The 93rd PGA Championship concluded nearly one week ago, and Tour-rookie Keegan Bradley walked away the victor. Bradley is the first player since Ben Curtis in 2003 to win a major in his first appearance, and only the second in over 90 years. Bradley is also the first player ever to win a major with a belly putter, and his late-round five-stroke comeback was one of the best finishes of the year. In fact, despite declining ratings mainly due to the demise of Tiger Woods, this year's PGA has continued a streak of exciting PGA finishes, and it's refuting the assertion of the PGA being the least of the four majors.
Number Five: Keegan Bradley and the Belly Putter
Keegan Bradley, a PGA Tour-rookie playing in the first major of his career, became the first person to ever win a major championship swinging a belly putter, although his putter is a far cry from what Adam Scott is using. Despite being down five strokes with just a few holes to go, Bradley rebounded from a triple bogey and made back to back birdies, while watching Jason Dufner implode with three bogeys. Bradley forced a playoff with Dufner, and won after shooting one under in the playoff to Dufner's even par.
Although many have been close to winning majors with a belly putter, no one had actually done it until now. Sergio Garcia might have come the closest at the 2007 Open Championship, when he had a putt to win, to beat Padraig Harrington. Sergio missed the putt, and Harrington won the Open. Yes, Angel Cabrera used a longer-than-normal putter to win the 2009 Masters, but it was shorter than Bradley's putter, and any contact between the putter and Cabrera's stomach was purely incidental. After his win the previous week at the Bridgestone and his Masters near-miss, many thought that Adam Scott (statistically the PGA Tour's best putter in 2004 by the stroked gained putting category, Adam has since fallen to 134th) would be the first to win with a long putter. But no, the gangly 25-year-old, the Tour-rookie who graduated from Hopkinton (MA) High School, the same school I went to, pulled out the PGA Championship and set a new standard for belly putting. While I don't think we'll see the influx of long putters that some predicted after Adam Scott's win, Keegan did finally prove that if you hit the ball well enough with your irons, and you get up and down often enough, you can putt with just about anything.
Number Four: Tiger Woods and Steve Williams
If you haven't heard yet, Tiger dumped Steve Williams, his caddy of 13 years, recently, and Stevie didn't take it all too well. A disgruntled Williams joined up with Adam Scott, who he had been caddying for recently as Tiger sat out with knee and Achilles problems, and
Williams Scott subsequently put on a dazzling display of ballstriking and broom-sweeping putting.
In his two events back, a Stevie-less Tiger has been strictly mediocre, and many have been quick to pin it on the breakup. Apparently it's the correct opinion in the mainstream sports media to blame Tiger's woes on who he's not with anymore. Williams is a God with a bib on, Tiger's Haney swing was immaculate until the moment Hank dumped him, the Scotty Cameron putter was as good as gold, and (this one may have some merit) losing his Gillette sponsorship really hit him hard. Of course, his bad play couldn't possibly be because he's still committing to swing changes, or because he hasn't played a consistent schedule in two years, or because he still has lingering knee and ankle pain.
If I were Tiger, I would completely overhaul his schedule. He should have played the Wyndham to try to make it into the playoffs, then see how far he gets. Fred Couples has all but guaranteed him a spot to play the Presidents Cup (but says he needs to play a little more to "show him something"), and he'd be foolish not to take it. He should maybe even play a Fall Series event or two. Tiger needs reps, and these aren't the kind he can get in a gym or at the range at Isleworth. He needs the competition, he needs to be in contention, he needs to go low again. Even if it's a Nationwide Tour event, he's got to find some way to bring what Foley has given him it to the first tee. Not just for himself, but for golf. Despite some great finishes, the PGA has declined in ratings each of the last two years. The 2009 PGA battle between Y.E. Yang and Tiger Woods received a Sunday rating of 7.5, but in 2010 and 2011, which both had great finishes and plenty of action, the PGA received ratings of just 5.9 and 4.3. As much as some people don't want to admit, Tiger is golf, as far as the rating are concerned.
Number Three: PGA - Fourth Best?
The PGA Championship has taken a lot of flak over the last few years for being the lesser of the four majors. It doesn't have the allure or the Bobby Jones factor of the Masters, and it's not a nation's open championship like the U.S. Open and the British. It no longer owns its match play roots, and the PGA includes several club professionals. They're are all great players, but they rarely contend. It might be the season's final major, glory's last shot, but very few young golfers grow up with the goal of winning the PGA.
Lately though, the PGA has had some of the best finishes, in spite of its recent low ratings. In 2007, Tiger Woods claimed his fourth PGA despite record heat at Southern Hills Country Club. The next year, sans Tiger, Padraig Harrington outdueled Sergio Garcia and Ben Curtis to earn his second straight major. In 2009, Y.E. Yang ended Tiger's 54-hole-lead win streak in majors, giving Tiger his second runner-up finish at Hazeltine. Last year, Martin Kaymer won in a playoff over Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson, only after Johnson's rules violation on the 72nd hole. And this year, Keegan Bradley erased a five-stroke deficit on the last three holes to get into and win a playoff with Jason Dufner.
