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PGA SPIETH’S QUEST FOR HOLY GRAIL OF GOLF AT QUAIL HOLLOW

By conducting the fourth and final Major of annual Grand Slam, both Golf and Tennis Professional Tours will seek to surmount the challenges of successfully completing the homeward stretch of their annual calendar of Majors, BY Sushil Kumar.

The course at Quail Hollow Club itself has overcome the challenge of overhauling the course in record fifteen months to prepare for this PGA tournament.

Quail Hollow Golf Club at Charlotte (also home to NASCAR Hall of Fame), North Carolina has hosted several PGA Tour events including Kemper Open and 14 Wachovia and Wells Fargo tournaments till last year and due to financial muscle of the sponsors and higher level of participation of top pros, this was called as a ‘mini major’. Course challenge involves numerous water hazards, bunkers (sand same as Augusta), winds and roughs (relatively easy) but heat will make the greens stone hard, hardly holding the approach shots. Four holes have been reconstructed in record fifteen months involving removal and replanting of earths and trees. Due to difficult heat conditions, the course has seen several transitions- from bentgrass greens to Bermuda grass to MiniVerde to new genetically engineered ultradwarf Bermuda called champion G-12 now. Royal Birkdale kept its record of mostly rewarding the Major winner becoming champions; at Quail too, out of 14 tournaments, 7 have been winners of Major tournaments.

For some leaders, on cusp of clutching the Wannamaker Cup, challenging stretch of three holes with risks of water (called ‘Green Mile’ that includes 223 yards par three seventeenth hole needing carry over water) are toughest on Tour and can cause collapse; is similar to closing stretch at Birkdale and its negotiation would as much depend on physics of swing as one’s mental momentum at that stage.

PGA tournament switched from match play to stroke play format in 1958 and carries classic tales of the past: like record of most holes played in a championship (Gene Sarazen played 194 holes) and folklore of John Daly who, as a last minute ninth alternate from anonymity, simply drove for hours straight to club house to demonstrate his fearless driving skills on course and win earn the epithet ‘Long’ before his name- long before long hitters like Tiger, Dustin, JB Holmes became famous for long drives . His fearless driving on the course, of course, got copied in real life and he drove from one addiction to another (gambling and drinking as admitted by him) and despite winning the Open slowly faded away. But he remained popular with people who wanted to watch him for flamboyance, colourful life/clothes and devil may care attitude: Walter Hagen’s strategy of conceding putts of less than three feet initially and refusing in final holes to rattle opponent in match play that has been copied by all club golfers; and Dave Stockton’s ‘cybernetism’ theory of primacy of mind while playing in 1970, much before mental dimensions of golf were taken seriously.

Winning PGA/ Rodman Wanamaker Trophy at Quail Hollow will not make the winner the PGA player of the year but world’s interest has leapt sky high after Spieth’s final five-hole resurrection at the Open and his quest for Holy Grail of Golf at Quail – that of completing career Grand Slam (after Masters era began in 1934), done by only five (Sarazen, Hogan, Player, Nicklaus and Woods) and missed by players like Sam Snead ( though has record of most PGA wins (82), Palmer, Tom Watson –last two couldn’t win PGA trophy. Interestingly, next three majors, three players will try their similar trysts with destiny- Spieth at Quail, Rory at Augusta Masters and Mickelson at US Open. The pressure on Spieth would be immense going by eleven starts at Majors taken by Nicklaus, ten by Player, six by Hogan before they completed their fourth to complete career Grand Slam, Going by his super human victorious effort at the Open, followed by fine showing at WGC this Sunday, Spieth should continue his golden run at Quail whose hole 1 demands instant match readiness .But then, golf defies easy predictions and even top player often misses cut even after winning a major and goes without a pay-cheque. Though Spieth is bookmakers favorite (with odds at 7/1) and Quail course doesn’t pose a stiff challenge, yet a major champion can miss cut in the very next major as Dustin Johnson did last year, unless unless one is Tiger Woods or Nicklaus. Tiger Woods could have possessed for posterity a perfect record of winning Majors while leading or sharing but that was destroyed by Y. E.Yang winning PGA trophy in 2009; it could be compared with the great Donald Bradman getting out on a rare duck in his last inning and missing out on posting for posterity a perfect batting average of a hundred in Test cricket ; he holds an average of 99.94 runs –a revered record specially when one sees that next best average hovers about half of that number even after seventy years.

