PITTSFORD — Order returned to the PGA Championship on Saturday. Venerable Oak Hill had sat quietly for two days as the best golfers in the world had their run of the place, like a gang of hooligans upending the furniture and tracking mud on the floors.
Enough was enough. It was time for the East Course to stop acting like the Easy Course. Time for the PGA to behave like a major again. No more flirting with 62 and reducing Ben Hogan to a footnote in the record books.
After enduring two days of insults, Oak Hill loosened its tie, folded its coat over a chair, and threw some overdue haymakers at the field.
Players suffered, as they are meant to in a major. The lead was minus-9 when the third round began, and it was still at 9-under (Jim Furyk) when the day was done. Players weren’t whining about it being unfair, as they did at the British, but par regained some of its dignity.
They call Saturday “moving day” in a major. For a lot of the players, the move was a plunge down the leader board. It’s amazing what a little sun and wind can do to a golf course. Suddenly, drives were trickling into the rough. Approaches weren’t sticking on the green like arrows.
Justin Rose, who was three back to start the day, stumbled to a 77. Rose shot a 29 on the front Friday. It took the reigning U.S. Open champ 29 shots to play the first six Saturday. I wanted to challenge him to a match at Grover Cleveland or Brighton.
Matt Kuchar, who was two back coming in, staggered to a 76. Kuchar birdied the first hole and none thereafter. He hit his drive on the fifth into the water. Jason Dufner, the leader, came along in the next group and found the water, too. Robert Garrigus turned back into Robert Garrigus.
Phil Mickelson flailed his way to a 78. Three weeks after winning the British Open, he’ll be in the second group today.
Tiger Woods, who shot 73 (and no doubt, felt he played well), will try to break 70 for the first time in eight tries here.
So much for that stirring Phil-Tiger showdown, eh?
One day after flirting with history, Dufner shot a workmanlike 71, leaving him at 8-under and a shot behind Furyk heading into the final round.
“The golf course played a little bit tougher today than yesterday,” Dufner said. “The wind picked up a little bit, which made club selection difficult. It came out of the northwest, which we hadn’t seen since earlier in the week, which throws you for a loop out there on some holes.”
Oak Hill still has some scores to settle. In seven previous majors here, only 10 men have finished 72 holes under par. There are 20 players under-par (209 or better) entering today’s final round. Assuming it stays dry and windy, more of the lads will get cuffed upside the head.
Still, it’s a terrific leader board – a lot more distinguished than it was the last time the PGA came to Oak Hill in 2003. That was the year Shaun Micheel and Chad Campbell collided in a battle of unknowns. Such non-entities as Briny Baird and Rod Pampling vied for our attention.
Look at this leader board: Furyk is a fitting, fabulous front-runner. He has won a U.S. Open and challenged in several other majors. He’s 43 years old, a month older than Mickelson. Furyk could strike another blow for the old guys, becoming the 12th man to win a major after turning 43.
“I know I’m going to go to the media room and I know someone is going to mention that I’m 43 and that I’m old, and how many more chances am I going to have?” Furyk said outside the clubhouse after finishing his round. “You know, I’m not in the grave yet.”
Furyk is a straight hitter and a lethal putter when he’s on. He made a terrific putt to save par on the 18th. That’s how you win a major, by saving par and minimizing disaster, not by stringing together birdies like Christmas lights and flirting with 62.
Dufner, 36, is a late-blooming star who lost the PGA in a playoff two years ago and has finished fourth in a couple of U.S. Opens. Like Furyk, he has an everyman’s appeal, with a slight paunch, an unruly head of hair and a dorkish demeanor that has spawned a Twitter following of more than 200,000.
Henrik Stenson, who was second in the British and always plays well in majors, is two shots out. He might be the best player never to win a major if not for Lee Westwood, who carved out a 68 and is hanging around at 3-under, poised to fall just short in a major again.
Steve Stricker, who has played his best golf after 40, is still looking for his first major at age 46. If you’re guessing that no one has won a major at 46 since Jack Nicklaus at the Masters in 1986, you win a prize.
Stricker is tied for fifth with Adam Scott, who won this year’s Masters and has the swing and power to contend in majors for years to come. Scott steadied himself after a double bogey on 16 dropped him back to 5-under.
And who’s this? Rory McIlroy fired a 67 to get back in the hunt. After his 10th hole on Friday, the 23-year-old defending PGA champ was 4-over par and looking at an early flight back to Northern Ireland. He played his next 26 holes in 7-under. He’s six shots back, but don’t count him out. Hey, Mickelson was five back on Sunday at the British and won by three.
Did I leave out Jonas Blixt? You might as well have one obscure name on a leader board. Blixt, who shot 66 on Saturday, is alone in fourth at 6-under, a shot back of his fellow Swede, Stenson. Imagine how it’ll play back in Stockholm if they go one-two today.
Blixt, playing in his second major, had one of the most bizarre hole-outs in golf history. On the 18th hole, his drive went into the rough and landed in the back pocket of a fan. An astonished rules official gave him a free drop. Blixt hit a 5-iron on the green and birdied.
Yeah, I also have a hard time imagining a ball landing in someone’s back pocket.
But who hasn’t looked in vain for a ball in the rough and wondered how it could seemingly disappear into thin air? Golf balls do mysterious things.
Come Sunday of a major, though, you don’t simply tuck the tournament away in your back pocket. It’s often the steady, pedestrian performance that prevails. Oak Hill isn’t likely to give up the title without a fight today.
Micheel shot par on Sunday to win the PGA here in ’03. Curtis Strange shot par in the final round to win the U.S. Open by a stroke in 1989. A round of par might not be enough today, but I wouldn’t expect any 63s, either.