Even on Monday ahead of the PGA Championship, the vibe at Baltusrol GC was a bit strange,
with scorching heat and grounds were rather quiet for the first day of a major championship week. It turned out to be the hottest day of the week–with temperatures reaching at least 96 degrees at 4pm (but it “felt like” 119 degrees), but it’s not like Tuesday and Wednesday’s heat index provided much relief from the sweltering sun and suffocating humidity.
The weather was a major theme throughout the week — whether it was the heat, the rain or storms, which obviously impacted the conditions, not to mention caused lengthy, frustrating delays and the wonky weekend. Thunderstorms on Saturday afternoon turned most of the third round into a washout, with only 37 out of 86 players posting scores and the final five pairings not even hitting a single shot.
With the intent of trying to complete the championship on Sunday, the PGA of America orchestrated the best possible plan and hoped for the weather to cooperate, which included the final round kicking off an hour after the last group started their third round. The top-10 players on the leaderboard ended up both the third and fourth rounds (36 holes) on Sunday, but good news is the championship managed to finish as scheduled (to the surprise of everyone).
However, it also meant that the players were not re-paired following the third round and went out in the same twosomes for the fourth round, which created an interesting dynamic, especially since defending champion Jason Day should’ve been in the final pairing with Jimmy Walker. Instead, Day played in the penultimate group, alongside Emiliano Grillo, with Walker and Robert Streb behind them.
And as if things couldn’t get weirder, the PGA announced on Sunday morning that preferred lies (lift, clean and place) would be implemented in the final round because of 6/10” of rain overnight (which isn’t that much compared to something like 2 inches Wednesday night). It is believed to be the first time in major championship history that this local rule has been invoked.
However, the PGA insisted on starting all players on one tee in the final two rounds. PGA of America’s Championships Officer Kerry Haigh insisted on sticking with this “tradition” because it was a major, even though the USGA and the R&A have both used split tees. To be less flexible on this or actually anything than golf’s stringent governing bodies is quite impressive. But hey, the players unanimously agreed with the decision to play the ball up in the final round. Of course. Turned out to be the right call, though, and even better newsis no bitching about mud balls! (Haigh and the PGA should buy Mother Nature and golf gods a few bottles of champagne — and the good stuff, too.)
Point is, the whole week at Baltusrol had been rather strange, with all sorts of twists and turns that were both positive and negative, but the forecast wasn’t looking up on Sunday (or Monday in that case). By the time the leaders teed off for the final round, there actually was real hope the championship would finish on time. But until Jason Day’s incredibly clutch eagle on the 72nd hole, getting this thing done on Sunday might have been the most dramatic moment.
Walking with Day (and Grillo) for nearly 18 holes, the galleries were clearly at least four times larger than the crowd following Walker (and Streb). Throughout the entire week, the fans at Baltsurol were all about J-Day. With the exception of Phil Mickelson and *maybe* Jordan Spieth, no one received louder cheers and a more welcoming reception than Day, the world no. 1 and defending champion. (I mean, I was surprised at how mainstream J-Day had gone in the greater New Jersey area just because U.S. fans don’t usually embrace non-American players like the way I’ve seen them go bonkers over the Australian native. See, this is another reason Day should be naturalized, so he can play for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Just sayin’. And I’m kidding. But not really.)
Despite Walker holding at least a share of the lead for the entirety of the final round — not to mention the whole tournament — the fans at Baltusrol continued to follow Day, waiting for him to make his move. Day started slow, with bogeys on two of the first three holes, but got one back with a birdie on no. 5, and then he stuffed his tee shot into the par-3 9th and rolled in his birdie from six feet, but he still trailed Walker by one shot.
Walker didn’t do anything fancy on the front. He simply made nine pars with excellent lag-putting, but then he caught some momentum when he holed out for birdie from the bunker on the 10th. Meanwhile, Day birdied the 11th to get back within one, but Walker wasn’t phased and did the same to stay ahead. Then, they both made a bunch of more pars and it sounded like many at home watching on TV were relatively bored with the lack of excitement.
