Well, I’ve enjoyed my first visit to the famed Bethpage Black, an awesome public golf course on Long Island, where keen golfers sleep in their cars overnight to have the chance of procuring an early tee time. With a cranky back and advancing years I’m not sure I’d be flexible enough to manage that before attempting to negotiate a course that seriously challenges you mentally and physically no matter which tees you play off.
Last week Bethpage Black hosted the 101st PGA Championship, the first time for a few decades that it wasn’t necessary to fight high August temperatures and threatening thunderstorms. Hooray for the new date in May, even if it did mean wearing a few extra layers. The players still had plenty of battles on their hands, the first being how to cope with a penal A W Tillinghast design that favours diagonal hazards (because it challenges the better players the most), angled elusive greens that repel golf balls as opposed to gathering them and brutal rough. Throw in to the mix gusting winds and raucous New York sports fans and it becomes a mental test just to survive, never mind contend and ultimately triumph in a major championship.
That was the examination paper that the 156-man field faced and it was Brooks Koepka who dominated, then wobbled slightly with four consecutive bogeys late on Sunday before regaining his balance and clinching his fourth major in less than two years. To say he was impressive would be an understatement and despite his final round lead shrinking from seven to one his immaculate play over the first 64 holes afforded him enough of a cushion to outlast the fast-finishing Dustin Johnson.
Matt Wallace, a 29-year old Englishman, was the best of the European contingent, finishing joint third with Jordan Spieth and Patrick Cantlay. He had thrust himself into the Ryder Cup conversation last year with three wins in very short order in 2018 but was overlooked in favour of players with more proven pedigree. Well, he’s set about polishing up his credentials very nicely indeed. He has already proved he has a winner’s mentality. He won five consecutive events early in his career on the Alps Tour, then won on the Challenge Tour before graduating to the European Tour where he now has four victories. Mind you, he missed a golden opportunity to add to that total a couple of weeks ago at the British Masters at the glorious Hillside golf course where he finished runner-up to Sweden’s Marcus Kinhult. He seemed a little jumpy and fidgety that week but this was a much more polished performance on a grander stage. Of course, it does help to have the vastly experienced Portrush man, Dave McNeilly, on the bag.
Wallace couldn’t have played in front of two more different galleries in the last two weeks. Firstly, the hugely supportive, knowlegeable and respectful golf fans at Hillside and then, well, then there’s the New York sports fan. There never seems to be actual silence during any shot. The best you can hope for is a low level buzzing but this can lead quickly to jeers and chanting if you produce a mediocre shot or look, as Koepka said, “as if you’re half-choking it away”.
They cheer madly for good shots no matter which quarter they come from but your eardrums are constantly at risk from random shouts bellowed out by individuals seemingly trained to develop enormous lung capacity. This could get seriously out of hand at the Ryder Cup which is scheduled to be there in 2024. I asked Matt was he ready to pencil his name on to the team sheet for 2024 knowing now what the atmosphere was likely to be. His response? “I looked in the mirror this morning and told myself I belonged out here. I didn’t necessarily feel that at the start of the week, but now I do. I want to be there.”
Don’t forget your earplugs.
The only other notable finishes from a European perspective came from two of Ireland’s best, Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy, who finished in a tie for eighth spot with four other players on 1 over par. Lowry opened with a lacklustre 75 but was 4 under for his final 54 holes, an effort bettered only by runner-up Dustin Johnson who was 5 under. That was a heck of an effort and Lowry is bubbling with confidence again and the pep is back in his step.
McIlroy too can take a lot of pride in sticking in so well in the face of adversity. I followed him the first two days and he was 7 over after 29 holes and well out of reach of making the cut. At that time a top eight finish would have seemed unfathomable but a 69, 69 weekend was impressive. Realising that his best stuff is oh-so-close he is choosing to be encouraged by that and keep his frustrations at bay as best he can – more evidence that this phenomenally talented player is continuing to mature.
And so the major caravan will roll in to Pebble Beach in a little over two weeks’ time when we will do it all again. And after that…..Portrush!