The confirmation Tiger Woods will not participate in the US PGA Championship represented little more than an exercise in administration with 2016’s final major lending itself to a multitude of more fascinating storylines.
With each medical bulletin, Woods’ career is consigned further into the past. Chief among more pressing matters is the sudden possibility of Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy concluding the year without a major success.
An Oxford graduate in mathematics is hardly required to point out that at least two of the illustrious trio will suffer such a fate. In this, the second major in three weeks, fast conclusions are inevitable. Seasons will suddenly be defined.
One wonders what golf has left aside for its latest trick. The majors of 2016 have proved epic for such different reasons: Spieth’s collapse at Augusta, the rules fiasco and ending of Dustin Johnson’s drought at Oakmont. A week ago, Henrik Stenson emerged triumphant from one of the most sensational days of championship golf in memory. The Masters, US Open and Open Championship have all seen first-time major champions.
The curious scheduling of this season, owing primarily to the return of golf to the Olympic Games, means Stenson would be entitled still to be in celebratory mode when the US PGA gets underway at Baltusrol from Thursday. The rest of us are still catching breath from super Sunday in Ayrshire. If it is unfortunate Stenson will not have the down time he unquestionably earned, golf fans should relish the return to a stage that has produced such fireworks. Even 2015’s majors, the Open perhaps aside, threw up special narratives as befitting their status.
Baltusrol’s lower course can stretch to 7,400 yards, a matter that will disappoint the traditionalists. Yet there is endearing history at the New Jersey venue: Jack Nicklaus won two of his US Opens there with Phil Mickelson’s solitary success in the final major of the year coming at Baltusrol in 2005. Mickelson prevailed on a Monday finish, owing to weather delays, having shot rounds of 67, 65, 72 and 72. Four under par was rather typical of winning Baltusrol aggregates, in a nod to how fierce this course can be. Stenson made the cut 11 years ago, finishing in a share of 47th. Then aged 29, this marked only the second time Stenson had survived for a major weekend.
Mickelson was therefore worthy of sufficient spotlight this time around even before the part he played in Stenson’s Royal Troon triumph. Mickelson did next to nothing wrong on the closing day but still found himself signing for a 65 in the painful knowledge that, at 46, he will not have many major opportunities left.
“This timing doesn’t give me a chance to take time off,” Mickelson said. “It forces me to keep my game sharp. I’ve got a lot of special memories going back to Baltusrol and probably that we don’t have a month to wait between majors is a good thing for me. I’ll try to look at the positives and take that into Baltusrol and keep my game sharp, as opposed to going home and taking some time off.
“I’m very excited with the work I’ve put in with how [Mickelson’s coach] Andrew Getson has helped me with my swing. The way I was able to hit fairways with ease coming down the stretch at Troon and hit my iron shots right on line, draws and fades and so forth, basically that comes from getting my swing back on plane.
“It’s been a little work in progress to get it on plane and then capture the field and the face awareness throughout the swing. Four days at the Open was pretty stress-free golf. So it tells me that we’ve done good work. I’m excited where my game is at and where it’s headed.”
That said, surely an element of mental scarring is inevitable. Mickelson could barely believe the lengths to which Stenson reached to claim the Claret Jug. In what represents further bad news for Mickelson, and despite a couple of exceptions, the US PGA has proved a young man’s game in recent times. Twelve months ago, Day lifted the Wanamaker Trophy when in the midst of a run of four wins from late July to the same juncture of September.
“It’s been a crazy last 12 months,” said Day this week in Ontario, where he is also the defending champion at the Canadian Open.
“I can’t get too complacent with where I’m at. I know that I’m currently ranked the best player in the world but I need to work hard. I need to work harder than I ever have before to keep that spot. I need to work harder than I ever have before to win tournaments, because it’s only getting tougher.
“I guess the way that I look at myself is a little bit different, too. Coming into this event last year, I felt confident about my game. But knowing this event would springboard me to six wins, a major championship, getting to No1, I’d be very surprised by that.
“It’s coming into the crunch time for me pressure-wise, because being kind of the favourite going into each tournament and expectation levels are high and then all that amounts to pressure you put on yourself and stress you put on yourself. You’ve got to somehow manage yourself, manage your ego; then somehow execute the shot, execute the gameplan, and go out there and try to win.”
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