A Fantastic PGA Championship Marred by an Odd Finish

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistAugust 12, 2014

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, holds up the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at Valhalla Golf Club on Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, in Louisville, Ky.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Mike Groll/Associated Press

The 2014 PGA Championship was the major for which we had all been waiting.

The future—Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler—finally met the past—Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk—in what turned out to be an epic Sunday showdown.

Between the old guard playing some excellent golf and McIlroy ushering in a new era of dominance while Woods was at home in Florida mending his wounds, it was easy to see how the 96th PGA Championship could have one day been considered a tournament of great historical significance had it not been for one not-so-minor hiccup on the final hole.

Play was halted for nearly two hours earlier in the day due to a harsh rainstorm that swept through the Louisville, Kentucky, area and dropped nearly an inch-and-a-half of rain on Valhalla Golf Club.

As a result, the leaders did not tee off until 4:20 p.m. ET, which meant that the final groups were not only playing against the golf course and each other, but they were also involved in an 18-hole race against darkness.

After the leaders had traded punches for most of the afternoon, everything seemed to be falling into place when McIlroy sunk a 15-foot birdie putt on the 17th. He turned for the home stretch holding a two-stroke lead over Mickelson and Fowler as darkness began to set in and a thunderstorm was looming in the distance, creating a scene David Feherty of CBS described as "gothic."

Mickelson and Fowler, who were playing just ahead of McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger, hit their tee shots off the par-five 18th and then agreed to allow McIlroy and Wiesberger to hit up just after them so that even if tournament officials decided to halt play due to darkness, McIlroy and Wiesberger would have the option of finishing out the hole.  

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This is a common courtesy that occurs quite often on the PGA Tour.

However, what transpired next would have been considered completely out of the ordinary in any professional event. And the fact that it occurred on the 72nd hole of the year’s final major was nothing short of shocking.

While McIlroy and Wiesberger were walking down the fairway after their tee shots, Mickelson and Fowler played their second shots into the 18th, both players missing to the right side of the green.

This is when things really took a turn for the bizarre.

As Mickelson and Fowler approached their golf balls and began exploring how they were going to play their pivotal third shots into the green, they were told by the PGA of America that McIlroy and Wiesberger would be hitting their approach shots up to the green before Mickelson and Fowler were able to play their third shots.

Mickelson was being courteous when he told the media that the whole situation was "not a big deal either way," according to Bob Harig of ESPN.com (h/t Kyle Porter of CBSSports.com).

But it was clear he was a bit hot under the collar when McIlroy and Wiesberger were awarded the luxury of hitting their approach shots into the green with more daylight and less pressure than they may have otherwise experienced had they been forced to stand back in the fairway for another 10 minutes and watch Mickelson and Fowler birdie or possibly even eagle the final hole.

It not only created confusion among the participants still on the course, but it also threw Mickelson and Fowler out of their normal rhythms at the most crucial moment of the tournament.

Here's what Fowler said, per Harig (h/t Porter):

It changes things a little bit. Obviously, there is no waiting. Phil and I waited on the tee for a good amount of time and had to hit tee shots. In a way, [McIlroy and Wiesberger] never got out of rhythm as far as hitting the golf shots. I don't think it really changes it much. We were allowing them to hit the tee shots and we weren't expecting the approach shots to come.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

As it turned out, Mickelson birdied the hole and Fowler recorded a par after a brutal lip-out while McIlroy went on to easily close out the tournament with a tap-in par just moments later.

Many viewed this out-of-the-ordinary finish to the tournament as a no-harm, no-foul situation.

However, if you know anything about golf, you will realize that the outcome of the PGA Championship could have been much different had the 72nd hole been played in a traditional manner.  

Had McIlroy been forced to stand next to his tee ball, which came within a hair of finding the creek right of the 18th fairway, for 10 minutes and watch Mickelson birdie the 72nd hole, it would have created a much different situation on multiple fronts.

First and foremost, by watching Mickelson birdie the hole, McIlroy would have known that he needed a par to win the title. While McIlroy might have figured as much before even setting foot onto the 18th tee box, actually having that requirement set in stone could have created a form of pressure that would have made his next few shots exponentially more difficult.

On top of that, the pace at which darkness was consuming the 18th hole at Valhalla was rapidly increasing.

So, had McIlroy had to wait 10 minutes longer while Mickelson and Fowler finished out the hole, he would have either had to play the rest of the hole in much darker conditions or he would have had to call it a day and come back in the morning to complete his round.

How would McIlroy have handled the pressure of knowing he needed a par to win?

How much more difficult would that par have been 10 minutes later as darkness continued to engulf the 18th green?

Would McIlroy have finished out the hole, or would he have deemed it too dark to continue, thus creating a situation in which McIlroy would have had to sleep on a one-stroke lead, knowing he needed to come out and complete his par on the 18th hole the next morning in much different conditions and with a completely different body feeling?

We will never know the answers to those questions, because the PGA of America officials stepped in and essentially made a decision that is normally left to the players.

ROCHESTER, NY - AUGUST 07:  Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships Officer of The PGA of America, is interviewed during a press conference prior to the start of the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on August 7, 2013 in Rochester, New York.  (Photo
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Had the decision been left to Mickelson and Fowler, you can be assured they would have played out the rest of the 18th hole and put some more pressure on McIlroy.

Here's what Fowler said after his round: "Typically, if it's getting dark and they are going to the blow the horn [to suspend play], you at least get the guys off the tee and it gives them the opportunity to play. We weren't expecting the approach shots."

With all of the guessing about what might have happened had McIlroy been made to wait until Mickelson and Fowler cleared the green before hitting his approach shot, it must be said that it was not only possible but also quite likely that McIlroy would have recorded a par or better on the 18th hole whether the conditions were perfect or the clock had just stuck midnight and he was forced to play the hole in complete darkness.

McIlroy had been playing absolutely outstanding golf, and he had shown no indication that a 72nd-hole meltdown was in the cards at Valhalla.

However, one can’t help but wonder if things might have turned out differently had the tournament been allowed to conclude the right way.

In a way, this confusing and downright odd finish to the 2014 PGA Championship marred what should have been a defining major of this era. And that is a shame for the game of golf.