Which reminds me of something Bill Haas said on Monday: “(This course) just kind of par-4s you to death.” Exactly. If you’ve played it or walked it or even watched closely enough on TV, then you know Baltusrol doesn’t lend to the most exciting golf in the world, with one long par-4 after another and a few long par-3s thrown in. The first par-5 for the championship doesn’t come until 17 and it’s 650 yards long, so it’s not necessarily a “birdie” hole. That leaves the par-5 18th, which likely played the easiest all week.
Day holed a clutch 11-foot par putt after his lag putt came up well short on the 15th. He fist-pumped and then turned around and looked back to see where Walker stood, as it appeared he might be in a bit of trouble as he was in the right rough under a large tree. However, it wasn’t an issue because the rough wasn’t bad and he couldn’t have had more than a punch wedge.
To cut to the chase, basically, there were some more pars made by both Day and Walker and it looked like the finish might be a bit of a snooze-fest, but then it got exciting on the 72nd hole, essentially. Day, who teed off with a 2-iron, hit what might have been the shot of the week, stiffing a 2-iron to 13 feet for eagle on the par-5 18th.
“I didn’t know (Jimmy) had taken a three-shot advantage,” said Day. “I didn’t know if he holed the putt before my shot or after my shot because I didn’t hear anything really. All I knew was that I assumed I was only two shots back going into 18.
“Going down 18, the play, you think the play is to hit driver, but I could hit a 2-iron down there, especially with the tee up. I hit a great 2-iron down there and I just said, let’s just try and finish off with a bang, try to give him something to think about and just keep pushing forward.”
— PGA.COM (@PGAcom) July 31, 2016
“The 2-iron into the green was probably one of the best 2-irons I’ve ever hit into a par 5, especially under the circumstances. And you know, as soon as I hit it, it felt perfect straightaway, and I knew it was just kind of cutting up against the wind. It was going to land soft. It was going to be really nice. “Emiliano came up to me and said the ball was scared of me when I hit it.” After Day stiffed his 2-iron and the fans that were still watching Walker heard the loud roars up ahead around the 18th green, many started running up to see what Day was doing. Meanwhile, back on the 17th, Walker hit a sick wedge to eight feet and then drained the birdie putt to take a three-shot lead. And he was fully aware that Day had done something spectacular.
“I heard Jason,” said Walker. “I thought what — I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Grillo that hit the shot that everybody was so pumped about. I figured it was Jason. I heard him hit the driver and I heard everybody was pumped, because he pumped one, I guess. And then I heard the second roar. So I knew I needed to make that putt, and I did, and then made the 5 on the last. Made it a little tougher but it was awesome.”
Jimmy Walker birdies 17 to get to -14! https://t.co/Rq71OrxIjI
— PGA.COM (@PGAcom) July 31, 2016
Then, Day followed up the shot of the week by holing the eagle putt to put some pressure on Walker. I mean, holy crap. I had fallen back on 17 to watch Walker his last two holes and was standing pin-high to where his tee shot was when Day drained that massive putt, but the crowd reaction and the whole scene and moment were contagious that I could feel goosebumps up my spine from 300 yards back.
“It was nice to get the eagle, just to try and make Jimmy think about it, but obviously Jimmy just played too good all day,” said Day, who shot three-under 67. “The birdie on 17 was key for him.”
Yep, that putt on 17 was huge for Walker. It was clutch. It was MAJOR. He showed no fear and nerves of steel coming down the stretch. After he striped his tee shot on the 72nd hole, perhaps he looked a bit shaky on his second with a 3-wood into the 18th green, but I’ve seen him hit errant shots like that without any pressure. And I mean that with the highest regard for Jimmy, but I don’t think it’s a secret that he hits it far and every once in a while, throws in an errant ball.
Walker pushed his second so far right that it ricocheted off a CBS camera and ended up settling in the right rough, which wasn’t ideal, but not game-changing.
