There is golf. There is brutal, patience-shredding, soul-crushing major championship golf. And there is Bethpage Black golf.
Welcome to the venue of the 2019 PGA Championship, a 7,450-yard, par 70 municipal lay-out near the city of New York famed for the thickness of its rough and the thinness of its fairways. The galleries are raucous – at the 2002 US Open Colin Montgomerie, poor man, was repeatedly invited to “Eat a salad, Monty” as he strode the fairways – and the concept of fun about as welcome as Donald Trump Jnr at a MENSA convention.
The golf course is already soggy and the weather forecast is rough. In other words, strap yourself in. The torture – sorry, the tournament begins on Thursday morning. If past experience of major championships at Bethpage (the 2002 and 2009 US Opens) are a guide to what lies ahead then the second major championship of 2019 will be as much a test of will as a test of skill.
All smiles on Monday at Bethpage.@TigerWoods is chasing 8️⃣2️⃣.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 13, 2019
Tiger Woods was the only player under par when he won in 2002. Meanwhile, Lucas Glover was the last man standing on a wet June Monday afternoon in 2009, the soggy victor after five eminently forgettable days of golf. Fond memories for both men but for very few others.
Let’s hope that this week’s PGA Championship offers more in the way of entertainment. If not that, then drama will suffice. The good news is we are guaranteed that.
For this, we can all thank the aforementioned Woods, winner of the Masters. You can’t win golf’s Grand Slam without winning the first major of the year, of course. But the very notion of anyone winning the next three in the same calendar year is so outlandish that it’s only ever raised in jest.
No-one ever seriously contemplated the idea of 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed going on to win the Grand Slam. Same goes for every other Masters winner in recent years. Yet there was something about Woods’ victory last month, the relentlessness of his progression to the leaderboard summit and the effect it had on those around him, that offered us a glimpse of the improbable.
He has already won a major at Bethpage so why not again this week? The experience of 2002, along with the manner of his win at Augusta National, provide the bedrock of any case for a Tiger victory.
But there is more. He is no longer the longest hitter on tour but he still hits it far enough to compete on a layout that will play longer than its yardage. Statistically, he is now ranked number one on the PGA Tour in GIR (greens in regulation). They don’t give out gold discs for topping the GIR charts but it sure as hell helps at Bethpage, where an errant shot is likely to be “rewarded” with a hellish lie in a wet rough.
He no longer putts like God but he’d still give the Holy Ghost a run for his money from 15-feet and in. Mentally, he will arrive at the tee on Thursday in great shape, too. After a decade-long drought, he proved to himself that he remains capable of winning majors. The Road to Jack’s 18 (and possibly beyond) is no longer a chimera, it is a reality. Who would not be inspired by a tilt at history?
Certainly not a man like Woods, whose entire life (give or take a few lost years) has been dedicated to making sporting history. Yet if the case for Tiger appears to some as irrefutable, the case against deserves a hearing too. Sure, he was irresistible in winning the Masters but where has he been since?
Resting, apparently, although given Woods’ record of obfuscation through the years it’s difficult to know what to believe. For what it’s worth he looked in decent shape playing a practice round on Monday.
“He’s relaxed and fresh. I love it,’’ his caddie Joe LaCava declared. LaCava is one of professional golf’s good guys so we will take him at his word. But even a relaxed and fresh Tiger Woods will have to overcome one final obstacle in order to win the second leg of the Slam; the rest of the field.
The set-up and the conditions will crush the hopes of most players.
But there will be a dozen or so who have the right to believe they can win, big hitters and proven winners mostly, a group that includes the likes of Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and, at a push, Justin Rose.
All three drive it long and straight enough, and have shown enough form in the first half of the season to suggest a Major might be in their immediate future. Can they face down a resurgent Tiger Woods? Put it another way – would you stake your last five euros on McIlroy to beat his boyhood hero in the furnace of a Sunday afternoon? Thought not.
But ask the same question of a player like Brooks Koepka and the answer might change. The muscular American has the game and confidence to take maximum pleasure from such a challenge. He bested Woods at Bellerive last year, winning his third major by beating Woods by two shots. Can Koepka do it again? If not, then it’s hard to believe anyone else can.