(KMOX) – Sunday’s final round of the 96th PGA Championship was perhaps the most entertaining final day at a major since Charl Schwartzel broke out of the pack at Augusta National to win the Masters in 2011. Add to that the exclamation point Rory McIlroy put on the major championship season, and you have a story worth telling and examining. But young Mr. McIlroy will have to wait until next week because the scrutiny must first go to the administration of the tournament’s conclusion and an ongoing concern about major championship golf.
From the moment the midday downpour hit Valhalla on Sunday, delaying play for over one hour, it became a stopwatch final with the count to sunset as tense as the contest for the Wannamaker Trophy. With its 2:55 pm EDT final group starting time pushed back to 4:19 it was guaranteed that a playoff, if necessary, would be a Monday scenario and a regulation outcome before dark was a matter of debate.
As McIlroy began his comeback with the eagle at the tenth I began checking my watch as frequently as the leaderboard. No one wanted a Monday finish, but the PGA of America was so aware of the potential for a partial conclusion that about the time the final groups reached the three closing holes they announced to the media the 9 am starting time if a Monday return was necessitated.
Concurrent to this announcement we saw a trio of what I believe to be poor decisions to get the event in with some dubious measures.
At sixteen, in the second last group, Ricky Fowler hit his most errant shot of the round, sailing his drive to the adjacent 15th fairway. As he headed for his ball we had the odd scene of Fowler crossing paths with McIlroy on the fifteenth green and heading down the other fairway. Meanwhile Fowler’s caddie paced a yardage from the adjacent fairway and was sprinting back to his player when the TV cameras cut to McIlroy hitting his tee shot at sixteen.
Explaining how a player on the closing holes could hit into the group ahead, Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America excused the mistake, claiming from McIlroy’s position on the tee he could not know that Fowler was in the fifteenth fairway. Give Haigh the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t see the exchange on fifteen green, and you are still left with his suggestion that players in major championships proceed of their own volition, when he knows full well that no player in McIlroy’s position would tee off without input from the hole’s marshals and an official on the tee.
This appeared to be a deliberate time saving measure, with no harm/ no foul.
Skip ahead to the concluding hole and rapidly encroaching darkness. With Fowler and Phil Mickelson trailing by a stroke, and a birdie possibility at the week’s easiest hole available to both, the playoff scenario seemed the most likely outcome. So Fowler and Mickelson waited patiently as Jason Day and Louis Oosthuizen cleared the fairway at eighteen.
Then McIlroy changed the math again for a Sunday finish. He rolled in a birdie at seventeen and with a two shot lead with one to play it was now possible to avoid Monday with a little slight of hand.
McIlroy stood politely behind the eighteenth tee as the group ahead played their shots. Before Mickelson and Fowler walked off the teeing ground a conversation ensued and eventually both were informed that when they reached the fairway they should step aside and let the final group hit their tee shots. We had the unusual site of Mickelson tracking the leader’s shot fly over his head before he had played to the green.
Now needing eagle to tie, both Mickelson and Fowler left their approaches to the right but still with long hole-outs for eagle in play. They again they were told to hold in place while the group behind them played their seconds. As it turned out Mickelson flirted with the chip in eagle, Fowler three putted and McIlroy safely played from his bunkered approach for a one stroke win.
Unlike the foul up at sixteen, the fire drill at eighteen has to be evaluated differently because of the breeches in the way the game should be played. Both Mickelson and Fowler said afterwards they were onboard with the expedited tee shots but had not given their consent to delaying their attempts for eagle. Haigh contradicted the player’s account, perhaps misinformed by his on course officials. Both players seemed less than pleased with how the round’s conclusion was manipulated after the round.
Even McIlroy in the rush to finish was put in a position no player trying to win a championship would ever choose to make. I asked him afterwards in his winner’s interview session how unusual it was to make the choice as to what shot to play for his second when he was committing to a strategy without knowing what his actual lead would be. The young Irishman admitted it was a strange circumstance and protected the reputation of the organization whose giant trophy sat next to him by suggesting he calculated the odds of either Mickelson or Fowler catching him with eagle from where they were playing were in his favor and he played accordingly.
Rory McIlroy didn’t get to four majors by age 25 by just playing odds on the 72nd hole with a chance of squandering the title. No player in his position would have played his second without knowing where he stood. His decision was orchestrated by the rules officials.
I believe what took place in the closing darkness was a panic response to McIlroy’s birdie at seventeen. If playing into the group ahead was the best way to get the event in on time, the same policy could have been used with any of the final groups at eighteen, and you could make the argument it made even more sense for Mickelson and Fowler to play into the group ahead of them than the plan put in place.
Major championship golf has been playing with fire with late Sunday starting times for years and everyone knows this is a programming decision, not a golf decision. The PGA of America got burned by accommodating their TV partners at Baltusrol in 2005 with a Monday finish despite forecast weather delays that should have precipitated an adjusted Sunday start. Adam Scott admitted in his playoff win a year ago at the Masters that he needed his caddie to read the putt on the final playoff hole because it was too dark for him to see. This year the R&A broke with a century old tradition going to split tees on Saturday on the probability of an ominous forecast.
If the PGA of America wants to bolster their championship’s reputation in the major family, they need to eliminate final round embarrassments like Baltusrol, Whistling Straits and now Valhalla and set a responsible standard on fourth round starting times that insure the integrity of their outcomes.
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