News & Opinion

Bellerive seeks elusive hit with 100th PGA

ST. LOUIS – Is a third time really a charm? The 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club here next week is putting the idiom to the test.

As things stand now, Tiger Woods is in the field. Fingers crossed, planets aligned, gods willing – and nothing untoward happens this week at Firestone – he will put a ball in the air come Aug. 9. And if he does, what a long strange trip it will have been. 

Make no mistake: conducting the centennial playing of one of golf’s major championships is big for Bellerive, regardless of any individual. Here in the land of toasted ravioli and “Stan The Man,” the stars of professional golf don’t come out often. 

That’s not to say Bellerive lacks for a resume. The club was founded in 1897 as the Field Club. It incorporated and moved to the north St. Louis County township of Normandy in 1910, associating its new name to Louis St. Ange de Bellerive, the last French governor in North America.

The membership voted to relocate again in 1955 and retained architectural giant Robert Trent Jones to pick and prepare the property. Four years later, Bellerive moved southwest to its current location in the suburb of Town and Country. The new 18 holes designed by Jones opened on Memorial Day 1960. Just five years later, the club hosted the 1965 U.S. Open, the youngest course ever to stage the championship. At 7,191 yards, and capable of exceeding 7,500, Bellerive also was – to the point – the longest course in U.S. Open history. And according to the late Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, it was “18 holes of capital punishment.” 

The incarceration was multiplied by five for Gary Player and Kel Nagle. Using shafts endorsed by Shakespeare and 16-year-old caddie Frank Pagel, the 29-year-old Player prevailed over Nagle in a Monday playoff for a historic victory. He joined Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen as winners of the career Grand Slam: victories in the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA. The roster now includes Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

When it was over, Julius Boros approached Player and said, “I’ve just witnessed a miracle: someone winning the U.S. Open with a fishing rod.” And when it was over, as he promised, Player donated his entire $25,000 first-place check to charity: $20,000 to cancer research and $5,000 to junior golf. He gave the extra $1,000 that he received for the playoff and $1,000 of his own money to Pagel. 

Fifty-three years later, Jordan Spieth has an opportunity to mirror Player. A PGA victory at Bellerive would fill out his major foursome, as well. “I’m looking forward to it,” said Spieth, who has extended family living in St. Louis. “I haven’t been to St. Louis in about 10 years, so it’s going to be a fun week.” But we digress … 

That is, despite best-laid plans, circumvented by circumstances, Woods also never has competed in St. Louis. He was in the midst of an early-morning practice round at Bellerive on Sept. 11, 2001. The headliners were in town, the weather was spectacular and the golf course was impeccable … when a PGA security official approached Woods. Planes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York.

Everything stopped, hearts and all. A day later, Bellerive was hosting the first PGA Tour event to be canceled since 1949. With air travel suspended, Woods scrambled to find a way home to Florida. “I basically stole a Buick and drove it home,” he said later. “It took me 18 hours to get home, nonstop.” Imagine the gas station attendant’s face in Marietta, Ga., when Woods pulled in at 3:30 a.m. 

Seven years later, in September 2008, a Woods mulligan was the prominent billboard as Bellerive prepared to host a FedEx Cup playoff event, the BMW Championship. All systems were go as Woods contended in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But on the way to a playoff victory and his 14th major championship, he tore up his left knee. Shortly after beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff, Woods announced that he would be having surgery and scrapped the rest of the season. Sorry, St. Louis. Swing and a miss. Strike two.

Meanwhile, when the BMW Championship arrived without Woods, so did remnants of Hurricane Gustav, inundating the golf course, washing out parking areas and postponing the first round. With an unyielding group of groundskeepers and volunteers, Bellerive refused to stand down. On Sunday, Camilo Villegas had secured his first PGA Tour victory in front of galleries that nearly tripled those of the previous year in Chicago. 

So, in the heart of this baseball town, Bellerive digs in again. The count is 0-2, but it still has a big one left – the 100th PGA Championship – and Tiger Woods is in the on-deck circle. If the third time truly is a charm, there is no better place to prove it. 

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD