PGA pressure highlights players’ humanity


A few years ago, I played in a Putt-Putt tournament. You probably wouldn’t have guessed it, but I was good at putt-putt. I’m not talking about miniature golf here, with the windmills and the clown mouths and the pirates and all that. No, I’m talking about official putt-putt, where every hole is par-2 and there are no goofy obstacles. Some of you may remember there were Putt-Putt tournaments on TV with Billy Packer making the announcement.

Anyway, I was 16 or 17, and I played in a two-round Putt-Putt tournament and weirdly I shot 30 in the first round (6 under par!) and I was actually top of my division. It was unexpected to say the least. It was my first tournament, and I had this ridiculous style of putt where I stuck my left leg out, kind of like a Tony Batista type open hitting stance.

I can’t begin to describe the pressure I felt on that second lap. I felt like I had a professional wrestler screaming behind my back and an accordion playing a polka in my chest. It wasn’t just hard to putt. It wasn’t just hard to breathe. I felt like my whole body was going to give way, like one of those bendable wooden shoulder toys.

It probably goes without saying that I collapsed in the second round.

So, yeah, I thought about that Sunday as we watched a whole bunch of gifted young first-time contenders go for the PGA Championship. It was ugly to say the least. At the start of the day, a Chilean by the name of Mito Pereira was at 9 under, he beat an American (Will Zalatoris) and an Englishman (Matt Fitzpatrick) by three strokes, then came another American (Cameron Young) at 5 and a Mexican (Abraham Ancer) at 4 cents

Together, all five players had won – let me do some quick math here – OK, zero major championships. Additionally, all five players combined had won a PGA TOUR event, that was Ancer’s victory last year at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, although to be fair Fitzpatrick had won seven times. on the European Tour (now DP World), and Zalatoris had been in contention at a few majors, so they weren’t entirely green.

But they were pretty green.

It promised to make for engrossing Sunday TV if you’re the type of person who likes to watch car wrecks. After all, what do you think will happen when you have five talented but undoubtedly freaked-out players trying to win a Grand Slam golf tournament while saving their lunches?

To the right. That’s what happened. Ancer left the stage early, bogging the first hole, then numbers 7, 8 and 9 to fall out of competition and out of television rotation. Heck, he was five years old to start with anyway and a long shot.

There were four children left. Fitzpatrick was by far the most experienced of the quartet, having played in 28 major championships – more than twice as many as the other three combined. He kind of leaked oil in the back nine and ended all hope when he bogeyed the short and relatively easy par-4 17th rather than fly it. Those were the two shots that stood between him and the eventual winner, Justin Thomas.

Then, as Fitzpatrick bogeyed that holeshot, it looked like Pereira had finished the tournament. From the start, Pereira had seemed surprisingly calm considering he had never experienced anything like this before. He seemed such a likely winner that CBS asked his friend Joaquin Niemann for a little insight into his psyche and what this victory would mean in Chile (answers: he’s fearless; it would mean a lot in Chile).

But then Pereira’s 12-foot birdie putt on the 17th stopped half a revolution before the birdie, then on the 18th hole, holding a one-stroke lead, a suddenly uncalm Pereira quickly cut his drive into a stream and that was the end of it. The shame is that it was really a great performance for him in his first appearance in a major tournament. “Monday, I just wanted to make the cut,” he said.

Will Zalatoris, meanwhile, made four bogeys and, frankly, needed a few minor miracles to prevent a few from being even worse. But he stayed the course – this guy’s major record is really quite impressive – and he made a clutch par on the 18th hole to finish 5 under par, ahead of the other first-time contenders.

But, as you know, he didn’t win the PGA Championship.

See, it turns out that in the distance, Justin Thomas — former world No. 1, FedExCup champion and already a PGA Championship owner — made some sort of charge. It wasn’t exactly Nicklaus in Augusta. On the sixth hole, Thomas actually hit his tee shot – I mean a real shot, like he dropped the club and everything and needed to putt 18 feet to bogey.

He played the front nine to par and looked like he had no juice; he was seven strokes back. But then he birdied back-to-back at numbers 11 and 12 and moved to 4 under par, and just seeing his household name on the leaderboard undoubtedly changed the whole atmosphere.

It was like the time when substitute teachers struggle to keep things together, and then the principal walks into the classroom.

Thomas didn’t do anything special coming in, but he birdied the 17th hole to go 5 under and that meant he and Zalatoris were in the playoffs.

Thomas then revealed the peculiarity of the three-hole playoffs; he hit his first drive in the rough, but he still recovered to birdie after a magnificent corner shot. Then he hit one of the tournament shots when he drove the 17th green and birdied another.

Zalatoris didn’t play badly in the playoffs – a birdie and two pars should give you a chance. But he was overtaken by perhaps the best golfer in the world. And Thomas won the PGA Championship for the second time.

“Bizarre day”, he said, and it was weird. But that’s why we watch, right? If these golfers were free from the pressure, if they didn’t feel the burden of golf history, if they could just hit shots easily and freely with the biggest tournaments in play, then what good was it? ? We might as well watch Iron Mikes hit perfect shots every time.

No, we want to see humanity there. Sometimes it’s breathtaking. And it’s sometimes hard to watch.

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