There are a few elements essential to the character of a major championship.
It starts with the field. If the world’s best consider it optional, it’s not a major. Injuries or indictments are the only acceptable excuses for a player’s absence.
A weepy Jim Nantz retrospective helps too. Granted, his tendency to wring tears from even the most banal Tour stop has cheapened the currency, but viewers must be persuaded that they’re catching glimpses of a significant tournament between the commercials and fluffing of CEOs.
But nothing contributes more to the sense of a major than the golf course. The venue was a vital character in the plots of 2018’s majors. Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie were not incidental to the action.
Which may explain why – so far, at least – this major feels decidedly minor.
Blame it on Bellerive.
This PGA Championship has a robust field, despite the diluting effect of 20 club professionals resting like sediment at the bottom of the leaderboard. The top of that board features a phalanx of pedigreed champions and Nantz’s emotive Gettsyburg address on golf and life is surely being buffered anon.
What this championship doesn’t have is a course worthy of it.
Venues matter, especially in concert with milestones.
It’s why the R&A nudged St. Andrews from its every-five-years slot on the British Open rota to ensure it hosted the 150th playing in 2021.
It’s why the U.S. Golf Association held the 100th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, while the 101st edition went to forgettable Southern Hills.
The 100th PGA Championship deserved better than a mediocre course that even Rees Jones can’t claim as being among his finest fiascos. The PGA of America could have thrown a stone in St. Louis and hit a course with more architectural merit to host its centennial. And it wouldn’t have had to aim carefully.
Perhaps milestones just matter less at the PGA Championship. After all, the 50th iteration of the tournament was played at Pecan Valley in San Antonio, Texas, a course that had opened just five years earlier. It closed six years ago – the first major venue to shutter in more than 60 years – to barely a whimper of regret.
Ask the players for their views on Bellerive and they range from uninspired to unprintable.
“I don’t want to say there’s no strategy, I’m not saying that,” said Pat Perez, who went on to say exactly that. “There’s only one way to play it. Just hit it as far as you can then try to attack the pins with the greens that soft.”
“It’s pretty straightforward,” said Dustin Johnson, who had never been on site until Monday. “Hit it in the fairway and hit it on the green.”
It’s a rare misstep for a championship that has upped its game on venues in the last two decades. There was a time when the PGA routinely went to courses that had all the architectural stature of a suburban drive-thru, the nadir being 1987 at PGA National in Florida, where the presence of a bikini-clad scoreboard operator, while not elevating the event, certainly didn’t further diminish it.
Bellerive doesn’t diminish the PGA Championship. It’s not that bad. The problem is that it doesn’t enhance it either, and the venue of a centennial ought to add luster to the proceedings.
Bellerive is probably a fine course for its membership 51 weeks of the year, but in this 52nd week it isn’t fit for purpose. It is a humdrum test of execution and a complete failure as a test of imagination. The greatest golf courses bridge those demands, a trait abundantly evident at the venues visited this year.
It’s as if the guys carving Mount Rushmore decided to drop Lincoln in favor of Harding.
“The golf course does make a difference,” Justin Rose said Friday afternoon. “I was able to win the U.S Open at Merion and I really feel that added something, where I won. That’s quite a storied golf course. I’ve always been proud of where I’ve won on Tour. I’ve won nine times but when I look at where I’ve won I’m proud.”
Then he added, “A trophy is a trophy at the end of the day. You win a major you go down in history.”
And he’s right. That’s all that really matters for most players, who appreciate the design merits of their office about as much as the average cubicle worker.
Hopefully, the 100th PGA will deliver a weekend of epic drama. It will certainly deliver a worthy champion. And that will at least permit fans to remember the performances of the stars, and not the nondescript stage on which they worked.
Golfweek, August 10, 2018.