Some years ago, I played in a Putt-Putt tournament. You probably would not have guessed this, but I was good at Putt-Putt. I’m not talking here about miniature golf, with the windmills and clown’s mouths and pirates and all that. No, I’m talking about official Putt-Putt, where every hole is par-2 and there are no goofy obstacles. Some of you might remember that there used to be Putt-Putt tournaments on television with Billy Packer doing the announcing.
Anyway, I was 16 or 17 years old, and I played in a two-round Putt-Putt tournament and bizarrely I shot 30 in the first round (6 under par!) And was actually leading my division. It was, to say the least, unexpected. This was my first tournament, and I had this ridiculous putting style where I would stick my left leg out, sort of like an open, Tony Batista-type batting stance.
I cannot begin to describe the pressure I felt in that second round. It felt like I had a pro wrestler screaming on my back and an accordion playing a polka in my chest. It was not just hard to putt. It was not just hard to breathe. I felt like my whole body was just going to give way, like one of those collapsible wooden shoulder toys.
It probably goes without saying that I collapsed in the second round.
So, yes, I thought about this Sunday as we watched a whole bunch of young, gifted, first-time contenders try to win the PGA Championship. It was, to say the least, ugly. When the day began, a Chilean named Mito Pereira was 9 under, he led an American (Will Zalatoris) and an Englishman (Matt Fitzpatrick) by three shots, and then came another American (Cameron Young) at 5 under and a Mexican (Abraham Ancer) at 4 under
Combined, the five players had won – let me do some quick math here – OK, zero major championships. Also combined the five players had won one PGA TOUR event, that was Ancer’s victory last year at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, though to be fair Fitzpatrick had won seven times on the European (now DP World) Tour, and Zalatoris had been in contention in a couple of majors, so they were not entirely green.
But they were pretty green.
This promised to make Sunday compelling television if you are the sort of person who likes watching car wrecks. After all, what do you think will happen when you have five talented, but undoubtedly panicked, players trying to win a Grand Slam golf tournament while simultaneously keeping their lunches down?
Right. That’s what happened. Ancer stepped off the stage early, bogeying the first hole and then Nos. 7, 8 and 9 to fall out of contention and off the television rotation. Heck, he was five back at the start anyway and a longshot.
That left the four kids. Fitzpatrick was easily the most experienced of the quartet, having played in 28 major championships – more than twice as many as the other three combined. He sort of leaked oil through the back nine and finished off all hopes when he bogeyed the short and relatively easy par-4 17th rather than birdieing it. That was the two shots that stood between him and the eventual winner, Justin Thomas.
Then, while Fitzpatrick was bogeying that hole, it seemed like Pereira had the tournament wrapped up. All along, Pereira had looked surprisingly calm considering that he had never gone through anything like this before. He seemed such a likely winner that CBS was asking his friend Joaquin Niemann for a little insight into his psyche and what this victory would mean in Chile (Answers: He’s fearless; it would mean a lot in Chile).
But then Pereira’s 12-foot birdie putt on 17 stopped a half-revolution shy of birdie, and then on the 18th hole, holding a one-shot lead, a suddenly not-calm-looking Pereira promptly sliced his drive into a creek and that was the end of that. The shame of it is – this really was a great performance for him in his first time in contention at a major. “On Monday I just wanted to make the cut,” he would say.
Will Zalatoris, meanwhile, made four bogeys and, frankly needed a couple of minor miracles to keep a couple of those from being even worse. But he kept it together – this guy’s major record is really quite impressive – and he made a clutch par on the 18th hole to finish 5 under par, ahead of the other first-time contenders.
But, as you know, he did not win the PGA Championship.
See, it turns out that way back in the distance, Justin Thomas – former No. 1 in the world, FedExCup champion and already owner of one PGA Championship – made a sort-of, kind-of charge. This was not exactly Nicklaus at Augusta. On the sixth hole, Thomas actually shanked his tee shot – I mean a real shank, like he dropped the club and everything and needed to make an 18-foot putt for bogey.
He played the front-nine in par and seemed to have no juice going whatsoever; he was seven shots back. But then he made back-to-back birdies at Nos. 11 and 12 and moved to 4 under par, and just seeing his familiar name on the leaderboard undoubtedly altered the entire atmosphere.
It was like the moment when substitute teachers are struggling to keep things together, and then the principal walks into the classroom.
Thomas did not do anything special on the way in, but he did birdie that 17th hole to get to 5 under and that meant that he and Zalatoris were in a playoff.
Thomas then turned up the specialness in the three-hole playoff; he hit his first drive into the rough, but he somehow recovered to make birdie anyway after a magnificent wedge shot. Then, he hit one of the shots of the tournament when he drove the 17th green and made another birdie.
Zalatoris did not play badly in the playoffs – a birdie and two pars should give you a chance. But he was outgunned by perhaps the best golfer on earth. And Thomas won the PGA Championship for the second time.
“Bizarre day,” he would say, and it was bizarre. But this is why we watch, right? If these golfers were immune to pressure, if they did not feel the burden of golf history, if they could just hit shots easily and freely with the biggest tournaments on the line, then what would be the point? We might as well watch Iron Mikes hit perfect shots every time.
No, we want to see humanity out there. Sometimes it’s breathtaking. And sometimes it’s hard to watch.