10 Aug 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Strange days indeed

by Mike Clayton

Collin Morikawa_image
So odd was today at Harding Park that not even the Wanamaker Trophy was safe in the hands of champion Collin Morikawa. Photo: Getty

As far as championship golf goes, it was the game’s strangest day. 

The PGA Championship played out on a purpose-made municipal course in San Francisco with only caddies, television announcers, officials, curious locals peering through the fencing around the course’s perimeter and presumably a few wives as observers. 

In order to keep scoring to levels deemed to be acceptable for a major championship, the par at Harding Park was reduced from the public’s norm of 72 to 70, the fairways narrowed and there was an awful lot of long grass around the greens designed to make “chipping” more problematic.

Most deemed it a success, but what if the par had remained at 72 and 21 under had won? Does 21 under par indicate either the course is somehow failing to test the game’s greatest players, or that the distance the modern ball flies demands a major reworking of golf courses?

Of course, par is measured by how a scratch golfer plays the course and in this modern era, a 520-yard hole – the 9th at Harding Park, for example – is a par four. The 12th hole, which played as long as 503 yards and as short as 483 over the course of the week, isn’t really close to a long two-shotter for the best players. 

Thus, 70 was hardly an unreasonable or onerous standard. 

Despite the efforts to keep scoring within bounds, we saw some remarkably low scores on the final day – scores reminiscent of the third round at Royal Birkdale in the 2017 Open Championship when, with no wind, the course proved almost defenceless – if par is the measure – in the face of the modern player armed with the modern driver and modern ball.

Today’s winner, Collin Morikawa, had the best of the final day, making his way quietly – and technically beautifully – to the 14thtee with three birdies and not a single bogey.

The field was jammed together at the time and Morikawa was one of seven tied for the lead.

He missed the 14th green from the middle of the fairway with only a short iron but from short and right, he holed a tricky but ultimately unremarkable chip for a three. To say it was a help would, however, be to underestimate its importance.

It gave him the barest of cushions, but the 16th is a short par four, a hole on which the yardage was manipulated during the week – 341 yards on Thursday, then 285, 338 and 294 – to engender excitement into the finish.

Pete Dye, the great architect, once derisively referred to drivable par fours as simply “long par-3s”, but one would hardly suggest holes including the 3rd at Kingston Heath, the 3rd at Royal Adelaide, Royal Melbourne’s 10th, the 13th at The Lakes or the 15th at Victoria are simply “par-3s”.

They are all technically drivable, but it takes an extraordinary shot and over the course of a week, spectators will watch players wrestle with the decision of what to play off the tee.

Most often, there will be a wide variety of clubs employed depending on the wind, the trouble to the sides, the position of the pin and how the player sits in relation to the lead.

Morikawa, as did every one of the challengers, hit a wood at the green.

It suggested the hole was perhaps deficient in asking questions the aforementioned holes have so successfully done for decades.

Morikawa did hit the absolutely perfect shot. His ball landed short, skirted past the edge of the right greenside bunker and ran up within four paces of the hole. Even better, the putt he left was straight up the hill.

When he rolled it dead into the middle and followed with two pars, the old English television commentator Henry Longhurst would have labelled as “cast iron”, the 23-year-old had done more than enough to thwart the rest.

Paul Casey, the now veteran Englishman, was next two shots behind and tied with the third-day leader Dustin Johnson who “only” managed a 68. 

Such was the quality of the scoring, the 68s of Johnson and Scotty Scheffler were the high rounds of the day among those finishing in better than 10th place.

Before this cursed virus hit the world, golf’s 2020 debate was going to be the administrations’ attempts to regulate the equipment, most notably the golf ball.

In the scheme of things going on in the world, it’s unimportant. But at some point, the game is going to have to address the question of power unimagined 30 years ago when we all thought the 290-yard averaging John Daly a phenomenon.

Morikawa, in many ways, is a throwback to players including Peter Thomson and Hale Irwin – wonderful golfers who could compete with the best by employing great technique, precision and calm, logical minds.

The last thing the game needs is for someone so skilled to be at a disadvantage simply because he’s a “short” driver.

And lest you think Morikawa a short hitter, he averages seven yards longer than circa 1991 John Daly, the year the big man won this championship so stunningly at Crooked Stick.

Elsewhere, the news was not great if you’re a fan of either Gabi Ruffels or Lydia Ko.

The former, as defending champion, spun a short putt all the way around the hole and back out the front again to lose the final of the US Women’s Amateur on the 38th hole to Rose Zhang. 

More shocking was Lydia making a seven at the par-five finishing hole to lose by one to Danielle Kang in Ohio on the LPGA Tour.

When Ko won at Royal Melbourne in 2015, she put on a clinic around one of the most demanding courses the women play all season and it marked her as clearly the best player in the game.

Not a year later there was a new swing, one which ultimately proved to be less reliable. But she’s moved away from it and now looks as technically sound as she ever has. 

Losses like this one are scarring, but I’m a big fan of her game and, like Morikawa, she plays with a simple, technical efficiency made for longevity. 

The emotions of both at the end will be wildly different but there will be more great days ahead for Ko.

Ruffels, too, by the looks of it.

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