Major Championship golf commences today at the 102nd PGA Championship at Harding Park In San Francisco, California. Harding Park is an historic golf course named after our 29th President Warren G. Harding.
The “G” stands for Gamaliel but you probably knew that.
Harding died of cardiac arrest in San Francisco just two years into his Presidency so they probably felt bad and named the golf course after him. I guess that’s something. Harding won the Presidency with the promise of a “return to normalcy” in America after the tumult of World War I. Now, the PGA Championship will try and provide some normalcy as well. There will be no fans on the course although golf is the one sport that looks somewhat normal with no fans in attendance. Golf and the WNBA.
Will the players be under the same amount of pressure without fans in attendance? That’s a great question that I just asked. Obviously, it won’t be as tense on the course without screaming fans but these players know that winning a major is an historic achievement and pressure will naturally come from such knowledge. So who can handle that pressure best? Of all sports, the ability to handle pressure is most necessary for success in golf. Baseball is close. There have been numerous major championship melt downs that have cost deserving players their place in history. To call these guys chokers is completely unfair because the average guy doesn’t have the stones to ever put themselves in position to choke like a dog. All these guys we casually call “chokes” are next level talents that have put their ass on the line numerous times. So it didn’t work out for them- they still were in the thick of it. 99% of the guys you know would choke under the same type of pressure. I’ve seen country club golfers fall apart over 20 dollar Nassau bets.
As Teddy Roosevelt once said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So thank you Teddy for setting us straight; I hope they never blow up Mount Rushmore and you’re remembered forever but we still need to talk about how badly these guys choked so here goes:
Colin Montgomerie- Scotland’s favorite son Monty had numerous chances to win a major but never came through when it mattered. He lost the 1994 US Open and the 1995 PGA Championship in a playoff but the championship that will haunt him most is the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot (same site as this year’s championship). Monty made a long putt on the penultimate hole and needed to make par to likely win the tournament. Monty was known as a master ball striker so a par was likely. He hit a perfect drive down the middle leaving him 170 yards to the green. This shot was in Monty’s wheelhouse. Just a good strike on the ball, land it in the middle of the green and two putt for the championship and get rid of all those demons. Instead he hit what Johnny Miller doing commentary called “the worst iron he’s hit in 30 years” and it went short of the green into the thick rough. Total nightmare. He still could’ve chipped out and two putted to get in a playoff. Instead he blasted to top of green and 3 putted to just miss out on playoff. I still get tense thinking about this disaster. Here was the top European player for a 10-year stretch, a guy who endured all kinds of abuse from a-hole American fans, and his chance to completely redeem himself blows up on the 18th hole in the US Open.
Another choker who flies under the radar is Kenny Perry. Could be because he’s a really nice Southern gentleman so he gets a pass but he has some of the most brutal chokes in golf history. The first was the 1996 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville. Kentucky. Perry was a Kentucky boy and the crowd was on his side the whole week. He had played beautifully going into the 18th hole on Sunday. Perry had a 2-shot lead and was playing one of the easiest holes on the course- a very manageable par 5. Perry had played the hole hundreds of times and usually made birdie. A par would have been fine. Instead he hooked his tee shot into the rough and made a disastrous bogey. Mark Brooks playing behind Perry made birdie on 18 to get into a playoff with Perry. Side note- Perry spent the entire time after finishing his round in the CBS broadcast booth instead of hitting balls and preparing. Not surprisingly, he was not ready for the playoff and lost badly. Devastating, but 13 long years later Perry had his chance at major once again. This was the 2009 Masters and Perry had the lead along with Angel Cabrera going into the final round. A consistent Perry parred the first 11 holes before birdieing 3 of the next 5 to take firm control of the tournament. He just needed to finish off the final two holes. Instead he bogeyed both 17 and 18 to fall into a playoff with Cabrera and Chad Campbell. He lost to Cabrera on the 2nd playoff hole. This one hurts to reprise as I was always a fan of his.
