What stood out after a week of covering the 99th PGA Championship on site at Quail Hollow Club? Our staff empties their notebooks and looks back at the week that was.
Getting into the swim of things
Here’s a trend we can all get behind: celebrities getting hooked on golf.
Recently, NBA MVP Stephen Curry teed it up in a Web.com event and added the kind of juice that tour hadn’t seen in years, and maybe ever. This week at the PGA Championship, Steph’s Warriors teammate Andre Iguodala jumped into the broadcast booth and walked the fairways as an on-course analyst. And on the driving range during a practice round, mixing it up with fans and players, there stood pop music star and walking viral-video, Justin Bieber. Golf is having a crossover moment.
The celeb sightings continued during Thursday’s opening round when Michael Phelps ducked under the ropes with his wife, Nicole, to follow his buddy Jordan Spieth. As he strolled along, Phelps seemed to be enjoying himself, so I slid over to say hello. How often can you shake hands with a 23-time Olympic gold medalist? I told Phelps it was great to see him at the tournament.
“I love it, man. I love all this,” Phelps said. “I had an event in the area and wanted to get over here and watch him today. This is awesome.”
Phelps blew into town to play a golf event for Omega watches, one of his sponsors, and his passion for the game is palpable. While tailing Spieth he slapped high-fives and chatted with fans along the way, adding to the buzz around one of golf’s biggest stars.
Under a group of pines along a fairway, a middle-aged man frantically whipped out his phone and asked Phelps for a quick pic, which (not that it mattered) probably violated the PGA’s spectator cell phone policy. The fan got his photo, and as Phelps turned to walk away the guy blurted: “You’re bigger than these guys!”
Phelps stands a chiseled 6-4, but the fan wasn’t referring to his physical stature. Phelps is big, all right. His presence helped this PGA Championship stand a little taller.
The Green Mile isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be
A few years back a sports-talk radio host in Charlotte decided the menacing closing three holes at Quail Hollow Club needed a menacing name. He solicited suggestions from his listnership and ultimately The Green Mile won the day. The moniker was a nod to the 1996 Stephen King novel about death row that was later turned into a film starring Tom Hanks.
On a sweltering Sunday afternoon at the 99th PGA Championship, as Jon Rahm was bashing his way down the closing stretch, I hiked the Green Mile (bald man walking!), from the tippy-tips of the tee box on the watery par-4 16th to the back of the green on the bruising par-4 finisher. Curious about the precise length of this infamous stretch (it measures 1,223 yards on the card but that doesn’t account for the commutes from greens to tees), I downloaded a shiny new app called Runkeeper to track my every step.
My journey began at the back of the tee at the 506-yard 16th, a stunning design that feeds over a crest down to a green backed by water. Rahm ripped his tee shot and I was off, pacing purposefully down the right rough, past a cavernous fairway bunker to the collection area just right of the putting surface. Total distance walked: 0.26 miles.
From there, I doubled back up to the tee at the knee-knocking 17th, a 223-yard par-3 that requires a carry over more water, past the throngs of fans lining the right side of the hole to a shady patch next to the green. Total distance walked: 0.49 miles.
Walk, sweat, walk, sweat, up a steep slope to the tee box at the punishing closer and the homestretch unfurled before me—494 yards of verdant, teeth-kicking splendor. Down the fairway I strode, under the oaks that line the right of the hole and up to green, where Bryson DeChambeau was holing out for a 71. Total distance walked: 0.80 miles.
Yes, dear reader, the fabled GREEN MILE, which was brandished on posters, coasters and T-shirts in the PGA Championship merchandise center and on a corporate hospitality pavilion by the 17th tee, is not a mile—although it is green! Disappointing? Mildly. Scandalous? Hardly. In this era of fake tans, fake teeth and fake news, a fake slogan feels like a low-grade offense.
Plus it’s a hell of a lot catchier than The Green Four-Fifths of a Mile.
A spot well-deserved
Omar Uresti, a PGA Life Member, caught some heat in June when he won the PGA Professional Championship to earn one of the 20 spots reserved PGA pros in last week’s PGA Championship field.
But it wasn’t without controversy. Uresti, unlike many rank-and-file teaching pros, made 356 career PGA Tour starts, picked up six professional wins and won roughly $4.5 million over his career. Some of them thought it was unfair to let him compete.
But agree or disagree—Uresti did nothing wrong. He played by the rules. If it’s unfair, it’s the PGA of America’s job to change the qualifying system.
Uresti, who turned 49 earlier this month, made his third straight PGA Championship appearance and made the cut for the first time. On Saturday, he was minutes removed from a disastrous back nine — he doubled the 15th and tripled the 17th to shoot 80 — yet you wouldn’t have known. Walking off a cat walk en route to the scorer’s tent, Uresti stopped and went out of his way to sign a boy’s flag. The kid smiled; the dad thanked him.
Minutes later, as his playing partners were miles ahead of him, he stopped again and signed for a dozen more kids. Hats. Flags. And golf balls.
“Sorry, I don’t have ball with me!” he apologized to one boy. “No, sorry, I still need my hat. I don’t have that with me either, I already gave that out. Sorry guys.”
“Good luck this week, Omar.”
“I would have loved to play better today,” said Uresti, who closed with a Sunday 73 one day later. “Today was a rough one. I really haven’t hit it as close to as good as I normally do, but I putted really well. It was kind of a little bit rough.”
Any pro who is that accommodating to eager golf fans deserves a spot in any field. Until the rules change, he’s welcome in my book.
A sight for sore eyes
The first time I visited the Quail Hollow Club was in May 1979. I was newly 19 and flew to Charlotte to caddie in the Kemper Open for one of the best golfers from Michigan, Randy Erskine. I flew into the small-city Charlotte airport from Boston, arriving at night, and found a family-owned motel across the street from the airport. There is no “across the street” from the airport anymore, just the usual maze of parking lots, rental-car facilities, service roads, vast staging areas, roads and highways. Very few motels and they are not “across the street.”
I arrived on a Monday night and got myself to the course by seven the next morning. How, I have no idea. Where I left my suitcase, I have no idea. As for the course, back then, it was spectacular. I doubt I ever saw a more beautiful, better-maintained country-club course in all my life, with perfect sand and gleaming greens and groundsmen on every hole doing some useful thing. The course the fellas played last week was virtually unrecognizable to me, except maybe the first tee. I remember heading off the first tee with Randy and showing him a little device I had bought at a hardware store to get entrenched dirt out of scoring lines. He was far too polite to say, “We have wet towels for that.” Instead he said something like, “That’s very inventive.”
I’m not a good one for saving things, but I still have my caddie badge from the 1979 Kemper Open at Quail Hollow. It’s stuck into a varsity letter. I could drape my press badge from the 2017 PGA Championship next to it but I doubt I will. Quail Hollow in ’79 was my first Tour event. You only get one first.