REARDON: Kiawah In The Headlights…And Rearview Mirror
KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (KMOX) — Because of its annual place on the golf calendar, the PGA championship has always struggled for the kind of attention accorded its siblings. Not only is the run up muted by its proximity to the Open Championship, but this year it sits in the middle of the Olympics, headed to head with pennant and wild card races in baseball, and competing for ink with NFL training camps and college football. A year ago in Atlanta it sat decidedly down the sports food chain in local media.
So trying to come up with meaningful insights will be supplanted by some random thoughts looking back and ahead.
Like many of the more ‘mature’ members of the golf media, my only impressions of Kiawah are distant recollections of the 1991 Ryder Cup – the infamous War by the Shore. The Pete Dye design was such a newcomer to golf’s big time spotlight that the course hadn’t even been built when the PGA of America named its Ryder Cup assignment. The simplest description of the seaside layout is holes as islands of green flanked by almost constant ribbons of sand. Don’t anticipate much conversation about rough.
As you might expect ocean breezes add the degree of difficulty to the nearly 7700-yard course. But what St. Louis has lacked in rainfall, Kiawah has gained. If Kerry Haigh of the PGA wants to break pattern and stretch the course to near the limits over the four days length will be accentuated by soft conditions. Sand will not. The rain will compact the sand, and the PGA has decided to play the entire course as “through the green,” meaning no problems with loose impediments, no concern’s about grounding the club. Green light lies in the sand for 72 holes. Also anticipate conversations about the paspalum greens, a surface new to major championship golf. A naturally slower grass and less severe contours in the green complexes may produce some of the best putting seen this year in the majors.
My shot in the dark suggestion is the player who walks off with the Wannamaker Trophy is going to be the one who gets the most out of his greenside misses. If the wind stays down double digits under par will be necessary to win the final major. If winds replace breezes, low single digits should be enough.
But you can’t look at Kiawah without drifting back twenty-one years. The greatest generation of players from Britain and Europe had already turned an American joyride to a biennial tussle. My first Ryder Cup was 1987 at Muirfield Village, and the visiting team made it back to back wins and a first ever win on US soil. Toss in a tie in ‘89 and the Americans were spoiling for a fight in ‘91.
They sparked controversy on the first day with camouflage golf caps in the wake of the Gulf War. Two days of good weather and bad moods produced an eight-eight tie going into the Sunday finals. Spending more time than usual on the course that Sunday I can still remember thinking it was impossible to know where to go next as the matches rarely showed separation. Brutal wind conditions elicited more groans than cheers from the over charged American galleries as every match reached the par 3 17th.
While most will point to the final match tension of Bernhard Langer and Hale Irwin, the collapse of Mark Calcavecchia stands out equally in my mind. Dominating Colin Montgomery for fourteen holes, Calc was positioned to lock up the win. But for the former Open Champion it was an Adam Scott four hole final collapse marked by an almost helpless tee shot in a strong slice wind and punctuated by a three putt finish for triple bogey six.
So that left St. Louisan Hale Irwin and former Masters champion Bernhard Langer to decide the final result at eighteen. The number of emotional swings with that final pair on that hole are too many to list here, but it came down to a missed putt by Langer for a halve and an American win.
Nearly a year later Irwin told me the tension from that final match and hole still remained with him. Don’t look for that level of drama from this week’s PGA Championship.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX in St. Louis. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.