Club pro Michael Block had already stolen the show at the PGA Championship when he made an ace that shook Oak Hill
By Michael Bamberger
May 22, 2023
PITTSFORD, N.Y.—It is true that Michael Block, the short-hitting 46-year-old club pro from a public course in Southern California, did not make a birdie in the fourth and final round of the PGA Championship, which concluded on Sunday at the shimmering, emerald-green East Course at Oak Hill Country Club.
And still he managed to shoot 71, 1 over par.
Amazing what a 1 on your card will do for you.
That is, the eagle/hole-in-one this short-hitting 46-year-old club pro from a public course in Southern California made while playing the par-3 15th hole with Rory McIlroy in that fourth round, trying to secure a top-15 finish, which would get him invited back to next year’s PGA Championship.
On the tee, Block and his sideman, a Pebble Beach/Spyglass caddie named John Jackson, discussed what club to hit on the 151-yard shot. They were between “chipping” a 6-iron and a “driving-range” 7-iron. That is, taking something off the 6 or hitting a full, regular 7.
Every veteran PGA Tour player knows that late on a Sunday, with the adrenaline running, it’s hard to take something off a shot. Better to hit something hard. But Michael Block has played fewer than a dozen PGA Tour events, and has never sniffed a Sunday afternoon.
He went with the full 7-iron. Somehow, amazingly, the ball flew right into the hole. It did not seem to touch the flagstick as it somehow landed right at 12 o’clock and disappeared. There are a million ways to hole out a shot with the pin in but that is the least likely one. How does the ball descend and not hit the flagstick?
How does it hit the back of the hole and then not bounce off the flagstick and stay out of the hole? There’s about a half-inch of white-painted dirt before a metal cup liner. That dirt gets hard, the liner is hard, the flagstick is hard, the ball is hard—there’s a lot that can go wrong.
For Michael Block this week, nothing went wrong. In one week, he went from little-known club pro who sells golf balls and gives $125-an-hour lessons to a permanent part of the game’s lore.
The roar was deafening. Almost everybody on the course, the caddies and the players and the spectators, must have realized that somebody had just holed a long one. But who?
“We heard it, we knew it was an ace on 15,” said Ricky Elliott, Brooks Koepka’s caddie. They were on 12 at the time. “I was just hoping it wasn’t Scottie,” Elliott said. Scottie Scheffler. An ace on 15 would have put Scheffler in striking distance and then some for the title. But he made a mere 3 on 15, and finished two shots behind the winner, Koepka.
Well, one of the winners. Nobody’s golfing life changed over the course of the tournament more than Michael Block’s. He shot rounds of 70 (playing late on Thursday, which was lucky), 70 (playing early on Friday, which was lucky), 70 and 71. One over par! Tied for 15th with Eric Cole and Tyrrell Hatton! One shot ahead of the man who was the 71-hole leader at last year’s PGA Championship, Mito Pereira!
The T15/winner then received an invitation to play in this week’s Colonial tournament. (He said yes.) He earned $288,000 in Tour funny money.
It would be easy to say who was more excited about the ace, McIlroy or Block. Had to be Rory, who hugged Block and patted him on the cheek. All the while, Block seemed to be stunned.
Dave Wannemacher, who was standing near the 15th tee when Block made his ace, has been to well over a dozen Masters. He has heard Sunday eagle roars at Augusta National many times. “I’ve never heard a roar like that in my life,” he said.
The impact of the ball to the back of the cup was so intense that the hole had to be repaired and the cup replaced, done by a three-man crew in about five minutes.
Meanwhile, Block was off to the 16th. There are few shots in golf harder to hit than the tee shot after a hole-in-one. It’s not one anyone gets to practice, for one thing. And Block, with the honor (of course!) and using his lucky ball, hit a weak tee shot into the right rough and made bogey.
But he stuck with the ace ball on 17 and 18, long par-4s for him, where he made remarkable, scrambling back-to-back 4s.
It was the week where everything went right.
His play on 18 was as about as unlikely as anything else he did. Block flared his tee shot short and right and into the rough. McIlroy’s tee shot was the better part of a football field ahead of him.
From a crummy lie he flailed with a 5-wood way into the left rough, maybe 15 yards short of the green and 30 yards from the hole. He waded into a sea of spectators chanting his golf-term surname. (Move over, Damon Hack!)
His pitch shot landed in the rough, bounced onto the fringe, then the green and trickled down to about 8 feet.
It was a slice, downhill putt and it seemed like he didn’t give it enough borrow or gas, but of course that did not matter. In it went.
Do you know the sports term “peak experience?” When everything comes together and the mind and body work as one, in a magical state that defies words, and you do things you never have before? It goes way beyond sports. Paul McCartney, writing “Yesterday,” for instance, almost in a dream-state. Michael Murphy talked about it in Golf in the Kingdom. Upon hearing about Block’s play on Sunday night, Murphy said it sounded very much like a peak experience. It brought to mind for him another unlikely outcome in golf: Jack Fleck defeating Ben Hogan in a playoff to decide the 1955 U.S. Open.
This wasn’t that, but it was something. It was a reminder of how important it is to have club pros, even though there are only 20 now, in the PGA Championship. What amateurs are to the Masters, what qualifiers are the U.S. and British Opens, the PGA of America club pros are to the PGA Championship. I have been lucky enough to caddie for an amateur at the Masters, for qualifiers in a U.S. Open and a British Open, for a club pro at the PGA Championship. Inside the ropes, especially, you can see the immense pride an amateur and a club pro and a qualifier has, playing alongside the best professionals in the world, from all over the world.
Michael Block, a bearded contemporary of Tiger Woods, but not a fitness nut like the 15-time major champion, has had a recurring dream where he and Woods trade shots down the stretch competing for a title. Except this time it wasn’t Tiger. It was Rory. He wasn’t playing to win. But he was playing for a spot in next year’s PGA and but for the miracle of his 1-5-4-4 finish, he’s in. Those two pars to close were huge.
It’s commonplace to see a PGA Tour player hug his wife as he comes off the green in victory. Sometimes it seems perfunctory, or required. After Michael Block’s win—you can call it that—he hugged his wife, Val, so firmly she came right off the ground. She’s tiny and he’s big, but still. They were floating. They were crying and laughing. The crowd was chanting. This was all so unexpected, so refreshing, so real. This was so golf.
“I love my family and everything, my job and everything, but golf is my life,” Block said on Sunday night after the cheering had subsided. “I live it, breathe it. I’ve made sure of one thing in my life: that I was going to drive to a golf course every day, whether it was as a caddie, or an onsite service kid, or an assistant pro, or a head pro, or general manager: I was going to be at a golf course. I came to a golf course today. At Oak Hill. And played in the PGA Championship.”
What he did will have a shelf life of forever.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]
Michael Bamberger was briefly a caddie on the PGA and European Tours, invented a golf club (the E-Club) that Lee Trevino used in his final British Open, spent 22 years as a writer at Sports Illustrated and joined the Firepit Collective in May 2022.
email: [email protected]