With the endless hype around golf’s newly minted folk hero, Michael Block, you’d swear the 46-year-old SoCal club pro ended world hunger. Or discovered a new planet. Or saved a toddler from a burning building. Block did none of those things, of course. He tied for 15th in a golf tournament.
But what a 15th-place finish it was!
So electric was the buzz around Block’s PGA Championship performance at Oak Hill last week — fueled by a storybook nothing-but-net ace on the 15th hole Sunday — that you had only two choices: get on the Blocky Express (next stop, Fort Worth!), or get flattened by it. Fans on site were delirious, as if they had lucked into Taylor Swift floor seats. Viewers on social media couldn’t type quickly or enthusiastically enough about what they were witnessing. (Same went for this reporter.) Block’s “RAW” hat became a hot commodity, and a collector offered him 50 large for his magic-making 7-iron. Even Block’s Sunday playing partner, Rory McIlroy, looked a little starry-eyed.
And then there was MJ. Yes, that MJ, who sent Block some love by way of text. GOATs recognizing GOATs. There’s so much attention on Block, who before becoming golf’s Elvis was doling out $125 lessons at a public course 50 miles south of L.A., that he might benefit from a high-powered agency representing him. Alas, on Wednesday, WME Sports — which promotes the likes of Jordan Spieth, Serena Williams and Joel Embiid — announced that it had signed Block as a “client in all areas.”
If you’re starting to feel a hint of Block fatigue, you’re forgiven. (On Wednesday evening, Block had tongues wagging when a clip from Bob Menery’s podcast made the rounds of Block proclaiming that if he had Rory McIlroy’s length, he’d be “one of the best players in the world.”) But there’s another group of observers who don’t seem to be quite there yet: his fellow players, many of whom Block beat last week, and many more of whom he’ll face this week at the Charles Schwab Challenge, at Ben Hogan’s old stomping grounds, Colonial Country Club, a narrow, exacting test that, like Oak Hill, might set up well for Block.
Indeed, by way of several players at Colonial who were asked about Block’s play earlier this week, it was clear that he had captured their imaginations, too. Tour pros are largely a selfish and solitary lot, and we don’t say this disparagingly. To ascend the ranks of professional golf, you must put yourself first, and that means not being wowed by your competitors, or, if you are, at least not letting the world know you feel that way. Look at Tiger Woods. He has softened up as age and injuries have derailed him, but in his world-dominating prime, Woods would have sooner heaved his trusty Scotty Cameron off a cliff than publicly praised another player.
And this is where Block’s story gets really fun. Many of the players at Oak Hill were every bit as swept up in the craze as the fans — not so much because of Block’s shotmaking but because of his general joie de golf. Sure, the field was impressed by the steadiness of Block’s game and his knack for grinding out pars, but it was his attitude — specifically, his ability to fully embrace the moment in the moment — that seemed to most resonate with players and in some cases get them thinking about their own relationships with the game.
Scottie Scheffler, like so many other Tour pros, learned the game from a PGA professional — in his case, Randy Smith of Royal Oaks CC, in Dallas. Scheffler basically grew up at the club and forged a tight bond not only with Smith but also with the other pros there. “It’s definitely great for the game,” the world’s top-ranked player said of Block’s week. “The PGA professionals really do the hard work for us.”
Added five-time PGA Tour winner Sam Burns, “I think it was so cool for all of us to watch him have that opportunity, then to play as well as he did.”
For us to watch him, the 14th-ranked player in the world said of a guy who came into Oak Hill ranked 3,580th.
Spieth, who was in the 10:50 a.m. pairing at Oak Hill on Sunday, was already on his jet by the time the leaders were on the back nine. He was watching the CBS telecast, but just as Block arrived on the 15th tee, Spieth’s feed cut out, as can happen at 30,000 feet. Spieth missed the now-fabled shot, but the flurry of text messages he received moments later from incredulous friends told him everything he needed to know. “Just insane,” Spieth said. “Absolutely insane.”
Absolutely insane, said the player who has brought more insanity to golf than any player since John Daly stormed onto the scene at Crooked Stick.
“I think what was so cool about that as a player that can get caught into a decade out here and think of it as work more than play,” Spieth went on, “is you saw how he embraced that entire week, and he’s talked about it after as like, you’ll look back and think of a couple of weeks in your life, and this may be one of the best ones I’ve had. It’s like, man, we get to do that every week. I think if you can kind of help keep that perspective and be a little more like Michael Block week to week, it would be a good thing for all of us.”
Time to reboot the old Nike spot. Be like Mike.
Los Angeles native Max Homa knew of Block’s talent before most of his peers. Years ago, they were grouped together in the same state tournament. “A legend in Southern California,” is how Homa described Block on Wednesday.
And now a legend far beyond.
“It’s always amazing to see someone who, if you go to the U.S. Amateur or the U.S. Mid-Am and you see those players, how great they are, and they have a job,” Homa said. “I spend all my days here practicing golf. That’s all I have to do, and he can still whup me real good. To see him not only play great, but enjoy it so much and get appreciated by the fans and appreciated back, it was just — it was refreshing.”
Refreshing, said the player who through his own thoughtfulness, approachability and quick wit has been as refreshing a presence on Tour in recent years as just about any of his peers.
Of Block’s ace, Homa said, “It looked fake. I don’t think you could have written that one. Even Tin Cup didn’t go quite that far. They made him hit seven more balls before one went in.”
Homa added: “To go out last week and be — it’s a major. Everyone is as prepared as you could possibly be, and to go and beat basically everybody, all but 14 people, I mean, that’s awesome. It shows you how much game he’s got. It shows you his mental fortitude. Again, as much as all that was impressive, just the joy he had while playing and all of that was — I think that’s what stuck out the most.”
Joy. That’s the word, perhaps more than any other, that best describes what the Tour pros saw in the club pro, perhaps even what they envied in him. In Block, some saw a glint of what golf used to be to them: a fun way to while away an afternoon with pals, to play for stakes that couldn’t cover a steak, to chase the sun and never want to go home.
“You just get kind of caught up in the week to week,” Spieth said. “I’ve always talked about the most important thing for me is trying to remember that it’s a game, and I want to be who I was when I was 14, 15 years old, getting better and falling in love with the game by shooting low scores, wanting to go out and practice, and having fun attacking pins.
“If I’m 80 years old, I’m not going to remember when I laid it 30 feet left of the hole, which at times may be a better decision. But also if I played that way, I may have won another event or two, but I probably wouldn’t have won three or four of them that I did.
“I guess what I’m saying is [Block] has no reason to play other than play the way he always has known, and I think there’s something to be taken from that. More importantly, it’s just the way his demeanor was on and off the course, the way he talked about it. That’s what I meant in we could all use a little Michael Block. Those of us that have been out here a long time and get caught up in the complaining route.”
Once in a while, it’s nice to step back and get caught up in something else.
Or someone else.