This year's PGA was the second best final round of the year, behind only the Masters. You could arguably say the same thing about last year's PGA, and the 2009 PGA was second only to Tom Watson's near-win at Turnberry. Playing setups, strong fields, and a little bit of luck have led to exciting finishes in the PGA as of late, and the stigma of it being the fourth best major his proving to me more and more false every year.
Number Two: Domination in the World of Golf
It's now the time of the show to talk about the great U.K. Triumvirate of Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, and Luke Donald. Looking back, it was a solid, though hardly dazzling year from these three. McIlroy obviously won the U.S. Open in dramatic fashion, but the rest of his season, including the Masters collapse, was hardly noteworthy. He's had a smattering of other top-tens, but he has yet to go through a stretch where he looked like anything resembling a prevailing player.
Lee Westwood has just one win on the year, at the Euro Tour's Ballantine's Championship, and though he also has some high finishes in this year's majors he never threatened to win any of them. Much like Sergio Garcia, you could count on Westwood to start the weekend just under the cut line and make a charge just a bit too far into his Sunday round. Westwood, though fourth in the Race to Dubai, has had a wholly disappointing season, and many of my assertions about his play from last year remain valid. Until he gets himself a 54-hole lead, he's not going to seriously contend.
Luke Donald is first in the Euro Tour's Race to Dubai and third in the FedExCup. He has three wins worldwide, including the WGC-Accenture Match Play. He has a T4 and a T8 in majors, sandwiched around a T45 and a missed cut. Donald actually has more top-tens around the world than finishes outside the top ten. But while Donald has been a top-ten machine, he'd been disappointing in the majors. Like Westwood, he's contended, but only in the broadest sense of the word. He'll be on the top page of the leaderboard, but there hasn't been a single time this year where it legitimately looked like he was going to win.
While all three players have played well, even spectacularly at times, none have taken it to the next level. As well as Luke Donald has played, as much as Rory McIlroy mastered Congressional, I never got the sense that they would go on any sort of dominating stretch over several events. Every time Rory McIlroy takes a late lead, that Masters meltdown will be in the back of everyone's minds. Every time it looks like no one can beat Luke Donald, he'll run into a 7,500 yard course, and he won't be able to get around solely on his short game. Unless these players improve dramatically, it's going to be a long time before we have a truly transcendent player in the world of golf. Maybe that's a good thing, in the sense that everyone has a chance at any time, but my favorite memories of Tiger's era of greatness was knowing that if you wanted to, you could bet on him versus the field, and legitimately have a chance of coming out on top. That might not be something we see again for a while.
Number One: Sergio's Major Run
For the third straight major, Sergio Garcia went on a ridiculous run of birdies on the front nine Sunday, only to make a few big number and throw it all away. Sergio, like Lee Westwood, seems to start every major Sunday in contention, but just far enough away that he would have to play a flawless, historic round to win. Each time he's started off looking like he might, but he has yet to keep it going for an entire round. Like Westwood, if he could simply put himself closer to the leaders after Saturday, he wouldn't have to go quite so low on Sunday, and that might free him up to play a round without the pressure of perfection.
To his credit, Sergio was just one of 11 players this year to make the cut in all four majors, and he tied Steve Stricker for second behind Masters-winner Charl Schwartzel in aggregate score. In addition to Stricker and Schwartzel, Sergio joined McIlroy, Y.E. Yang, Ryan Palmer, Phil Mickelson, Gary Woodland, Bill Haas, Bubba Watson, and Edoardo Molinari as the only players to make the cut in every major.
As everyone knows, Sergio's main downfall is putting. He has tried every putter Kia Ma can possibly churn out, and Sergio has employed dozens of grips. Currently, he's 177th on the PGA Tour in their new stat, strokes gained- putting. He's not going the right way, either. He was in the 40s in strokes gained-putting in 2006 and 2007, but in 2008 he fell to 121st. He remained about there in 2009 and 2010, but he has fallen down the standings even more this year. His ballstriking is as good as ever though, he's 44th this year in GIR and T33 in proximity to hole, not to mention 29th in driving distance. As long as he keeps it in the short grass and rolls in some putts, Sergio Garcia still has the game to contend for any tournament, and I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility to see him win one somewhere along the way. Then again, those are big hurdles.
Closing and Your Thoughts?
As fun as this year's PGA was, it's hard to find a lot of meaning in it. Keegan Bradley finished off a stirring comeback and took home the Wanamaker trophy, but is he the future of golf? He's a good player, but I doubt it. Tiger's two days were terrible, but does that mean he's really done? Sergio had his third straight high finish in majors, but is he back? His putting is worse than it's ever been. Rory McIlroy injured his wrist, and it looks like he'll be on the shelf for a while, while Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, both world number one contenders, had equally disappointing weeks that saw them each making runs far too late on Sunday. And while this is another year that they will go majorless, does that mean that they're destined for mediocrity, or is it simply a minor setback? As great a finish as it was, this year's final major opened more doors than it closed.