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Holy Week (II of IV)

The PGA Championship is here, one of the four exalted events that can define a player’s legacy

By Michael Bamberger

PITTSFORD, N.Y.—Day 5. Day 5 of 16 is upon us. Now more than ever: golf’s Holy Days.

There are other important days baked into the golf calendar. The three days of the Ryder Cup. The three women’s majors. The three senior majors. The U.S. Amateur finale. The Walker Cup finale. The final round of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. Some other days on the golfing calendar.

But this is Day 5 of 16 when there’s nothing we’d rather do than watch the golf. Because it matters. It matters to them and therefore it matters to us. It matters to them, the best players in the world, in ways they can’t even convey. We’re all looking for status within our peer group.

The Masters, on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday Sunday in April. One through four.

The PGA, on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in May. Five through eight.

The U.S. Open on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in June. Nine through 12. 

The British Open on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in July. Twelve through 16.

Sixteen days that define an elite golfer’s life.

Oak Hill, site of this 105th PGA Championship, is as splendid as a course could be.

Survey says the cut comes in at 3 over, none of the 20 PGA club pros in the field makes the cut (hope that’s wrong!) and the winner comes in at 8 under.

Survey says nobody will play the final loop—14, 15, 16, 17 and 18, one big oval near the clubhouse—in under par for the four rounds. Those five holes—a drivable par-4, a short par-3, and then a shortish par-4 followed by two long, nasty ones—are as good as any collection of five holes anywhere, anytime. Ask Trevino and Big Jack. Ask Curtis. Ask Jason Dufner. Ask Walter Hagen and Robert Trent Jones if you can find them. (They grew up here.) The course was always good. Now it looks better than it ever has in my five trips here over the past 25 years. Now it looks like the very picture of the soul of golf, if such a thing even could be painted.

The rough is growing as we speak.

The greens are drying as we speak.

The golfers’ nerves are fraying as we speak.

With a driver, Tommy Fleetwood shoved a tee shot into the lush, chop-it-out rough and was pissed. It was a practice round. He’s mild-mannered by nature. But it came at the 18th hole late on Wednesday afternoon with Day 5 looming, and it wasn’t the concluding note anybody would have wanted. Guys will often retee in that situation, but Fleetwood didn’t. He grabbed a wedge knowing it was his only play.

He knew he’d be back out again, 24 hours later, when every shot counts. He’s off at 1:25 Thursday afternoon, with Cameron Young and Hideki Matsuyama. Three glamorous players when things are going well. Any player can look glamorous when things are going well.

That’s what made Jack Nicklaus Jack Nicklaus. In the 1970s, he played all 40 majors, missed one cut and had 35 top-10 finishes, with seven wins. Tiger Woods grew up on the legend of Jack Nicklaus. Tommy Fleetwood, born in 1991, grew up on the legend of Tiger Woods.

Since 2014, Fleetwood has played in 30 majors. For most of the past 10 years, he has been one of the top 20 or 25 players in the world.

Twice—twice!—Fleetwood had years where he played all 16 rounds of the four majors, in 2018 and ’19. Men’s professional golf is divided now in ways it has not been before. Yes, LIV Golf has brought a disruption to the professional game as nothing before ever has. But it will mean these 16 days, when Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson play alongside Justin Thomas and Scottie Scheffler, mean more now than they ever have.

And now they are all here, along the lush dales of Pittsford, playing for millions and for a jug. An old jug. On an old course. On a time-honored path to Friday afternoon and Sunday evening.

I once saw Fleetwood’s aunt have a late breakfast after church in downtown Birkdale, in England. I asked Tommy if he considered these 16 days as holy days.

“I do,” he said, “as I think about my career, those rounds where I’ve had a chance to win majors stand out, they’re very, very special. Just the chance to win a major. That’s where you leave your legacy. I think these majors, they’re the pinnacle. They’re the pinnacle to what we do.”

In 2018, at the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Fleetwood finished one shot behind the winner, Koepka. One shot over four days on one of the most demanding courses in golf in one of four golf events where what you do is forever.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

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