As the 2011 PGA Championship unfolds there are several compelling subplots lurking. Will Steve Stricker win that elusive major championship? Can Davis Love III wind back the hands of time and win his second PGA Championship? Is the combination of Adam Scott and Steve Williams going to be golf’s new dominate player/caddie combo? What is wrong with Tiger Woods? How serious is the wrist injury that Rory McIlroy suffered? Can Scott Verplank prevail? Will Phil make a charge?
It has been an interesting two days here in Atlanta. This is the first major championship in golf that has allowed cell phones and mobile devices. Spectators are allowed to bring these onto the grounds of the Atlanta Athletic Club for the first time ever in golf’s elite tournaments. There is plenty of signage telling fans not to take pictures while players are swinging. Certain areas have been prescribed for phone calls. It will be the wave of the future as golf tournaments allow spectators to check emails, shoot texts and make phone calls in this venue.
Course conditions have been spectacular. The greens are superior. Maintaining putting speeds that are not too fast has been the challenge. Estimated stimp meter speed is in the 14 range. The fairways, which are Diamond Zoysia, are absolutely carpet like. The only complaint by players has been the sand traps, which are pretty soft and fluffy. The fairway bunkers are powdery, which has caused for some real strange bunker shots by the world’s best.
“If you drive it in the fairway, you can shoot a low number. If you don’t and hit it in a bunch of fairway bunkers, you can shoot the moon,” said Love after his round on Thursday. “It is almost impossible to get anything lower than a pitching wedge airborne out of these bunkers. I tried hitting a seven iron out there in what appeared to be a perfect lie and topped the shot.”
“This course setup is masterful,” said Peter Kostis of CBS Sports. “If you hit the fairways you can shoot 63 and if you don’t………. well, we saw a pretty good player shoot 77 the other day.”
Speaking of Woods who was in 14 bunkers during that Thursday round of 77, he appears to have hit rock bottom from a playing standpoint. This week’s PGA Championship is the worst performance in a major championship by the greatest player of this era. Woods is clearly deflated, frustrated and growing profusely impatient with his own ineptness.
In fairness to Woods, he is coming back from serious injuries and long layoffs. It’s far too premature to write this guy off. He talked this week about how much difficulty he was having “just letting it go and not thinking about his mechanics.” These are the demons that have haunted all of us at times. It only took 35 years, but Tiger is proving that he is human on the golf course.
Every golf expert and media type is still talking about the shot that Rory McIlroy attempted on Thursday. The Irish lad’s ball was close to a root and he tried to execute the shot, resulting in an injury to his right wrist. McIlroy gutted out a 70 in that first round and toughed it out on Friday. But, you have to question the wisdom of the decision. A wrist injury in golf can terminate a career.
I was in the locker room when the injury occurred. Several players were seated nearby, including Alviro Quiros of Spain and Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn. Quiros was extremely vocal in his objections to McIlroy continuing play. “He is 22 years old. He has a career ahead of him. He needs to stop playing before he really hurts himself and destroys his future,” said Quiros.
McIlroy was checked out on the course by a physician. It was determined that no further injury could take place. He got an MRI Thursday night. “This is a major championship and an important tournament. If I can play, I will. There are six months before I go to Augusta, which gives me plenty of time to get better,” said a smiling Mcilroy.
I have been lucky in getting to know many of the players. It’s tough for me to pick a player I want to see win because there is a bunch of great guys out here. Favoritism should not be in my vocabulary. But, I have to tell you that I will be rooting hard for Steve Stricker this weekend. I know him better than any player on the PGA Tour.
Stricker, 44 years old, is married to Nicki, who is the daughter of Dennis Tiziani, PGA professional from Madison, WI. “Tiz” recruited both of my daughters when he coached the women’s team at the University of Wisconsin and he helped Stricker through the toughest part of his career when he lost his tour card several years ago. “Tiz” put together an indoor practice area for Stricker and the two worked their way through the trials of a lost swing in the Wisconsin winter.
This indoor hitting area consisted of a mobile home that had one side cut out, allowing Stricker to hit balls off of an astro turf mat into the Wisconsin snow. Tiziani installed a ceiling heater and Stricker says there is no need to head south to practice in his off season months.
“It gets so hot in there, I can work up a sweat hitting balls in short sleeves- and that’s when it’s single digit temperatures outside,” laughed Stricker one night last winter when we chatted on the phone.
I remember that night well, Steve talked about his kids who were in the next room with Nicki watching American Idol. He said he was getting tired of traveling. He felt that his career was winding down and that he had maybe four more years left to compete at the highest level.
But, one thing that is always certain with Stricker. He is a fierce competitor. Tom Lehman nicknamed Stricker the “quiet assassin” at the Ryder Cup when he took out the world’s #1, Lee Westwood in the singles matches. Stricker has won ten times on the PGA Tour, seven since he turned 40 years old.
Stricker faltered yesterday and seemingly lost control of the tournament. It’s nearly impossible to lead a major wire to wire, which is where he was after firing the opening round 63 on Thursday. But, this guy has been through adversity before.
If you are looking for a guy to root for this weekend, Steve Stricker is your man.