“I said when I birdied 17, I figured that would probably end it,” said Walker. “You think they are going to make three, and you’re going to have to make a five. But you know, I’m standing out there and I had a good front number and I’m like, let’s just send it up there.
“19 out of 20 times, you’re going to make a five going for this green in two. Made it a little more difficult than I would have liked, but awesome to make the last putt.”
Day making eagle on 18 didn’t impact Walker’s club selection, though.
“It’s like I was saying in my head, I said, every time you go for this shot, doesn’t matter what’s going on. You send it right up there onto the green.
“I was thinking, you’re going to make par, you know, 19 out of 20 times, or even higher than that from there, and that’s what we went with. We’re walking down there to the shot and I’m like, Andy, we just send it up by the green, don’t we?
“He’s like, yeah, let’s do it. Let’s do it. I figure, we’re in a bunker, we’ve got a chip shot. I literally hit it in the worst place you could hit it. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. And I made the tough par.”
(Aside: Jimmy and his caddie Andy Sanders first met at the 2000 U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol.
Andy is a great player. We met here. We met on the 10th tee at the Upper on a practice round at the U.S. Am. And I could remember thinking when I met him, I was like, wow, that’s Andy Sanders, he’s from Houston. He’s really good. He’s really good.
And he tells me, wow, that’s Jimmy Walker, he hits it really far. But this is where we met. We’ve been together a long time. And to win our sixth event, first major here where we met, that’s just cool. When we got here, I remembered, I got out and saw the golf course; I remember a bunch of holes, I remember liking this place. I remember enjoying being here.
And we both felt great all week. We talked about that. We talked about us meeting here and we tell that story a few times this week. So I think it’s special for both of us. I know it’s special for both of us. It’s pretty emotional. I mean, he grinded it out this week. He did a great job. Crowd control was awesome. He read putts great. Didn’t let me hit a shot until I was ready. Made sure everything was good. I mean, I think we did a great job this week communicating and talking shots. Just we were in sync.
Very cool, right?)
Back to the pointless play-by-play story I’m writing because you all already know what happened, so let’s just go into more quotes from Jimmy Walker, who captured his first major title at age 37 in style with a wire-to-wire victory.
“I felt confident in myself,” said Walker when asked about his cool and calm demeanor. “I felt confident in what I was doing. Felt confident in my golf swing, my putting, my chipping. Kind of tried to wrap myself around that; that everything was feeling good, and to go with that and trust what I was doing. Trust all the stuff that I have been working on, and that’s what I tried to apply out there. I know I made nine pars in a row to start, and I hit a lot of quality golf shots. Hit a lot of greens today. Just kind of kept it right out there in front of me.
“My proximity to the hole didn’t seem like it was very close today. I felt like I had 30- and 40-footers all day, so the 2-putting, I felt like I had a 2-putt every hole. But I made a lot of good short putts, 4-, 5- and 6-footers to keep the round going, which is what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to do that to win any tournament.”
Well played, Jimmy, and very much deserved. This is not to take away from his amazing performance, whatsoever, but the whole wonky series of events this week(end) diminished the “major” aura a bit. I know we can’t control the weather or necessarily predict the forecast, but damn, Saturday looked downright awful for days, and yes, I know it was supposed to be even worse Sunday. Thank you, golf gods.
Still, the not re-pairing for the final round cost fans the two leaders playing together, head-to-head, like at, you know, most insta-classic, with the most recent being two weeks ago with Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson (fully aware they played the last two rounds together, but just sayin’). Day definitely would’ve preferred to be in the final group.
“Being able to do exactly what I said, putting some pressure on him with one hole to go,” said Day. “But it would have been nice to be able to play in the last group with him, just to be able to go back and forth with him, maybe put a little bit more pressure on, because usually that becomes into kind of a match-play format, like where you’re going back and forth. More mistakes or crucial moments can happen in situations like that.
“So it would have been nice, but we all understand we were just trying to get the Championship in.”
Fair enough. Walker preserved through the ever-changing conditions, with several major champions lurking closely behind him and held them off, including the world no. 1 and defending champion. And that’s how it’s done.