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The unfortunate history of bad weather and major championships



July 31, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Professional golfers are nothing if not adaptable. The old post-office motto about the principals completing their appointed rounds applies, except for the “gloom of night” and “swift” parts.

Although no one knows exactly when, the 98th PGA Championship at Baltusrol will get finished. If the championship is lucky with its winner and perhaps some 11th-hour dramatics, it will still be remembered fondly. But if it isn’t, the 2016 edition will go down as one of those misbegotten majors that faded largely unseen into the following workweek.

I’ve been to more than a few of these protracted slogs, like the back-to-back U.S. Women’s Opens that pushed the envelope for calamity. In 1986, at the NCR C.C. in Dayton, Ohio, the championship was first delayed after a railroad tanker derailed and spilled a load of phosphates, which raised clouds of poison smoke throughout the community. Shortly thereafter, the area also experienced heavy lightening storms and a 4.2 earthquake. When the sun finally came out, players complained of flesh-eating flies. Somehow four rounds were completed by Sunday, but a Monday playoff was required, won by Jane Geddes.

The next year was even worse logistically. Heavy rain at the Plainfield C.C. in New Jersey delayed the final round until Monday. But when then-48-year-old Joanne Carner sadly three-putted the 72nd hole, it meant a Tuesday playoff, won by then-22-year-old rookie Laura Davies.

The next year I attended my first Open Championship, at Royal Lytham. Torrential rains on Saturday were heavy enough to flood several greens on the links, ultimately causing the first Monday finish in the championship’s long history. (Last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews, made chaotic by heavy winds, was the second.) Seve Ballesteros turned the 1988 championship into a classic with a fourth-round 65 to defeat Nick Price and capture his fifth and final major championship.

Actually, most of the biggest weather disasters have been at non-majors. The 1996 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was canceled after 36 holes because rains caused the 16th at Spyglass Hill, one of the three courses in the tournament rotation, to have so much casual water that it became unplayable under the Rules of Golf. Since some of the players in the field had played Spyglass, but those who hadn’t could no longer play the same 18 holes, it was decided—controversially—that the competition could not be equitably completed.

From what I’ve been told, among the worst ground conditions for spectators at a tournament that was completed (also on Monday) were experienced at the 2010 Ryder Cup Celtic Manor in Wales, where following the matches meant negotiating shoe-sucking expanses of mud that resembled a battlefield in “Game of Thrones.”

This year’s PGA has a chance to surpass the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black as the most disjointed and unsatisfying major of the century. Five essentially uninterrupted days of rain on Long Island produced a quagmire from which Lucas Glover rose as the winner.

Baltusrol has been here before. In 2005, prolonged delays from rain caused the final round to be completed on Monday. Tiger Woods, eager to get home to Florida, left for the airport after finishing his fourth round on Sunday, even though it turned out that bogeys by three players on the 72nd hole the next day would have put him in a playoff. All was well after Phil Mickelson birdied the 18th to win.

Waiting out delays is part of a professional’s skill set, but this week at Baltusrol has some extra stress. All of the top players are taking part in the quickest turnaround between men’s majors ever seen, as the Open Championship at Troon finished less than two weeks ago. And later this week, several players in the field will be traveling to Rio for the Olympics, where the golf competition begins a week from Thursday.

In such a time and weather crunch, it’s tempting for players to abandon focus and just get it over with. But the PGA Championship is a major, Baltusrol is a big-time arena, and when the final holes are played—whether that be on Sunday, or Monday, or Tuesday—competitive commitment will be at its highest.

Whether the result will be memorable is to be determined.

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the July 31, 2016 issue of Golf World.