The 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill was spectacular.
Brooks Koepka was a machine. His iron play was otherworldly. He simply didn’t miss or blink the whole week. On a course that all deemed as one of the toughest Major tests in years, Koepka created a blueprint for winning Majors with a complete game that showed not a single weakness.
Michael Block, the PGA pro from Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, CA. provided another mesmerizing storyline. His T15 finish got him into next year’s PGA Championship. But his humble, everyman persona won the hearts of every golf fan around the world.
In a script that Hollywood wouldn’t even buy, Block jarred his tee shot on the par-3 15th on Sunday. The crowd reaction was more emphatic than a Tiger Roar. He got hugs from Rory McIlroy, unending love on social media, and reminded all of us that fairy tales do come true.
Feel free to read about these two great performances across the internet. There are hundreds of great pieces to peruse.
I want to talk about the fairway bunker on hole 16.
On Saturday, Corey Conners looked like his Major moment was taking shape. The Canadian possesses one of the silkiest swings in golf. He’s a walking stripe show. With a short game that was cooperating, Conners was methodically marching toward a final pairing on Sunday.
Then his drive on 16 found a bunker on the right side of the fairway. With 158 yards to the hole, he had a short-mid iron to the green. After a birdie on the previous hole, Conners was leading the tournament at 7-under.
Then disaster struck in the form of a bladed iron into the modest face of the bunker.
An imbedded ball, an awkward drop, a poor approach, and a two-putt double bogey effectively ended his PGA Championship.
Sure, he was T-2 and just one shot off the lead at the end of the 3rd round, but his confidence and game evaporated. He’d go on to shoot a 5-over 75 on Sunday for a T-12 final. But when you are leading a Major with little more than one round of golf left and end up T-12? That will sting for a while.
Sunday had all the hallmarks of a classic Major final day. Koepka was in position to win his 5th Major, a feat that puts him alongside Seve Ballesteros, Peter Thomson, and Byron Nelson among others. It’s truly rarified air. Only 14 golfers in history have more Major wins.
Viktor Hovland was tied with Brooks as the two teed off in the final pairing on Sunday. He looked as ready as any young player on the planet to win a Major. Hovland is a US Amateur winner, a Ryder Cupper, a 3-time PGA Tour winner, and the 6th ranked player in the world.
He had the experience and credentials. He was ready to take the next step.
Standing on the 16th tee, Hovland was one shot back with three holes to play. The stage was set for a dramatic finish that never materialized.
Hovland, like Conners, found the same bunker on the right side of the 16th fairway. And, like Conners, he bladed a short iron into the face that embedded.
It was like a glitch in the Matrix. Hovland ended up double bogeying the 16th just like Conners. Koepka, like a Champion with his foot on the gas threw a dart to 5 feet and made the birdie.
A one-shot lead for Koepka ballooned into a four-shot cushion with two holes to play.
The PGA Championship was effectively over.
Oak Hill proved itself as the consummate Major venue. Tough but fair. The Andrew Green renovations and new holes looked beautiful and challenged the best players in the world. A final winning score of 9-under indicates the perfect balance the PGA hoped they would get – a Major that revealed the best player in all phases of the game.
When golf historians look back, Koepka reaching five Major wins and the Cinderella story of Michael Block and his ace will no doubt grabs the headlines. But for Hovland and Conners, the fairway bunker on hole 16 will be the darkest cloud over a weekend that experienced torrential rains on Saturday.
If Hovland and Conners hit their drives one degree to the left, the amazing Sunday at Oak Hill may have looked very different. We will never know. The nasty bunker didn’t decide the PGA Championship, but no other hole – or single feature on a course filled with dramatic features – impacted the Championship more.