m saying, but I do wonder if the galleries at those events don’t suffer for it. Maybe the PGA is the event to bring the golf into the hearts of our cities. The tracks aren’t as magnificent, but the amphitheaters might be more compelling.
This, of course, could all be an overreaction to one of the best tournaments I’ve seen in my life. Maybe I’m a prisoner of this historic moment in which a 28-year-old joined an exclusive club and a 42-year-old capped a fabulous summer of golf. There’s probably some truth in there.
But maybe the PGA Championship is simply the low-scoring, stays-out-of-its-own-way major championship. Maybe they are fine with this. The yin to the USGA’s yang. Maybe the PGA of America knows better but chooses this on purpose because it’s working. Maybe — just — the PGA Championship always had an identity. It just took all of us this long to find it.