21 May 2021 | Feature stories | Professional golf |

CLAYTON: Endless questions, endless test

by Mike Clayton

Brooks Koepka's knee seemingly stood up well en route to an opening 69, even in Kiawah's rugged wastelands.
Brooks Koepka's knee seemingly stood up well en route to an opening 69, even in Kiawah's rugged wastelands.

For the longest time, picking the likely winner of a major championship was a relatively simple affair.

Jones, Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Player, Nicklaus and Tiger were clearly more likely to win than their peers.

It was never as predictable as tennis, but then again, tennis is a more predictable game. No one is picking against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.

At Kiawah Island this week, it’s simply a guessing game as to who might be the likely winner and it’s barely worth going through the exercise of reeling off the names of those most likely.

Before it even began, there were myriad questions: Rory McIlroy won both last week and last time the PGA was at Kiawah, but could he get through the opening round without sleep-walking his way to a score all but taking him out of the championship? Seemingly not.

How is Koepka’s knee? Pretty good, apparently.

How will Cameron Smith play? Jason Day? Both showed a bit, but the jury is still out.

Is Jon Rahm the next great European player or does Viktor Hovland beat him to a major championship?

Who is distracted by the Saudi offer of millions to play a rebel tour?

Will the weather take one “side” of the draw out of contention?

They’re almost endless – and then there’s the stage.

This course was purpose built by Pete Dye to stage the 1991 Ryder Cup and so brutal was the combination of course and weather that the 24 players must have been glad no one was handing out score cards on the first tee.

The week was perhaps best summed up by Colin Montgomerie standing on the 15th tee four down to Mark Calcavecchia, finishing bogey, par double bogey, par, and winning all four holes to halve the match. Mercifully, for both probably, there was no 19th hole.

The course is long – more than 7800 yards from the back of the back tees, yet it seems those who arrange the course are inclined to move the markers around for the sake of variety and as a nod to the wind direction.

A 600-yard par five is on the edge of being reachable with no wind by modern players, but with the wind coming into your face at 40km/h, 600 yards stretches out interminably.

Either way, the golf ball they played in 1991 is much different from the modern marvel and length shouldn’t be as much of an issue as managing the seaside winds.

Matthew Wolff, the closest modern-day, “whirly-bird” swinger to Miller Barber or Gay Brewer, is the only one of the top 100 players in the world not playing this week, making it likely the strongest top-end field of the four major championships. Yet, in the pecking order of such things, the PGA has always sat behind the other three majors.

I’ve long thought it a pity it doesn’t occasionally move around the world and try and set itself as the world championship of golf.

The United States already has three of the four majors so once, say every four years, taking it to Japan, Australia, South Africa, Korea or continental Europe would do much to advance the championship as well as selling the game to places unlikely to ever see such an abundance of great players.

Unless, of course, one of the rebel tours with their promises of unimagined riches gets up and running.

There aren’t many things professional tennis does better than professional golf, but the geographical spread of its most important tournaments is one of them.

The course is a much different affair from the more favoured classic parkland courses favoured by the organisers although it looks as though the fairways are much narrower than Dye envisaged with the tell-tale sign being bunkers intended to be on the edge of fairways far into the rough. It’s an American oddity, but notwithstanding such curiosities, this promises to be a fascinating championship.

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