By Dan Reardon
Twilight golf is very appealing for daily-fee golfers, with its reduced rates and cooler temperatures. Twilight golf at majors is not so desirable.
American majors have been playing with their weekend rounds for years. Call it Russian roulette, call it a game of chicken. Whatever you call it, the Masters, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship have weighed the need to complete play on Sunday against the desire to push the closing holes into the early evening hours for television. The result is mid-afternoon starting times for the leaders.
The Masters has the least available daylight late because of its April slot on the schedule, but it also has the smallest weekend field, giving them more flexibility. They have occasionally flirted with Monday morning returns since the tournament went to sudden-death playoffs. When Nick Faldo took out Raymond Floyd on the second playoff hole in 1990, they could go no further. They were out of daylight. Adam Scott, in 2013, had played his last hole on Sunday if he missed the putt for the win.
When the USGA pushed their final groups as late as possible at Bethpage in 2002, a late-afternoon weather delay appeared to mandate a brief finish on Monday morning. Fortunately, they found a small window, and Tiger Woods posted the win in near darkness.
But no organization has had their fingers burned more than the PGA of America. The last time their Championship was at Baltusrol in 2005 the weather forecast was for near certain problems late in the afternoon. The tournament declined to move the starting times up, ignoring the prediction, and ended up with a scattered few players returning at 10 a.m. on Monday for Phil Mickelson’s win.
At Valhalla in 2014, the result was even more embarrassing. Holding onto their late leader starts in the face of almost certain delays on Sunday, the tournament finished in absolute darkness. The final groups on the 18th were asked to hit their shots into the group ahead of them, angering Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, and requiring winner Rory McIlroy to play his second shot without knowing where his lead stood.
So when half the round was washed away before the leaders teed off on Saturday at Baltusrol, the tournament was back to innovating a way to finish on Sunday. The decision was made to not re-pair the leaders for the final round, with much of the field needing a 36-hole last day. The tournament had the double oddity of conducting the third round concurrently with the fourth round and having the third-round field play the ball as it lies, while on the same golf course, on the same day, in the same conditions, the fourth-round field play with preferred lies.
A simple adjustment going into Saturday would have reduced the problem. If the PGA had just opted for threesomes on Saturday with the first group out as planned, they would have completed much more of round three while only risking an earlier sign-off for TV. The spectators would have been happier, the players would have preferred the completed rounds and history would not have been impacted in the least.
To his credit, the PGA of America’s Kerry Haigh orchestrated the final day beautifully. The weather was cooperative, though not great. Play progressed at a surprisingly brisk pace. The machinations needed to get the tournament in on schedule had no impact on Jimmy Walker’s breakthrough win.
Logistics worked. Aesthetics, not so much. The meaningful part of round three, featuring the leaders, was played Sunday morning in complete anonymity. Naming the player who made the biggest move in round three, called “moving day,” was impossible without looking it up. (Answer: no one, unless you count Branden Grace climbing to within five of the lead.)
The final day at Baltusrol was actually kind of boring, save for Walker and Jason Day’s last eight shots. And that can’t often be said about a major golf championship.
Walker played the last 28 holes bogey-free, but he played the opening nine in round four birdie free. He held or shared the lead at the end of every round and trailed only once after his first nine on Thursday. Take away his hole out from the bunker on 10 and the birdie putt on 11 in round four, and Walker was drama-free and gallery-mute.
Day made it interesting early with his erratic tee shots at one and three in the afternoon and delivered the best moment of the tournament with a spectacular eagle at the 72nd. But when the tension of wrapping up a major is reduced to getting down in three from the greenside rough, PGA Championship number 98 should go down as the anti-Troon.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.