Spieth’s surreal resurrection at the Open (read my article on DailyO here) from an imminent meltdown (that could have mirrored the one at the Masters in 2016) has accorded him a hallowed status and a hovering halo heralding immortality in golf.

Golf glorifies single mindedness, unwavering focus and steely determination personified by two legends namely Nicklaus and Woods – reflected in their combined 152 PGA victories clocked with Nicklaus holding the record of most runner up finishes at Majors (19).
Spieth’s style exemplifies another equally powerful proposition for winning big time- of living in the moment, without any mental baggage of past and future – showed when he unleashed an unparalleled rescue act and rising Phoenix like from the virtual assured ashes at this year’s Open. It also re-opened the door for his career grand slam that got interrupted in two years earlier, that too at the Open. The Open laid bare and brought into open his intensity and determination concealed behind school- boyish looks and charm and gentle gaze. Moreover, it’s now evident that not only he wants to win but wants to do with grace and humility – a hallmark of a true sportsman- much like in tradition treaded by quartet of Jack, Palmer, Player and Watson; maybe realization of his own superhuman talent and skills is mellowed by humility heaped by his sisters’ special condition – at least that’s my guess having experienced similar situation in life.

Dustin Johnson swashbuckling style of play and swagger reminds one of Greg Norman’s history of spoiling chances in few holes- a la snatching defeat from jaws of imminent victory. And like Norman, he has oodles of talent and athleticism to ascend greater heights in golf.

Being inherently an unpredictable sport, golf writers have to live with huge professional hazard while hazarding a guess about possible winners. Now my prediction for the PGA: my prediction about his driving before the Open was accurate; Spieth’s drive on hole 13 brought out buried ghosts of Masters 2016 meltdown to memory and spectators experienced suspended animation for half hour till he scrambled to escape with affordable bogey and then unleashed one of the greatest comebacks, by playing last five holes at five under in a final round. Though Spieth confidence boost after the Open and WGC Bridgestone Invitational should help but Spieth result at Quail wasn’t that good in his only outing in 2013 when he finished tied 32. But that was before his breakthrough and bursting from the tracks and wining bigtime starting with the Masters in 2015.

Rory has a record of winning two majors with eight strokes and even in the Open he led the field comfortably though eventually winning by strokes. Rory has twice won PGA Wannamaker Trophy and has won twice and has six top ten out of seven he has played at Quail and this should boost to swing away freely in beginning and build a lead leading to victory. This should count against Spieth who participated in 2013 only and ended at tied but that also doesn’t assure that Rory will win at Quail despite his winning twice at Quail with scoring also the lowest round of 61.

Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka have the skills and strength to win but both suffer momentary lapses of concentration specially around and on the greens. As shown at WGC this Sunday, Matsuyama continues his onward march to be the first Japanese to win a Major. Thomas Pieter’s showed his talent at last year’s Ryder Cup and continues to show flashes of brilliance (both at the Open and WGC) and has a game and with experience would only get better. Rose, Jason Day, Bubba, Mickelson will contend for sure but can’t say with surety about their success. John Rahm, Ricky Fowler and Cabrera- Bello have the game and are waiting in the wings to take the final flight and have to win in mind first before winning outside. Zach Johnson and Charley Hoffman continue to contend but their winning depends on producing brilliance over four days, not two or three.

By- Sushil Kumar

PS- the article was posted after three hours of finishing the WGC Bridgestone Invitational that concluded this Sunday.

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