Are you not entertained? McIlroy recovers to even-par as major golf returns

It's not quite the 'Miracle on Ice' but it's something special to get to savour the US PGA and the uptick in intensity that majors bring, writes Scott Michaux
Are you not entertained? McIlroy recovers to even-par as major golf returns
Rory McIlroy on the 11th hole of the US PGA at TPC Harding Park. Picture: Jeff Chiu/AP

There’s a famous moment from broadcaster Al Michaels from the closing seconds in the mayhem of the United State’s stunning upset of the Soviet Union hockey team in the 1980 Olympics: “Do you believe in miracles?” The 'Miracle on Ice' remains one of the most iconic moments in global sports and inspired the major motion picture Miracle. They won’t be making any movies about the 2020 PGA Championship called the Miracle on Grass, but that it is taking place at all in the midst of a global pandemic is a major miracle. None of the 312 players and caddies in the field at TPC Harding Park tested positive for Covid-19 this week, and the show goes on.

At 7am Pacific Coast time, wearing a grey jumper that matched the overcast skies, left-hander Brian Harmon stepped to the first tee at TPC Harding Park and relaunched golf’s major championships for the first time in 13 months. Seemed fitting that his ball landed in the right rough, because that defines how hard it was just getting here.

“There will be relief on Sunday night when we hand out a trophy because this has been a long, circuitous route, up-and-downs and working with the (PGA) Tour to find a date we thought would work, and here we are,” said Seth Waugh, PGA of America chief executive.

While sports are rebooting across the world in relative fits and starts, golf has gradually gotten back into full swing. While it remains without fans, it has created a safe enough competitive environment to stage one of the game’s biggest events — a welcome relief after months and months of cancellations of the most significant sports traditions.

“This week is going to be different, no question about it, but we are not going to apologize for what isn't; we are going to celebrate what we've got,” said Waugh.

“It's an honour to be in this position, and we also think it's bigger than golf. This is the first really major sporting event since the Super Bowl that's being played… Golf has distinguished itself in this crisis. I'm really proud of Jay (Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner) and the PGA Tour and how they have led sports back to the field. You know, when he was saying we're going to play in the middle of June, in the middle of May, that seemed like a dream and yet they have pulled it off and pulled it off incredibly well.” 

Thursday’s morning round provided everything any golf fan could want and eliminated any worries that this major would somehow be diminished without the roars and energy spectators usually provide. Players have grown relatively accustomed to playing without galleries over the last two months, and many of the biggest names took advantage of benign morning conditions to make plenty of birdies at TPC Harding Park.

“On the way over here in the car this morning, I was feeling it,” said Shane Lowry, who shot 2-under 68 to sit three shots behind early leader Jason Day. “I was kind of anxious to get going, like I would be at any major. I didn't have that feeling on the first tee in Memphis last week, so it was nice to have that feeling this week.

Tiger Woods chips to the green on the 14th hole during the first round of the US PGA. Picture: Jeff Chiu/AP
Tiger Woods chips to the green on the 14th hole during the first round of the US PGA. Picture: Jeff Chiu/AP

The early leaderboard is littered with major winners and wannabes from every generation, including two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka at 4-under 66 just a shot off the morning lead with Justin Rose, Zach Johnson, Martin Kaymer, Xander Schauffele, Scottie Scheffler, Bud Cauley, and Brendan Steele.

“You can definitely feel the difference in intensity,” said Day, the 2015 PGA champion, of this week compared to recent PGA Tour starts. “I know the intensity, it was a little bit quieter on the range than it has been in previous starts that we've had on the tour, and guys know that.” 

The morning crowd in red figures included Gary Woodland, Tony Finau, and late alternate addition Alex Noren at 3-under as well as Tiger Woods joining Lowry at 2-under. Rory McIlroy recovered from a shaky start to finish at even-par 70 while world No 1 Justin Thomas was 1-over 71.

“Today it was quite gettable this morning, and you can see, that from the leaderboard,” said Lowry who started slowly but made two birdies after making the turn.

Are you not entertained? Television broadcasts and streams provided live wall-to-wall coverage from Harmon’s first tee ball through the end of first-round play. While most leagues have been forced to developed gimmicky and contrived ways to restart incomplete seasons, the PGA Championship gives us a legitimate 72-hole event that will crown a champion without an asterisk.

“I hope we can bring live theatre back into homes — that's what this week is about,” said Waugh. 

“And so for us, there was never a doubt as to whether or not we would do it without spectators. We think we always act in the best interests of the game. We think that playing this championship is exactly that. The players want to play, the fans want to watch and we want to do what we do. So we are going to hold it in any form that we could to get this in the books, and we are happy to do that.

“We are grateful to be in this position, and again a lot of leadership from Jay and the Tour and others that have allowed this to happen, and the industry in terms of making golf different and having it stand out. All other sports are struggling, and so we have both an incredible opportunity, but also an obligation I think to do this, and without the Olympics and all sorts of things being cancelled, this takes on a whole other level of importance.” 

Golf is doing everything it can to take advantage of the circumstances to attract new and lapsed players to the game that has proven as safe as anything in a socially distanced world. 

PGA of America president Suzy Whaley was lauding a 14% uptick in rounds being played in June since most of the courses in the US were fully reopened, and she and Waugh hope this week’s PGA can inspire more people to take up the game.

“We welcome all to the golf,” Whaley said. “And hopefully we’ll inspire a few — through the best male golfers in the world as they watch this week — to get out and play some golf.”

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