At a vicious PGA Championship, the only joy is misery
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — As he stood over the chip on the 17th hole that could well sink his PGA Championship, Rory McIlroy looked, well, miserable.
His face wore a pained expression. His hands fidgeted in small, sudden movements. He talked with his caddie and longtime friend, Harry Diamond, in frustrated quips. He walked in staccato strides to the green and back, searching for some clue on how to execute.
He stepped up to the ball. He paused. He stepped away. He stepped up again. He committed.
And then … an explosion of sound — not the literal kind — erupting from the 15th green just a 5-iron away.
Rory stepped off his ball again. He turned back to Harry exasperated. If looks could kill, McIlroy’s might well have had the strength of a cruise missile.
But looks can’t kill, and so Rory had no choice but to play his short-sided wedge shot off a tight, greenside lie and up toward the flagstick … for par. For the moment, the cruise missile sounded better.
His ball scared the hole for just a second, electing instead to settle neatly just a short putt away. McIlroy would have to take bogey, his fourth and final of the day at Oak Hill. As he walked away from the flagstick he looked up at the sky. For the moment, his tournament had been saved.
McIlroy is a demonstrative golfer, but his experience on Saturday afternoon at the PGA Championship was not an unusual one. Misery was the only path to contention on Saturday at Oak Hill, which has proven as proper and demanding a major championship test as we have seen in professional golf in some time.
Misery in the rain. Misery in the mud. Misery off the tee. Misery around the green. It was everywhere.
The only people who managed were those with the mental makeup to endure such disenchantment for the better part of five hours. It should come as no surprise that also amounts to a who’s who of major championship stalwarts. On Saturday night, the first seven names on the leaderboard feature the last names Koepka (six under), Hovland (five under), Conners (five under), DeChambeau (three under), Rose (two under), Scheffler (two under) and McIlroy (one under).
“I think this tournament and especially in these conditions and on this golf course, the non-physical parts of the game I think are way more important this week than the physical parts of the game,” McIlroy said after it was over Saturday, his body language still recovering from the beating. “I think I’ve done those well, and that’s the reason that I’m in a decent position.”
The eighth name of the leaderboard, however, is not a major championship regular — nor a professional golf regular. He is PGA teaching professional Michael Block, who may be about the last person anyone expected to see six strokes off Koepka’s six-under lead come Sunday morning. Block was the cause of the eruption of noise on the 15th green behind McIlroy, his birdie on the hole igniting the upstate New York faithful.
What’s Block’s secret? Well, he may be the only PGA professional in the field silly enough to think he belongs there. And, as it turns out, he just might.
“No. I mean, if anything, I love Rosey, but I can compete against these guys,” he said Saturday. “I can compete against them. I can hang. I can post a three or four under tomorrow, especially if I get the fairways rolling again.”
Block might not have a Tour pro’s driving distance or putting ability, but he has a major champion’s delusion. That, it turns out, was an absolutely essential piece of the puzzle in an inch of rain Saturday at Oak Hill, when no reasonable person would have believed earnestly that it was an enjoyable experience.
“I doubt if anybody on this entire property loves golf as much as I love golf. Period,” he said. “[One day] I’ll look back at this week and I’ll say, ‘I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m glad you enjoyed the moment.'”
Koepka, your 54-hole leader, certainly enjoyed the misery. A month after a decidedly uncharacteristic Sunday fade at the Masters, he stalked around Rochester like a hungry lion. On a day when only nine golfers shot rounds under par, Koepka shot 66, posting the round of the day by two strokes and placing himself a stroke clear of the field heading into Sunday.
“Learning what I learned at Augusta kind of helped today. To just never think the way I thought going into the final round. I won’t do it again the rest of my career,” Koepka said, although he chose not to elaborate on exactly what that thinking was. “That doesn’t mean that you can’t go play bad — you can play good, you’ll play bad — but I’ll never have that mindset.”
Koepka entered Saturday with a sideshow within reason: his first major pairing with Bryson DeChambeau since the start of an acrimonious feud at this very tournament two years ago. But if there was a circus on Saturday, Koepka didn’t notice.
“I’ll be honest with you, I don’t pay too much attention to who I’m playing with,” he said. “I don’t talk a lot. I’m more focused on what I’ve got to do. Especially today with the rain, trying to stay dry, there are other things to have to worry about.”
As we turn to Sunday, it’s unlikely the agony will stop. The weather will improve for the final round, but the challenge will not. Who knew the road to glory was paved with broken souls?
Evidently, McIlroy, who shared an all-too-familiar grimace when asked if he thought he could find a final-round 65.
“I hope so,” he said, pausing briefly. “I need to keep hope.”
On Sunday, the PGA Championship will crown a winner. But right now there are no winners.