Even without crowd’s roar, golf provides a major lift this week

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Remember when they used to hold the occasional golf tournament that was demonstrably bigger than all the rest? The golf world got its knickers all in a bunch over such contests. Great players went there to author legacies. So big were they that Tiger Woods even came out of competitive witness protection to swing a club in public.

These special events were even given a rank – they were called majors, I believe.

Because of the pandemic, it has been so long, too long, since a major’s been staged – Shane Lowry won the British Open nearly 13 months ago (July 21, 2019). That’s the longest break between such championships since a gap from between 1942-44. Kids, go to your virtual history class to find out what was so messed up about those years.

But they are going to try to play one again, beginning Thursday on a public golf course near San Francisco. For us here in a more lower right quadrant of the map this is very encouraging. Because if they can stage an event of this magnitude in a state that either always is on fire or in the grips of another coronavirus surge, then the prospects of pulling off a Masters in November in quiet Augusta look better by the minute.

The PGA Championship – known more recently as the Brooks Koepka Invitational – always has been the Fredo of majors. But this week it is a leader among all sports as the first time since the virus began its world tour that anyone will be playing for something, well, major. Everything else has been choppy, tentative steps back to competition with the vague promise of a trophy at the end. This one enjoys the heft of the world’s best playing for a fairly immediate title without resorting to the genetically mutated formats of baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer.

And there are plenty of storylines to hold interest through a weekend.

As always, whenever he deigns play, Woods will hog all the oxygen. This is so unfair to the other youngsters (and Phil Mickelson) on the playground, given that Woods has played all of four PGA Tour rounds since February, finishing T-40 at the Memorial a couple of weeks ago. But we will be transfixed as his back turns to rebar in the damp chill of northern California.

Koepka, who walks into a major like John Wayne used to walk into a saloon, is tracking history now. He’ll attempt to win his third consecutive PGA Championship. He’s showing signs of life again, after a T-2 in Memphis last week. And big events are kind of his thing. Chew on this stat, most cumulative strokes under par at the majors over the past three years: Koepka (-70), Rickie Fowler (-34), Jordan Spieth (-28), Matt Kuchar (-19) and Rory McIlroy (-16).

Koepka’s polar opposite, the complicated Bryson DeChambeau, remains the most intriguing character in any field he’s in. What will be the next move in his quest to turn golf into applied science - having Elon Musk on his bag this week, perhaps?

And look out for Justin Thomas. He is the world’s No. 1, as of this second. That changes like a tasting menu. I think if you get out this weekend and break 80, you can apply for the position.

The big question hanging over the PGA Championship like the marine layer over Harding Park is: Without the buzz of a gallery to feed the emotion, can this really come across our flat screens with the feel of a major? Even if CBS’ Jim Nantz is in full reverential awe mode?

Last month, Rory McIlroy made a good point, saying, “It’s the people and the atmosphere, that’s what makes a tournament. And when you don’t have that, there’s nothing really for them to differentiate themselves.

“Obviously, the courses are different, setups are a little different, but at the end of the day, it’s all sort of the same.”

Koepka, of course, was more pragmatic.

“It’s pretty obvious it’s a major,” he said Tuesday via a Zoom news conference. “It’s a big-boy golf course. Tough place. Tough setup. I mean, I know (it’s a major), so that’s all that matters.”

Recognizing that golf will attempt to play three of its four majors this year – the British Open has been canceled, the other three moved back – last week’s No. 1 Jon Rahm took the grateful approach.

He hit it right down the middle, saying, “We’re very lucky to be playing our bigger events. At least it looks like we might be playing three of them this calendar year. ... At one point it looked really ugly with how things are in California and New York (site of the U.S. Open). That’s the best way I can explain it. I’m just thankful to be here.”

No, this PGA Championship won’t possess every tingle of a major in more normal times. It can’t feel the same. Nothing much does right now.

Golf, as it makes a big push the next three months will be largely fan-free and muted. The two playoff events and the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake will be played without spectators. Just last week the announcement came that U.S. Open, Sept. 17-20, would exclude a live audience. No word yet about November’s Masters, but it is hard to imagine “patrons” on the grounds unless they’re handing out vaccinations at the entry gate along with pairing sheets.

Regardless of the lesser vibe, recognize that they are playing something kind of important the next four days. Reassuring to know that can still happen.

If the sensation is less grand than in majors past, we’ll adjust. What other option is there?