Keeping Score

Soft Bellerive drives PGA to new lows

ST. LOUIS – The PGA Championship can’t move to May soon enough. This week’s Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Bellerive Country Club shows why.

Playing in August has turned the PGA into the Bob Hope Desert Classic of major-championship golf. It’s go low or go home. Seven under par gets you in the top 5 going to the weekend here at Bellerive … just barely.

There were a pair of 63s shot Friday (by Brooks Koepka and Charl Schwartzel), and birdie sprees all over the scoreboard. Andrew Landry, who started on the back nine, birdied five holes in a row before a bogey at No. 18 and a cool 30. Tony Finau birdied his first five holes before making a triple bogey at the par-3 sixth, then added two more birdies before a bogey at the par-4 ninth capped a wild, par-less 32 outward nine. When afternoon thunderstorms suspended play, he was on No. 12 (scores).

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Charl Schwartzel posts a 7-under 63 at Bellerive, adding his share of red numbers to the birdie feast in the PGA Championship.

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Charl Schwartzel posts a 7-under 63 at Bellerive, adding his share of red numbers to the birdie feast in the PGA Championship.

It’s been a popular theme for years that the PGA Championship needs to find its identity. It tried marketing “Glory’s Last Shot” to cash in on hitting cleanup in the majors’ batting order, but once the PGA sandwiched between a World Golf Championship the week before and the FedEx Cup playoffs right behind it, going last turned it into the major for which no one had the time, energy or interest to prepare. Jack Nicklaus never would’ve done that, but Nicklaus also never had to play a grueling six of eight weeks starting in August.

The PGA found the wrong niche. It became The Easy One, the Hostess CupCakes of major setups.

“At the start of the week, I felt like this was a 20-under golf course,” said England’s Justin Rose, who shot a 1-under 69 Friday and got trampled as he dropped to T-16. “It looks like we’re heading in that direction. You’ll need this course to firm up pretty quickly for scoring to dramatically change.”

Gary Woodland’s 66 got him to double digits under par, at minus 10, and a one-stroke lead with a PGA-record 36-hole score of 130. Six more players were at 7 under or better.

Rose shot 3 under Thursday and was surprised to find himself in a share of fourth place. He thought scores would be even lower.

There’s nothing wrong with Bellerive. August is a hot month, and playing almost anywhere south of the Canadian border means the greens have to be watered to keep them alive for four days of tournament golf. Since the PGA of America often opts to go south to places such as Valhalla, Bellerive, Kiawah Island and Quail Hollow, the tournament typically runs into extreme heat such as this week’s weather in St. Louis, where temperatures are in the 90s. 

Give today’s PGA Tour players soft greens and it’s like watching target practice. Bellerive, which is a pretty good layout, has held up reasonably well, considering. But soft greens and slower putting speeds lower the required skill level. 

“I’m a little frustrated at this place,” said Jordan Spieth, who shot 71-66. “This course would be phenomenal if it wasn’t playing so soft, and it’s not the rain that came Tuesday. It was like that on Monday. You can fire at pins and get away with more because you don’t have to be as precise. That’s frustrating to me because I feel like that’s an advantage that I have. I would prefer firmer, faster conditions on the greens.”

Spieth also joked that if Bellerive’s greens had been firmer and faster for the opening round, he would have shot a much higher score because he played so many shots out of the rough.

“I really like the golf course,” Spieth said. “It’s just you can’t possibly have firm, fast bentgrass greens in this climate. May is going to be a lot better for this tournament, for sure.”

Kevin Kisner shot 64 and was one shot behind Woodland, who was in the same pairing. Woodland is one of the game’s longest hitters. Kisner is on the other end of the spectrum. 

Kisner concedes that he is the beneficiary of soft greens.

“My 4-iron stops as quick as Gary’s 7-iron,” he said. “If the greens were firm, I don’t think I would have a chance, with the way the greens are situated and the places they’re putting the flags. Having receptive greens is my only hope.”

Koepka and Schwartzel became the 35th and 36th players, respectively, to shoot 63 or better in a major championship. One of those scores includes the 62 fired by Branden Grace in last year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale. 

The PGA Championship is often the site of record scores. Of 36 rounds of 63 or better in majors, 16 were shot in the PGA. The Masters has yielded only two; the U.S. Open, six. Even the British Open, where courses largely have been made obsolete by technology, has given up only 12.

The August Quandary has gotten worse. Chronologically, 13 of the past 22 rounds of 63 or better were racked up in PGA Championships.

Birdies and eagles make for better TV than pars and bogeys, and as I’ve written many times, all golf tournaments – even the majors – are TV shows first and golf tournaments second.

Low scores aren’t necessarily bad. Nearly every major championship with record-low scoring over 72 holes has been won by one of the game’s best players. 

When the Old Course gave up 18 under in 1990, it was to Nick Faldo. The Masters yielded 17-under totals to Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd, then 18 under to Tiger Woods and Spieth. Whistling Straits surrendered 20 under par at the 2015 PGA to Jason Day.

But a 63 in a major used to be a gem as rare as a vintage 1957 Thunderbird. Now, it’s just a nice Lexus.

There have been 10 scores of 63 or better in the past four years, and the perpetrators – no offense, gents – have included Hiroshi Iwata, Robert Streb, Haotong Li and Grace. The club isn’t terribly exclusive anymore. All of these guys are good, and the players, the equipment and the agronomy keep getting better.

I wouldn’t want to be the man in charge of making today’s major venues properly challenging for today’s players. But a real major-championship test needs to land somewhere between Nobody Can Make Birdies and Everybody Makes Birdies.

Former Masters champion Adam Scott played Friday morning and posted an early 65. “Hopefully, I haven’t lost any shots to the lead today,” Scott said.

He wasn’t joking.

It’s the PGA. Go low or … move to May.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle


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