Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 1, 2016

Walker Wins The PGA’s Wet Weekend

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post was delayed by one day because On Sports and Life spent the weekend playing in the mud at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course. The regular posting schedule resumes on Thursday. Thank you as always for your continued support.

There are three differences between watching a golf tournament on television and attending one in person. The first, as every fan who has ever watched the Masters broadcast has been told, is that television flattens the course. For as much as technology can now give those sitting in their recliners the sharpest of high-definition pictures, it still doesn’t convey the true extent of elevation changes; and as every weekend duffer who has ever had to pull a longer club when facing an uphill approach shot, such changes are an important part of the challenge of the game. Somewhat related is the fact that the camera’s focus on individual holes often fails to reveal the routing of the links.

So those who watched the PGA Championship at home could not fully appreciate the dramatic ups and downs of some key holes at Baltusrol Golf Club. The opening drive on the Lower Course is sharply downhill from the first tee’s location next to the century old Tudor Revival clubhouse. Despite the shortening of the hole’s 478 yard length resulting from the extra carry off the tee, hole number one proved the hardest of the entire eighteen all week long. At the other end of the round, the closing par-5 is a roller coaster ride, with the tee shot even more sharply downhill to a fairway edged by a pond on the left. From there it climbs steeply back up toward the clubhouse, where the final green was backed by a massive grandstand filled with fans throughout the week.

In between those two the journey around the course features the first few holes that meander over New Jersey hillsides near the clubhouse. Then the 482-yard par-4 6th runs on a straight line away from its predecessors, out to a broad expanse of relatively flat parkland. The bulk of the golf course is laid out on this plain, the holes often doubling back against themselves in a fashion that left many spectators unsure of what direction to head next in order to find their favorite golfer. Not until the penultimate hole does the layout return to where it began, the par-5 17th paralleling the 6th but in the opposite direction.

The result is an expansive links that guarantees a full day’s ration of vigorous exercise for any acolyte determined to see all of the exploits of his or her golfing hero. Of course while plenty of fans choose to walk the course, thousands more opt to stay relatively stationary. As the PGA played out through a wet weekend, they filled the grandstands and took the prime spots in the first row along the ropes around the greens. To the viewer at home it must have seemed that the thousands on hand were spread out equally and cheering every player who came along.

But the static picture on television misses those who chose to make the often slippery and occasionally treacherous trip along paths that became increasingly muddy as overnight rains during the first two days and a lengthy afternoon downpour on Saturday saturated the grounds. Those hardy souls voted with their feet, and the results were anything but democratic. Like every sport golf has its superstars, and their bright glow attracts fans like so many summertime insects are drawn to any source of light. Ernie Els may have been the third player to tee off, and Phil Mickelson may have been far back in the pack with an early tee time as well, but their positions on the leader board didn’t deter thousands from scrambling to keep up as each made his way around Baltusrol on Saturday and Sunday.

The attraction of star power was most apparent among the final pairings. Racing to finish by late Sunday after much of Saturday was washed out, the PGA chose to begin the final round even as many players were still out on the course finishing their third. That required that pairings for the final two rounds remain the same, instead of twosomes being regrouped prior to the final 18 based on the standings after the third round. So for the final 36 holes Henrik Stenson, winner of the Open Championship just two weeks earlier, played with two-time major winner Martin Kaymer. Immediately after them, in the next to last pairing, was reigning PGA champion and world number one Jason Day. Then the last twosome on the course included 37-year old Jimmy Walker, who spent the first decade of his professional career bouncing back and forth between the PGA Tour and golf’s minor leagues.

Walker opened the tournament with a 5-under par 65 to grab the first round lead. He held at least a share of the lead at the end of each round, and on Sunday at one point stretched his margin to three shots. But a throng followed the Stenson–Kaymer pairing, and a throng redoubled craned their necks over one another in an effort to see Jason Day’s every shot. In contrast, Walker and playing partner Robert Streb could have been out for a Sunday stroll as they made their way down the fairways. This despite Walker’s position in the tournament and the fact that since finding his game late in 2013 the late bloomer had five PGA Tour wins when he arrived in New Jersey. The stark contrast in support for certain players is the second difference one sees by being in attendance.

For most fans on the grounds this weekend, the last distinction is one that argues for staying dry at home in front of the television. From that vantage point one is assured of seeing every key moment of drama during the tournament; if not live then certainly on a replay within moments. Those of us with our shoes covered in mud were always only going to see what was in front of us. This is especially true at major championships, which eschew the giant video boards which can be found at most weekly PGA Tour stops.

Sometimes fate smiles on the hardy fan however, and so it was this week on the Lower Course. Your correspondent was among the crowd next to the 10th green, watching first Stenson then Day miss putts for birdie, before Walker came along and dumped his approach into a greenside bunker, short siding himself. Leading by just one at that point, chances of a bogey suddenly loomed large. Instead I got to watch and then shout as Walker’s blast hopped onto the green and disappeared into the cup for an unlikely birdie, doubling his margin and giving him renewed confidence for the final stretch.

Later, as the final groups played the 18th in rapidly dimming light, I was along the fairway ropes when Jason Day struck a 2-iron for the ages. Trailing by two shots as he swung and needing an eagle to tie, his ball took off like a rocket and sailed up to the distant green. The crowd in the grandstands roared with delight when the ball settled just fifteen feet from the hole. They roared with redoubled volume when Day sank the eagle putt to move to 13-under. But in the time it took him to walk up to the putting surface Walker had rolled in his own birdie putt on the 17th, and struck a perfect drive at the last. Thus the leader was out in the fairway next to me, watching as Day made his heroic three, but knowing that as long as he parred the hole victory was still his.

Walker’s own approach with a fairway wood sailed wide right into the rough, but on the par-5 that meant he still had three shots to win. A safe chip ran well past the hole, and his lag putt settled three feet away. He later admitted to understandable nerves, but the putt that clinched the championship was never in doubt. As it fell into the cup Jimmy Walker became the fourth first-time major winner this year. It is true that two of the names on that list, Stenson and Dustin Johnson, have long been considered among the best golfers who hadn’t won a major. But along with Walker this year’s champions include Danny Willett, largely unknown outside Europe until he captured the Masters.

The wins by Willett and Walker, and Sunday’s dramatic finish at Baltusrol, remind golf fans that in this individual sport with its deep pool of talent there are many players who have a legitimate chance to claim one of the biggest prizes. The size of one’s gallery is a poor predictor of success, and sometimes even a 2-iron for the ages can’t overcome a bogey-free performance over the final 28 holes on a marathon Sunday. Now Jimmy Walker can celebrate his new status as a major champion, and I can start cleaning the mud off my golf shoes.

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