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PGA Championship 2020: A Breakthrough, a Human, and a Public Display of Sportsmanship

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

TPC Harding Park

San Francisco

August 6-9th, 2020

By James W. E. Glenn

TLDR; Morikawa wins and will likely win more, Koepka ate some hard karma, and Rory gives himself a bad lie.

TPC Harding Park

This year’s PGA Championship was played on a public course situated a few miles from San Francisco on the shores of Lake Merced. The venue proved well-received by the players and offered a traditional major championships recipe of fairways and greens. The course also showed its many green, 4-inch-long teeth. Bryson was unable to overpower Harding Park, though it did comically claim one of his drivers for its own; nor did Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, or Tony Finau run away with a title from chopping it out of the rough 50 yards closer than everyone else, illustrating once again that while hitting the ball a long way might be a significant advantage, distance alone does not win tournaments. TPC Harding Park is also a venue you can play, so if you want to challenge yourself on the same course that crowned Morikawa you can happily do so for a very reasonable $150.

So, as the PGA Championship wound down to a close last night, we were left with a few refreshing stories born from a serene scene in the Bay. Firstly, we had a deserving young champion, Collin Morikawa, who put his foot firmly and fearlessly on the gas, rising from a leaderboard bunched tighter than the grapes on the nearby slopes of Napa. Secondly, the final round at TPC Harding Park offered us a reminder that a certain someone is human. Finally, a seemingly insignificant or inconsequential moment in an Irishman’s second round reminded us how the game should be played.

Collin Morikawa Wins

In only his second major championship start (his first being a T35 finish in last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach), Morikawa leaned on his comfort with his caddie J.J., his college ties to the Bay Area, and superb approach play to capture his first major. It all could have gone very differently, however, had he not rolled in a critical long par save at the 1st after a greenside bunker shot Sky Sports Commentators declared “very poor.” Keeping a clean scorecard, Morikawa channeled that momentum from the off and slowly worked his way into a seven-way tie for the lead near the turn. A chip-in birdie after missing the green on the 14th lifted him from the pack, and an eagle at the par 4 16th gave the young American a two shot lead on the last. Indeed, as the old trope goes, major championships are won on the back nine on Sunday.

Despite being 23 years old, and in only his second major start, Morikawa’s win should come as a surprise to no-one--Morikawa sits second in Strokes Gained: Approach for the season with a sublime average of +1.044; furthermore, Morikawa sits 3rd on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained Tee-to-Green with +1.524. It just so happens that this week he also led the field in Strokes Gained on the greens. Looking at his performance in Strokes Gained on the season, rather than the week (though it never hurts to lead for the week!), helps us make sense of this win as less of a fluke and more of a strong sign of things to come. Collin has the confidence of a winner, stating “I’ve always believed in myself since day one,” and when leading, displays a calm reminiscent of players many years his senior, noting that he “feels very comfortable in [that] position...but it was going to take a very, very good round today” Be prepared to watch this young man hoist a few more trophies in the years to come.

Brooks Koepka Doesn’t Win

The 2020 PGA Championship was also not won by Brooks Koepka, which I enjoyed immensely; not because I don’t like Brooks (he’s inspired me to finally embrace the fade turning 31 brought upon me), but because the undercurrent of the media coverage and much of the commentary leading up to Sunday afternoon made it seem as though a Koepka three-peat was almost inevitable. He was going to be the first player since 1954 to win back-to-back-to-back titles at the same major. He was going to be the second quickest player to win 5 major championships (in terms of days in between the first and fifth). He would be this, he would be that, and Koepka might even be all that. I think even Brooks bought into this, because his post-round interview Saturday was, frankly, disgusting. When asked if he thought a second major was harder to win than a first, he not-so-subtly calls out U.S. Open Champion and former World #1 Dustin Johnson, stating “well if you look at the top of the leaderboard (occupied by DJ), I’d say yes.” He then repeats that “the second definitely is a little bit tougher, I think, as you can see from the top of the leaderboard (again, throwing shade at major champion DJ).” Ugh. I love his confidence but whatever low form of gamesmanship that was? The only thing definite about it was that it was in poor taste. You’re better than that, Brooks.

Now, Koepka was certainly in contention Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and standing on the 1st Tee Sunday. However, his first tee shot took an uncharacteristic draw into the left rough after peppering the fairway with power fades in the first three rounds. Perhaps, it served as an indication that--despite the media’s best efforts to reincarnate the ghost-of-Tiger-past in Brooks Koepka’s body--he is fallible. Indeed, a final round of +4 74 secured only a Top 30 for Koepka this week, and ensured he finished the tournament no less than ten shots back. It would seem, then, that not only is Brooks Koepka a human being after all, there are in fact more than just 10 players he needs to beat at a major.

An Irishman, A Lie, and The Spirit of the Game

To take nothing away from Collin Morikawa’s win, and the revelation that Brooks Koepka is human, this final story from the 2020 PGA Championship is, for me, the most important. It was early in Rory McIlroy’s second round, at the Par 3 3rd as he hangs an iron shot right of the green, and it was a moment that could have been easily missed. His ball lands near pin high, in the rough, a bunker firmly between it and the flag. The flag cut close to the right edge, and Rory was the definition of short-sided. In trying to locate his ball, a volunteer steps on it. As Rory approaches the green, the volunteer apologises for stepping on his ball, and an official comes over to help Rory take relief (he is allowed to recreate as near as possible the lie he would have had, prior to being stepped on, free of penalty). Just as he and the official seem to have settled on the recreation, Rory takes a second and then tells the official that he feels the lie is too good. “I wouldn’t be comfortable playing this,” McIlroy says.

In that small, seemingly inconsequential moment, we see an incredible testament to the true spirit of golf. In this era of Reed’s Bunker Bonanzas, Reed’s Rough Rules, Reed’s Questionable “How Did He Get a Three Wood on That’s,” Reed’s Change Rattlers (in fairness, most of the questionable stuff is always Patrick Reed), Bryson’s Ants and DeChambeau’s Course Marking and Fencing, we’ve become accustomed to some professionals taking advantage of the rules, bending the rules to their favor, even trying to sidestep the rules altogether. This? I was taken aback. Here is what Rory had to say about it during his post-round interview.

I just wouldn't have felt comfortable. I placed it, and the rule is try to replicate the lie. No one really knew what the lie was, but if everyone is going around looking for it, it obviously wasn't too good. So I placed it, I was like, that just doesn't look right to me. So I just placed it down a little bit and sort of -- yeah.

You know, at the end of the day, golf is a game of integrity and I never try to get away with anything out there. I'd rather be on the wrong end of the rules rather than on the right end because as golfers, that's just what we believe.

Yeah, I would have felt pretty wrong if I had of taken a lie that was maybe a little better than what it was previously.

(Rory McIlroy Post-Round Interview, August 7th, courtesy of ASAPSports)

Rory knew that such a lie could not have been true to the original, otherwise the volunteer likely wouldn’t have stepped on it. So instead, he recreates the lie again, and takes bogey. Would he have made par from the better lie? Who knows, but what I do know is that Rory McIlroy just restored a little bit, a crucial bit, of faith in the spirit of golf.

Thanks to Sky Sports for providing the PGA Championship Coverage I enjoyed and ASAPSports for transcribing the post-round interviews.

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