Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2015

Sunday At A Major Is Finally Jason’s Day

Because it is always the final of the four men’s majors, played in August at a time when many sports fans are salivating for the return of the NFL or focused on pennant races that are starting to build, the PGA Championship is looked upon by many as the last major in ways that have nothing to do with the calendar. The Masters opens the golf season for many fans, and is played among the towering pines and blooming azaleas of one of the most famous courses on the planet. The U.S. Open is our national championship, and the Open Championship is the oldest major and golf’s annual homage to the links courses that gave birth to the sport.

Against those measures the PGA Championship has often struggled for an identity. In the mid-1990s the PGA of America started marketing the tournament as “Glory’s Last Shot” to remind fans that the event was the final chance each season for a player to claim a major. More recently, when the PGA Tour introduced the four event playoff series that decides its season-long race for the FedEx Cup, the Tour objected to the slogan since those tournaments come after the PGA. So now the event is marketed with the slogan “This Is Major,” which sounds like the leaders of the PGA of America aren’t all that certain.

The irony is that aside from marketing or image, one important fact makes the PGA the toughest major to win. Year in and year out it has the deepest field. The Masters is an invitational event with a field that rarely exceeds 90 golfers. Since Augusta National invites all former champions while also making room for a number of amateur participants, a significant number of the players who tee off on Thursday have no realistic chance of donning the green jacket on Sunday. The next two majors are, as their names indicate, opens. Both have qualifying processes that allow any golfer with a sufficiently low handicap and a willingness to pay the entry fee to take a shot at making the field.

In contrast the PGA field is limited to professionals, and even with some spots reserved for the club pros that make up the PGA of America’s membership, the rest of the tournament’s qualifying criteria ensure that the 156 golfers teeing off for the first round are as good or better a group as at any other tournament on the schedule, save perhaps for the Players Championship.

Given all that, it seems entirely appropriate that this year’s PGA Championship, played at Whistling Straits, the Pete Dye moonscape on the shores of Lake Michigan, offered up a series of possible outcomes as if trying out different marketing slogans before finally settling on a champion worthy of the event’s tough field.

After Thursday’s first round it was possible to imagine that the tournament would bring redemption to Dustin Johnson, on the very site of his most unfortunate major failure. In the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship, Johnson incurred a two-shot penalty for grounding his club in a fairway bunker on the 18th hole. The penalty cost him a spot in the playoff eventually won by Martin Kaymer.

That PGA was Johnson’s second chance at a major in 2010. Earlier that summer he held a three stroke lead starting the final round of the U.S. Open before closing with an ugly 82. In 2011 he was in the final group on Sunday at the Open Championship won by Darren Clarke. This year he had the U.S. Open in his grasp on the 72nd hole and led at the midway point at St. Andrews. But a three-putt at Chambers Bay and twin 75s on the weekend at the Open Championship added to Johnson’s tales of what might have been. At Whistling Straits he opened with a 66, making the PGA the third successive major in which Johnson’s name topped the leader board after the first round.

But tournaments aren’t won on Thursdays, and by the time the rain-delayed second round was completed early Saturday morning Johnson was six adrift of Australian Matt Jones. So for a time one could picture the storybook ending of having one half of a pair of brothers winning the tournament. Jones, whose sole PGA Tour win was the 2014 Houston Open, played practice rounds at Whistling Straits with his brother Brett. Five years Matt’s senior, Brett Jones is a club pro in New Jersey and qualified for the tournament with a strong finish at the PGA’s Professional National Championship.

Storybook endings are best reserved for children, and by Saturday evening Jones had slipped back just as Johnson had done before him. Then it seemed that the story of the PGA Championship would be the same story fans had already seen at The Masters and the U.S. Open. While he hadn’t quite caught the third round leader, six birdies on the back nine had allowed Jordan Spieth to post a 65, good enough for a spot in Sunday’s final grouping. After winning the first two majors of the year and just missing the playoff at the Open Championship last month, Spieth’s Saturday charge had many thinking that nothing could stop the 22-year old.

Spieth did not have a bad day on Sunday. He closed with a 4-under 68 to finish at 17-under par. That gave him a cumulative total of 54-under par for the four majors, eclipsing by one the record set by Tiger Woods in 2000. He will also move to the top of the world rankings when the new numbers are released on Monday, supplanting Rory McIlroy. His 17-under total would have been good enough to win all but two of the fifty-seven previous stroke play PGA Championships. But he did not leave Whistling Straits with the Wanamaker Trophy.

That’s because his closing 68 was one shot off the 5-under 67 fashioned by third round leader Jason Day. The 27-year old Australian began the final round with a two-shot lead, and his margin was never less than that. The only moment of doubt came on the 9th hole. Day had bogeyed the 8th after putting his drive in a fairway bunker. After a perfect tee shot on the next hole Day appeared well on the way to recovery. But from 120 yards he hit a shot that any weekend 20-handicapper would love. Day turned the sod over on a wedge, the fat shot flying barely half the distance to the hole.

Facing back-to-back bogeys and a sudden stop to the momentum of four front-nine birdies, Day calmly hit a bump and run shot to ten feet and then sank the par-saving putt. Two holes later he recorded yet another birdie, and any concerns about a sudden collapse swiftly receded. In the end his 20-under total of 268 set a major championship record for the lowest total in relation to par.

Day finished in the top ten at the 2010 PGA in just his second major tournament. The following year he recorded a pair of runner-up finishes at both the Masters and U.S. Open. Since the 2013 Masters he posted six top ten’s, including four top five’s in the eleven majors prior to the PGA. With so many close calls, plus four PGA Tour wins since 2010, Day has become one of the most popular young players on the Tour. Yet with so many close calls, the golfer whose father died when Day was just 12 and whose mother sacrificed greatly to allow him to pursue his dream of turning pro, surely must have wondered if his time would ever come.

Perhaps the latter is why when his lag putt at the 72nd hole stopped inches from the cup, the tears started to run down Jason Day’s face even before the tournament was over. Surely the former is why, after he tapped in for victory and embraced Colin Swatton, his caddie and coach since childhood, the cheers from those in the grandstands at Whistling Straits were so long and so loud.

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