The 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol
If Dustin Johnson started at New York City and hit a tee shot west toward New Jersey. Then at that spot teed up another and hit it the same direction, and so on and so on, Johnson would reach Baltusrol Golf Club in the town of Springfield in about 88 swings. Baltusrol is one of the older golfing clubs in the States. It opened as a club in 1895 with a 9-hole golf course, called “Old Course”. The course was expanded to 18 holes a few years later, but was plowed over in order to incorporate an all new design in 1918.
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The “Old Course” played host to U.S. Opens in 1903 and 1915, with Willie Anderson winning $200 for the 1903 title. Jerome Travers was not eligible for the 1915 prize, increased by this time to a staggering $300, because he was an amateur when he won it. In all, Baltusrol has hosted seven U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships. This week’s 98th installment will pay it’s winner $1.8 million.
Hall of Fame Architect, A.W. Tillinghast, designed the “dual course” at Baltusrol in 1918. An Upper and Lower Course with the latter playing host to a majority of the tournaments hosted there, including the upcoming PGA Championship. The fourth and final major of the season. Tillinghast designed some other notable and very challenging courses in the New York/New Jersey area. Winged Foot, host course to five U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship. The Bethpage State Park’s Black Course which is the first public course to host a U.S. Open (2002). They hosted the 2009 U.S. Open, will go on to host the 2019 PGA Championship, 2024 Ryder Cup, and later this year, the first event in the Fed Ex Cup Playoffs. All of these courses often rank in to top half of any credible golf publications annual top 100 courses in America list.
Baltusrol has hosted major championships on three different courses (Old, Upper, Lower), and earned National Historic Landmark status in 2014.
Baltusrol is one of the most beautiful courses you’ll ever find. Comparable to Augusta National as far as greens keeping care goes. It has the greenest grass, colorful flowers in full bloom and bright white bunkers along the tree lined property. No tricks. No gimmicks. No baked out greens. No knee high grass. Its as fair and straight forward as golf can get. But it will still test every aspect of one’s game.
It’ll play long at over 7,400 yards. Two of the par-5s on the front nine become long par-4’s for championship golf, shortening the overall par to 70. After 16 long holes, tired, worn out from the July heat, the track finishes with back to back par-5s. It’d be like making the last mile of a marathon the steepest incline. The 17th is 647-yards and only John Daly and Tiger Woods have reached the green in two shots in major history here. The 18th will lend opportunity to some eagle chances. What that means is a chance for an exciting finish for the fans to witness. A two or three shot lead come the final hole on Sunday, not necessarily a lock to walk away with the Wanamaker Trophy.
If I had to put my money on someone to walk away with the Trophy, it’s going to be the guy I mentioned at the top. Dustin Johnson. He won at Oakmont to secure his first major win, is playing his best golf of his career this season, and Baltusrol will reward those who are long and accurate off the tee. Rory McIlroy and Jason Day also fit this profile, Day is the defending champion of this event. These guys will be able to attack long par-3s with tight pin placements with 6 and 7-irons while others will need 3 or 4-irons. DJ might be able to get to 17 green in two shots. He might be putting for eagle four times this tournament on 18. That could be the difference.
I’d be remised if I didn’t mention Jordan Spieth. Some say he isn’t living up to the 2015 hype that included winning two majors before turning 22 years old. Only Gene Sarazen had ever done what Spieth did. Tiger Woods also set the bar so high, so early, that it was nearly impossible to remain that dominant.
Speith was a non factor in the U.S. and Open Championship’s, not Tiger Woods, nor Jack Nicklaus, nor anyone had won three majors before turning 23. Spieth turns 23 today, one day before teeing it up at Baltusrol. Only 19 players have won multiple major championships in their career. So what he’s already accomplished is astounding. Some call it a tailspin, a backslide, when It’s more like asking Babe Ruth to hit 60 home runs every single year. It’s such a high bar, anything less is considered downfall. That isn’t the case here as Spieth has still won twice on tour this this year and is said to have been working on aspects of his game. Namely, driving the ball longer. Working on that has led to a decrease in driving accuracy and thus an increase in scrambling.
Spieth’s scoring average overall on tour has dropped about a half a stroke per round. While that sounds bad, what it also means is he’s dropped from first on tour in 2015 to third best this year. Half a stroke per round, two strokes per tournament. Two strokes can be the difference in winning and losing some weeks. But dropping from first to third is Babe Ruth going from 60 home runs to 54. Still very good.
The reason for the downtick is having trouble hitting greens in regulation. Which is harder to do when you don’t hit as many fairways. In the four majors last year he was seventh or better in each one in GIR, finished with two wins, a runner-up to Jason Day at the PGA, and a fourth place in the Open. In three majors this year he has failed to break the top-30 in the field in GIR. Scrambling is extremely harder at the majors with deep rough, deeper bunkers in places like Oakmont and the British Open rota of courses, and slick greens.
I believe the cream will rise to the top in this PGA Championship. My odds on favorite would be Dustin Johnson. Rory McIlroy figures to be in the mix. Adam Scott is one of the most fundamentally strong players and Baltusrol should favor that. Jordan Spieth is still making adjustments, but will be a factor if he hits more fairways. Jason Day showed up late to the facility, won’t even get in a practice round, reportedly just being tired and wanting to unwind. Day did in fact play in the RBC-Canadian Open last week, rather than take the week off between the Open and PGA. It will be interesting to see if he can show up never playing the course and top the field. Phil Mickelson knows the course as the defending champion of the last PGA Championship here in 2005. Henrik Stenson will be talked about looking to win two majors in a row after his 63 at Royal Troon clinched the Claret Jug.
Here are your featured groups for the first two days of action from Baltusrol. They loaded up three of them.
8:30 Thurs. – 1:45 Fri: Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson
Day is the defending champion, Lefty is the defending champion at Baltusrol, and McIlroy is a two-time PGA Champion. Day is still the world’s #1. McIlRoy #4, Mickelson #13 and a runner-up at Royal Troon.
1:45 Thurs. – 8:30 Fri: Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson
Here are your three major winners from 2016. Willett at The Masters, DJ the U.S., Stenson most recently at the Open. All three are ranked in the top-10 in the world golf rankings. (DJ, 2. Stenson, 5. Willett, 9).
1:25 Thurs. – 8:10 Fri: Jordan Spieth, Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson
Another threesome of top-10 players in the world. Spieth (3) is in search of his first PGA Championship after finishing runner-up to Jason Day at Whistling Straits last year. Sergio Garcia (10) is still in search of that elusive first major victory of his career. He’s finished in the top-10, 22 times in majors without a win. Recent history is on Garcia’s side as Jason Day last year, Danny Willett at Augusta, Dustin Johnson at Oakmont, and Henrik Stenson at Royal Troon all picked up their first major titles. Bubba Watson is a two-time Masters Champion, but has never won a PGA Championship. He came close in 2010, losing a three-hole playoff to Martin Kaymer.
Thursday and Friday: TNT, 1-7pm
Saturday and Sunday: TNT, 11am-2pm. CBS 2-7pm
Beautiful for Thursday and Saturday. Rain could be factor Friday and Sunday with scattered T-storms in the forecast.