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Cult hero

PGA Championship 2023: How Michael Block went from club pro to cult hero at Oak Hill

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Kevin C. Cox

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Michael Block didn’t win the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday at Oak Hill Country Club, but it’s easy to believe he won just about everything else that mattered during four scintillating storybook days in the 105th PGA Championship. He won over the toughest sporting crowd in America. He won admiration and respect both for himself and his profession. He won a lifetime of memories most people never come close to realizing.

And he won a little something for golf, too—a newfound appreciation for its magic.

It wasn’t enough that the California club pro had captured hearts and minds with his surprisingly solid play through the first three rounds at Oak Hill’s sturdy East Course. He had to go for an encore, and he did that with a slam-dunk ace at the par-3 15th hole that sent the gallery into delirium and had them chanting his name.

Block never saw his 7-iron go straight into the cup, and neither did his caddie, John Jackson. But his playing partner, Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner, witnessed the lightning bolt and walked backward to offer an embrace.

“It was right at the hole, and I figured it was five or 10 feet, but I wondered why the crowd was going nuts,” Block, 46, said. “Then Rory walked back to me and I’m thinking, ‘Rory gives out hugs when you hit it to five feet?”

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A dream pairing with Rory McIlroy on Sunday became surreal for Michael Block as the round went on.

Ross Kinnaird

The New York denizens wrapped him in their embrace all day. So he gave them one last reason to cheer. After pulling his approach to the 18th green well left of the green, Block somehow got up and down from the trampled rough, hitting a flop shot from some 32 yards to seven feet and then trickling in the par save that had more meaning than he knew.

Refusing to look at a scoreboard, Block, who began the day tied for eighth, didn’t find out until after signing for a one-over 71 that his final stroke enabled him to retain a share of 15th place, which earns him an exemption into the 2024 PGA at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. He completed the championship in one-over 281, tied with Tyrell Hatton and Eric Cole and posted the best finish by a club professional since Lonnie Nielsen was T-11 in 1986 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

“That was amazing,” McIlroy said to Block’s wife Val, giving her a hug of congratulations.

“I guess sort of when it’s your week, it’s your week in a way,” McIlroy said in the aftermath, again using the word amazing to describe his playing partner and the shot heard all the way across the country. “I think with the way the week's went for him, it [the hole-in-one] was a fitting way to cap off his PGA Championship.”

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Michael Block shares a laugh with Brooks Koepka during the prize ceremony on Sunday.

Michael Reaves

Head professional at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, Mission Viejo, Calif., Block was playing in his seventh major and fifth PGA but had not made a cut until this week. He pocketed $288,333, far surpassing his previous highest payday of $75,000 at the 2014 PGA Club Professional National Championship.

“This week's been absolutely a dream,” said Block, who found out later Sunday that he was being given an exemption to this week’s Charles Schwab Challenge, the PGA Tour stop in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as next month's RBC Canadian Open. “I didn't know it was going to happen, but I knew if I just played my darned game, right, that I could do this. I always knew it.”

He said there were more pinch-me moments than he could count—and he meant that in a literal sense as well. He and Jackson began to actually pinch each other as they made their way around Oak Hill the final two days. And, of course, he did a lot of crying, including several times on Sunday after he holed out and patted his heart and point to the crowd ringing the 18th green.

“I didn’t cry when my kids were born. If it makes any sense, the one thing in the world that makes me cry is golf,” Block said. “If that puts into context as far as how much I love the game, you know now. It's everything to me.”

He was asked why his story has resonated with so many people both those at Oak Hill and the millions watching at home. Block, who doesn’t lack for confidence, invoked the name of another man-of-the-people type who became wildly popular.

“I'm like the new John Daly, but I don't have a mullet, and I'm not quite as big as him yet,” he said with a grin. “I'm just a club professional, right? I work. I have fun. I have a couple boys that I love to play golf with. I have a great wife. I have great friends. I live the normal life. I love being at home. I love sitting in my backyard. My best friend in the world is my dog.

“But, yeah, it's been a surreal experience, and I had this weird kind of sensation that life is going to be not quite the same moving forward, but only in a good way, which is cool.”

His life already has changed. Before he teed off with McIlroy in the fourth-to-last group at 2 p.m. EDT, Block was looking to kill a little time after having a light lunch. He decided to visit the merchandise tent. Val told him he might want to rethink that and suggested he put on sunglasses and wear his cap backwards. Didn’t make a difference.

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Michael Block celebrates with wife Val as he comes off the 18th green on Sunday.

Kevin C. Cox

“He ended up signing autographs for a half-hour,” said Jackson, a caddie at Pebble Beach Golf Links who has been friends with Block for more than a decade. “We finally had to pull him out of there. Everyone knew who he was.”

Other than Brooks Koepka, Michael Block was the biggest thing going at this PGA Championship. And in some ways, you could argue that he was the biggest. After all, no one else heard his name echoing throughout the grounds of Oak Hill.

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