Straits wasn't Shinnecock ... and that's good
If U.S. Open Sunday at Shinnecock Hills was a demolition derby, then the closing round of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits was more like a NASCAR race. There was no if about a crash, just a matter of when, and who.
Still, despite the fact that the top seven players on the leaderboard after 54 holes all shot over par on Sunday, there was, on most holes, the feeling that birdie was possible. Whistling Straits ate the best players in the world for lunch in the final round, but it did so in an extremely fair way.
Only two players shot in the 60s on Sunday -- Paul McGinley and Todd Hamilton -- but there were also only two 80s in the final round, a sharp contrast to the 28 rounds at 80 or higher at Shinnecock on the closing day. Unlike Shinnecock, where the course was considered brilliant and fair early in the week and a cruel joke by the end of it, Whistling Straits began the tournament regarded with the cautious apprehension that comes with lack of familiarity and ended it with almost unanimous respect. This will not be the last PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and a Ryder Cup is also not out of the question.
"It's been 71 years since the PGA has been [in Wisconsin]," PGA of America president M.G. Orender said after the tournament. "I tell you we will be back. We got to introduce the world to a great golf course."
Vijay Singh began the day with a one-stroke lead over Justin Leonard and was five shots in front of Chris DiMarco. They ended in a three-way tie after Singh and Leonard -- paired together -- slugged it out with a 76 and a 75, respectively, and DiMarco charged from behind with a 71, the only round under par by the top 23 players after 54 holes. Seven under par was leading the tournament after 18 holes and eight under par ended up making the playoff after 72 holes. In practice rounds players expressed the fear that the course would be too hard and that 10 over par would win the tournament. When the lead got to 12 under par after 54 holes, some wondered if the PGA had let the course play too easy. But it was all a carefully planned bit of seduction by the PGA, luring the players in with kindness and then giving them a stern but fair test on the final day.
"I think this is what they were looking for," Singh said after he claimed his third career major championship and, with his fifth victory of the year, likely wrapped PGA Tour and PGA of America Player of the Year honors. "I think they ran out of water today." Even that was said with a smile. Absent was the chorus of complaints that came after the U.S. Open. Whistling Straits was the longest course ever in major championship history, but even in that Kerry Haigh, who sets up the courses for the PGA of America, outdid Tom Meeks, his counterpart at the USGA. When there was a concern about wind making the course too penal because of its length, they erred on the side of caution and moved the tees up. At Shinnecock, the USGA never adapted to conditions, stubbornly refusing to pour water on the parched greens before the final round.
Both the USGA and the PGA of America considered Whistling Straits as a possible tournament site, and the general thinking is that it's a good thing the PGA pulled the trigger first. "I would hate to see what the USGA would do to this golf course," Tiger Woods said after he finished with a 73 and tied for 24th. "I think the PGA did a wonderful job setting this golf course up. It was hard but it was fair."
With Singh and Leonard both shooting over par it seemed like the opportunity was perfect for one of the five players tied five strokes behind Singh going to the final round to make a move. But Whistling Straits took care of that. Phil Mickleson: KABLOOIE. (74). Ernie Els: KABLOOIE (73). Darren Clarke: KABLOOIE (76). Chris Riley KABLOOIE (73). Stephen Ames KABLOOIE (75). But there was nothing painful about watching the crashes because they were not total wipeouts like at Shinnecock but rather a series of fender-benders that did the damage.
The perfect example was Leonard. Seemingly in control after a birdie on No. 13, he made bogeys on three of the final five holes -- including No. 18 -- but he was more the victim of the pressure of final-round play in a major championship than he was of an unfair course set-up or an unreasonable course design. He was mostly the victim of his own putter, which missed from six feet on Nos. 14 and 16 and 10 feet on the final hole. The tournament, fittingly, was won by a birdie -- Singh's first of the day coming on the first hole of the three-hole playoff -- and was sealed with two marvelous shots by Singh on 17 and 18 that both found the green.
And that is the way the entire last round felt. There were opportunities out there. Great shots were, for the most part, rewarded and imprecise shots paid the price. Never once during a highly entertaining week of golf did it ever seem like the course was unfair. Never once did it seem like playing conditions got out of control. As Nick Faldo once said about Augusta National, home of the Masters: "There is a route around it. You just have to find it and follow it." That was the case at this PGA Championship. It was possible to find a way around Whistling Straits.
Count this one as a victory for the PGA of America by every measuring stick imaginable.
Ron Sirak is the Executive Editor of Golf World magazine