August 11, 2008

Opinion

Oakland Hills' setup made for a rough week

Not that it was a strange week, but have you ever seen anybody celebrate a hole-in-one with putter in hand? While scoping out a birdie attempt? Except in miniature golf? It almost happened last Friday during the spooky PGA Championship. Sean O'Hair striped a 6-iron to No. 13 at Oakland Hills, the ball landing about 20 feet above and left of the flag. Nice shot, polite applause, wave to the gallery. O'Hair grabbed his short stick from caddie Paul Tesori, and they walked off the tee, heading to the green where suddenly, the surrounding crowd began screaming wildly. Someone streaking? A Brad and Angelina sighting? Free beer? No, O'Hair's ball, with a mind of its own, decided to take a walk. It rolled toward the hole, closer and closer until stopping maybe 18 inches from darkness.

"How weird was that?" mused O'Hair, smiling at the time as though this scenario before him, staged in slo-mo for dramatic effect, might be an omen. Unfortunately, he had to continue on, which meant playing some alabaster greens that wouldn't hold a bowling ball, let alone a golf ball. By tournament's end, O'Hair, like numerous fellow competitors, claimed the fifth about the fourth major. "I don't want to say what I want to say," he whispered. Despite his unspectacular (T-31) finish, O'Hair remains a viable wild-card selection to the U.S. Ryder Cup team because definitive judgments need not be gleaned from a tournament that drew so much blood. In fact, to oblige the prevailing Olympic spirit, shall we just cheat a little bit, discard the worst scores and regroup for Greensboro?

When they say they want to grow the game, they must mean ‘ it up to our ankles.’'-A PGA Tour veteran

Reason and logic prevailed only in the closing minutes, like a pro basketball game. Padraig Harrington, the world's warmest player not undergoing physical rehabilitation, won. In short sleeves again, on another uncomfortable Sunday. A good time was had not by all, only a few. Ben Hogan labeled Oakland Hills the "Monster," but he mustn't have met Rees Jones. But you can meet Steve Elkington, the last PGA champ not in the final group, and he had an unfair advantage. Elkington is allergic to grass, and the greens at Riviera CC in '95 were as brown as a UPS truck. "This redesign by Mr. Jones needs to be redesigned," quoth Elkington. "It's way too hard. Some of what went on out there with the setup made no sense. I'm a big PGA of America guy, but this week, it was like things happened too fast for them, and they lost control of an event where players are historically allowed to play."

"When they say they want to grow the game, they must mean 'grow it up to our ankles.' "

Golfers were aware that Oakland Hills is one of the most enervating layouts anywhere, but they weren't quite ready for three renditions of abuse. There was the course as presented during practice rounds, then the up-tempo version on Thursday and Friday, followed by a soaked Sunday after serial squalls the previous afternoon wherein most of the week's electricity was contained. Three men under par in an event famous for friendly relations to labor? "One member told me, except for slightly shorter rough, this is how members like to play it," Elkington went on. "They must also like whips and chains." For CBS, Saturday's extensive rain delay leading to suspension of round three meant revisiting the epic Tiger Woods-Bob May staredown at the 2000 PGA Championship. This raised the possibility that Tiger tapes Saturday would beat ratings for Sunday's live action, which was not plentiful. When you face a 491-yard par 4 such as No. 8, uphill and into a biting wind, a softer putting surface does not answer the question. Why?

As early as round one, the lads were steamed. After a brief rain, a smattering of players went out to finish by twilight. They were amazed to find grounds crew employees watering the already robust off-fairway areas. "When they say they want to grow the game," mentioned one veteran, "they must mean 'grow it up to our ankles.' " Whether the PGA of America recorded a rare and uncharacteristic whiff is ripe for discussion, but after overshooting even the temperature Friday with 84, frumpy Colin Montgomerie praised the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines as best in the class of '08. Woods put up a 30 for nine there. Harrington closed with 32 at the British Open, where you don't see many garden hoses. Unfortunately, there was no such fun at Oakland Hills, which was quieter than the Detroit Lions parade route.

That might explain rooting interests. Sergio Garcia, who was due and still is, seemed to have the crowd on his side Sunday. Ben Curtis is from Ohio and playing in Michigan. Strike one. He was wearing Lions' gear. Strike two. Harrington, a perfectly fine fellow, has a distant cousin, Joey, a former Lions' quarterback of little renown. Apparently, not distant enough. Strike three. But Padraig is beyond worthy, and besides, he says he'd love to win a gold medal for Ireland one day. Olympic organizers would look at these PGA Championship clips, however, and wonder precisely what sport it was that transpired at Oakland Hills. Grunting?