Monday, August 11, 2014

The PGA -- thrilling and exasperating

At the final round of golf's last major championship of the season, the PGA of America failed to act preemptively, resulting in a finish that was marred by confusion. Because of a decision not made earlier on - and another request that ought to have been denied - the ending resembled what one friend called "a four-ball scramble at a charity event."

Too bad, too, because for millions of golf fans around the world, it had been years since we had seen golf this riveting. When Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Ricky Fowler and Phil Mickelson were all tied for the lead, I was reminded of the exciting close to the 1986 U.S Open at Shinnecock, when seven players were at the top of the leaderboard before Ray Floyd separated himself from the pack. In 2009, Tom Watson, nearing the age of 60, almost won his 6th Open at Turnberry.

Since then, the majors have been less than compelling. Over the past six years, Woods has not won a major, prompting many to crow that when he's not contending, people don't watch. The final round of this year's PGA Championship showed what nonsense this is.  Even though Woods missed the cut on Friday, nobody missed him during an electrifying display of golf over the weekend.  CBS was happy too, and proved it by keeping the tournament on the air well past the time other viewers were expecting to see "60 Minutes" and "Big Brother." [In 1968, NBC infamously cut away from the closing minutes of a game between the Oakland Raiders and the New York Jets for the movie, "Heidi." Oakland went on to score two touchdowns to defeat New York while furious Jets fans watched a little girl wander the Swiss Alps. No major network has dared to make this mistake again.]

CBS hit a home run (even with the weak meanderings of Nick Faldo), but the PGA blew it. As Mickelson pointed out afterwards, the PGA of America should not be in the business of running major contests. Golf's last major tournament of the summer is the only one they administer all year, so they don't get a lot of practice at it. Did anyone from the PGA take notice at what the Royal and Ancient Golf Club did at Royal Liverpool?

In last month's Open Championship, the R & A changed twosomes to threesomes to speed up the pace of play, thus avoiding the projected bad weather. After a rainstorm delay early Sunday afternoon, threesomes at the PGA would have avoided the debacle on the final hole of regulation play.

It was 8:31 p.m.   Fowler and Mickelson stood on the 18th tee, tied for second place, playing in front of the last group, the leader Rory McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger.  Because of slow play, McIlroy and Wiesberger arrived on the 18th tee while Fowler and Mickelson were still waiting to hit.   Unknown to television viewers (who could see everything quite clearly), it was getting so dark that the players could no longer see the flight of their ball.

McIlroy asked tournament officials if he and Wiesberger could play the last hole with Mickelson and Fowler as a foursome.  The request was denied, and for good reason.  (I'll address this later.)

To Mickelson's and Fowler's credit, they allowed McIlroy and Wiesberger to hit their drives immediately after Mickelson and Fowler hit theirs.  Fowler would say later, "Typically, if it's getting dark and they are going to blow the horn, you at least get the guys off the tee and it gives them the opportunity to play."

By this Fowler meant that it gives players the opportunity to finish.   If play had been suspended on account of darkness after McIlroy hit his tee shot, then he could elect to either (a) mark his ball and finish the hole on Monday, or (b) continue playing the hole in the dark.  If play were suspended before McIlroy teed off, he would have had to come back on Monday to play the last hole.   Nobody wanted that (unless there was a tie). So, after McIlroy and Wiesberger were allowed to hit their tee shots, everyone assumed they would wait to hit their second shots after Mickelson and Fowler had finished the hole.

This is where the most thrilling major championship in a decade suddenly became a circus.

Mickelson and Fowler were playing great, only two shots back, playing a par-5 finishing hole that could be eagled in the hopes of tying the lead.  And after extending the courtesy, they both knew that McIlroy's ball was not in the best position, having narrowly missed going into a water hazard.  A lot was on the line, and both players wanted to put extra pressure on McIlroy while he stood and watched.

This time it was Wiesberger (no longer a factor, hoping to catch the next available flight home to Vienna) who got into the act, asking officials if they could hit their second shots before Mickelson and Fowler were even done playing the hole. The officials relented, making their second gaffe of the day.  This was a rapid turnaround from the PGA's earlier ruling, which after first denying McIlroy's and Wiesberger's request to play as a foursome, was now allowing them to continue playing the hole right behind Mickelson and Fowler! CBS caught Mickelson on the 18th green with an expression that conveyed equal parts exasperation and incredulity.

Why couldn't the PGA let all four golfers play the last hole together? Anyone familiar with the heat of competition understands why leaders bring up the rear -- so that everyone else has a chance to catch up to (and put pressure on) them.  Mickelson and Fowler were hoping to make a low number on the last hole, putting pressure on McIlroy, who would have to respond in turn.

Sure, it was getting darker by the moment, but when McIlroy was allowed to play each of his shots immediately after those of Mickelson and Fowler, everything changed, and the roles were reversed: now McIlroy was putting pressure on Mickelson and Fowler. And that was wrong.

Bravo to McIlroy - this was a great win for him. He is fast approaching the pantheon of Nicklaus and Woods. And congratulations are due to Fowler and Mickelson, each of whom played brilliantly, only to come up just short by day's end. Mickelson's chip on #18 nearly went in for an eagle, which might have forced a tie with McIlroy if he had failed to birdie the hole.  As upset as Mickelson was with how the final hole played out, he graciously said that the outcome probably would not have changed either way.

The tournament was over, but the PGA still wasn't done: the third and final faux pas came when Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships officer with the PGA of America, could not even present the Wanamaker trophy to the champion without losing the lid of the cup, expertly caught by McIlroy.