Golf, as with other sports, sometimes rises to the level of art, of beauty, of perfection, of talent, skill, determination, mindfulness, mindlessness, of spirit. The Buddha once said life can change as quickly as the swish of a horse’s tail, and we see that daily in our morning apps or newspapers. But we also see it in sports, which is why sports are so important for our societies. Millenia ago war was a form of sport, fought constantly for resources, for slaves, for territory, for dominance, for revenge. But today, there are far fewer wars, replaced, I think, by sport that serves as catharsis for those destructive, acquisitive impulses that constant wars once satisfied. And golf is the most genteel and cathartic sport of them all….in my humble opinion.
What we saw at the PGA was a humane battlefield with combatants vying for that large and impressive trophy and the glory that attends it. Its soldiers were well trained, carrying not guns but golf clubs, using brains and brawn to gain advantage over the field. A microscopic virus, another combatant of sorts, had cleared the impeccably prepared field of spectators, save for a few hardy fence sitters from a nearby neighborhood, providing catcalls to their favorites. Each contestant, with faithful liege/caddie by his side, was deep into his own psyche, gathering all knowledge from past training in his planning and strategy for the matter at hand. The moment of decision. The marketer’s POP or point of purchase. The coup de grace. The swish of the horse’s tail. The accountant’s bottom line. The lawyer’s closing argument. The butcher’s calculated final chop.
Coming into the final nine, seven of these men, all polished gladiators in kind, were tied at ten under par, an extraordinary accomplishment given the difficulty of the venue and the chilled and windy “coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco,” as Mark Twain once put it. From my living room TV perch, as close to the edge of my zero gravity recliner as I dared, I had my preferences but could not say who would win. Like opposing mountain rams, each seemed as capable as the next to pull it off. I cheered for every good shot, regardless of who hit it.
The leader at the start of the day was Brooks Keopka, a rather somber, morose, and humorless Ted Ray of a bloke who had won four majors in something like the last two years, and who had the audacity to claim, when all was said and done, he only basically had to beat about 10 players in a beginning field of 120. Keopka is a player of great skills and determination. But I don’t particularly like the palooka, and was quite happy that he was having an uncharacteristically terrible last day at a major. At this point, he was no longer in contention.
The roundtable knights who were in contention were likeable Englishman Paul Casey, often-majors-bridesmaid Dustin Johnson, relative unknown Korn Ferry Tour standout Scottie Scheffler, oft injury-plagued Aussie Jason Day, long-hitting Tongan Samoan American Tony Finau, young phenom helicopter swinging Matthew Wolff, and former scholar and four-time All American, classic swinging, cool as that SF summer, 23 year old Collin Morikawa. And just a shot or two behind lurked Bryson “The Bomber” DeChambeau and even longer, on-average, driver Cameron Champ.
All was relatively quiet on the Western Front until Morikawa chipped in on the par 3 14th for a bird after a pretty terrible tee shot. That put him into the lead and must have really got the young man going. For what happened two holes later was the stuff of golf legend.
The par 4 16th at Harding Park is one of those driveable par fours the pros love. A risk/reward hole that can have you chomping at the bit for a bird late in the round. But the 16th was no piece of cake. It claimed 37 bogeys and five double bogeys on the week. In the final pairing on Sunday, Dustin Johnson hit his tee shot way left into the penalty area, but after a drop, miraculously holed out for birdie. There are three bunkers to the left of the green, one to the right, with a narrow opening to the green. The hole played 323 that day, into a cold wind. Misses tended to bleed right, where trees caused problems with pitch shots from the short side. The previous three days, Morikawa, the young Californian who knew the course well from his college days at UC Berkeley, had laid up each time. But this time, he pulled out the big stick. Paul Casey, in the group in front, birdied the hole after his chip approach. Collin had a one shot lead as he stepped up and, without hesitation, hit a truly historic shot–a beauty–tracked for us TV viewers by ShotLink, bouncing just in front of the green and rolling up to 7 feet below the hole, in perfect position for an eagle. He cooly canned the putt, center cut, and his lead was suddenly two. That drive, heard and seen round the world, a drive that will appear on highlight reels for decades to come, a drive for dough and for show, won him glory and his first major.
And yet golf can also cruelly manifest “the agony of defeat.” Lydia Ko found that out first hand at the Marathon LPGA Classic last week. Lydia, a World #1 early in her career but, over the past few years, has suffered a similar fate as Jordan Spieth, was ahead by five shots standing on the 13th tee. Her opponent, playing partner, and good friend Danielle Kang had won the previous week and was in second, apparently too far behind to expect much. But golf is an oddly capricious game, and again, that horse’s tail swish of change the Buddha mentioned is always possible. Danielle made a couple of quick birdies. Lydia a bogey. And they came to the fairly easy par 5 18th with Ko a mere one shot ahead. Danielle parred the hole after a difficult bunker shot. But Ko proceeded to butcher it, missing an eight-foot bogey putt. She lost the tournament to her friend by a stroke. It was a cruel, cruel game from Lydia’s perspective; but from Danielle’s, it was a lesson in never, ever saying die–a lesson that applies to these pros as well as the everyday handicap player.
Some congratulations are in order: First, to 42 year old journeyman Jim Herman who won his third PGA victory at the Wyndham Championship. That moves him from 269th in the world to 91th. Billy Horschel looked like a winner but could only manage the runner up spot. Next is 22 year old Georgia Tech senior Tyler Strafaci who won the highly coveted U.S. Amateur title at Bandon Dunes on the blustery Oregon coast. He defeated SMU’s Ollie Osborne in a gripping 36 hole final, 1-up, decided on the last hole of this fabulous links course. His father, an accomplished amateur, had tried 16 times to win this tournament, and most notably took Arnold Palmer to the final hole in the first match at the 1954 event. Palmer eventually went on to win. And finally, kudos to Stacy Lewis who won the Ladies Scottish Open for her first victory since 2017 and her first since becoming a new mother in 2018. She did it in a four way playoff, hitting more fairways and greens than anyone else. Now the former British Open champ is on to this year’s British Open this week at Royal Troon.
This week, it’s the FedExCup playoff opener at TPC Boston where Tiger Woods is due back in the lineup.
On a personal note, I continue to recuperate from a hernia operation (no golf for awhile, says my surgeon!), commiserated with my buddy Rob about how the infirmities of age can so rudely interrupt one’s golf goals, sent my great-nephew Matt for his 20th birthday a book to help advance his golf goals which include scratch golf (the young man hits it 300 plus and is currently a 2 or 3 handicap), and helped, over the phone, my great-niece Emily’s boyfriend Joe, hopefully, cure a stealth shank that has crept into his swing, as I did mine.
May the golf gods favor you always. Enjoy these summer days on the links.