If Greg Norman had the ability to handle major championship pressure he would’ve won 10. Instead he has only 2 British Opens which is hugely disappointing for the greatest talent of his generation. People forget that Norman put on quite a show at the 1986 Masters birdieing holes 14-17 to come to the 18th needing birdie to win or par to tie the legend Jack Nicklaus. If Norman made birdie, it would have been the greatest finish in major championship history. After driving his ball right down the middle on 18 and with Nicklaus and the world watching, he pushed his easy approach shot way into the gallery on the right and made bogey. Total choke. There were countless other meltdowns from Norman in major championships but in fairness, he also got edged out by truly lucky shots from his competitors (see Bob Tway at the 1986 PGA and Larry Mize at the 1987 Masters). Greg has never really been honest about the many times he’s choked but that’s understandable…admitting you’re a choke is harder than admitting you’re a drunk.
So let’s look at the history of some potential 2020 PGA winners when they have been under intense pressure. To quantify their ability in the clutch I have given each player a clutch rating (CR) between 1 and 10.
Brooks Koepka- this guy is a total stud and comes through under pressure. He has won 4 majors and only 3 other PGA tournaments so he definitely plays well when it matters most. Highly unlikely he will cave to pressure but who knows as just this past week he came to the 18th hole at the World Golf Championship with a good chance to tie Justin Thomas and promptly gagged his ball into the water to lose. But it wasn’t a major so he wasn’t too bummed about it. CR-9
Justin Thomas- Very clutch player. Makes big shots under pressure. Started his career in the shadow of his buddy Jordan Spieth but has become the better player of the two. He won the 2017 PGA with some clutch play down the stretch and also beat Rory McIlroy in a tense Ryder Cup singles match in 2018. CR-8
Jon Rahm- he came onto the scene in 2016 as the brash Spaniard and won almost immediately by sinking a 60-foot putt to seal his maiden tour title. He does however have an explosive temper that has cost him at the 2019 Player’s Championship and other lesser events. Had an outside chance at the 2018 Masters but faded down the stretch. All in all, looks like a guy who can close the deal and already has reached #1 in the world. CR-6
Webb Simpson- nobody talks much about mild-mannered Webb but he did get up and down from the greenside rough to win the 2012 U.S. Open. He’s closed out a few other big events such as the Player’s Championship but hasn’t been in contention too many times at majors. CR-6.5
Dustin Johnson- he won the 2016 U.S. Open chasing down Shane Lowry but should have at least 1-2 more majors. His biggest choke was the 2015 U.S. Open when he 3-putted from 12 feet to hand Jordan Spieth the championship. What people don’t remember is his first two shots on that par 5 were two of the best in history. He also folded head-head vs. Brooks Koepka at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock which must have been particularly galling to DJ as he was supposed to be Brooks’ mentor. He’s choked plenty of times but he also carries himself like he doesn’t really care that much and that usually serves players well under pressure. CR-4.5
Bryson DeChambeau- he famously choked away the Porsche European Open going into the water 3 times on the final 4 holes. This would have been forgotten except for his disrespectful, short handshake with champion Richard McEvoy. He has won many other big tournaments though so his closing skills are not in doubt. CR-5.5
Rory McIlroy- Had the epic meltdown at the 2011 Masters which began with a 4-stroke lead and got so bad that CBS stopped showing coverage of him after the 12th hole. He ended up losing to eventual champion Charl Schwartzel by 10 shots. He did come back and win the next major in record fashion at the U.S. Open. He came up clutch at the 2014 PGA by birdieing the 17th hole and holding off a stacked field to win his 4th major championship. 4 majors is impressive for someone only 31 but with Rory’s talent he should probably have bagged a few more by now. I’m fairly good friends with his dad- doesn’t relate to the article but I want people to know that. CR-6
Tiger Woods- hard to pinpoint him ever melting down in a major. At the 2009 PGA he started the day 2 strokes ahead of YE Yang but lost to him by 3 strokes. That’s about it though. He has continuously made clutch shots under pressure – you don’t win 15 majors without being clutch. All in all, he is the gold standard. CR-9.5
Jordan Spieth- I saved this guy for last because not enough people realize how clutch he has been. He birdied the 18th hole to give himself a chance in the 2015 U.S. Open (Dustin Johnson’s gag) and his clutch putting at the 2017 British Open held off Matt Kuchar. If he is able to drive the ball well, his short game is without equal on the tour especially under pressure. I would definitely like him to win this week if the course wasn’t set up for long ball hitters. Actually, you know what, I’m picking Speith anyway to win the 2020 PGA Championship and complete the career grand slam.
Follow Dan Redmond @danfromdc