Wednesday 26 June 2019

Poignant return to Bellerive

Spieth still chasing a career Grand Slam while McIlroy seeks to make up for missed chance

The 11th at Bellerive is a cleverly conceived hole and remains driveable at 355 yards. Photo: PGA
The 11th at Bellerive is a cleverly conceived hole and remains driveable at 355 yards. Photo: PGA

Dermot Gilleece

As the scene of a tournament that never was, Bellerive CC will feel it has some ground to make up when playing host to the 100th PGA Championship, starting on Thursday. Among the key targets for leading contenders will be Jordan Spieth's second chance of completing the career Grand Slam.

Bellerive claimed a significant place in golfing history in 1965 - when Gary Player won the US Open there - as the newest venue ever to stage that event.

A decidedly unwanted distinction, however, came its way in 2001 when the horrendous events of 9/11 caused the cancellation of the WGC American Express Championship, scheduled to begin two days later.

Ireland's four flag-bearers this week are Rory McIlroy, twice a winner of this title, Paul Dunne, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington, who completed a memorable double in the PGA at Oakland Hills only three weeks after his Open Championship triumph at Royal Birkdale.

Majors are rare visitors to Bellerive, which was grandly titled 'The Green Monster of Ladue' at its launch. Though Peter Jacobsen captured the 2004 US Senior Open there, the only regular Major it has hosted since Player's victory was the 1992 PGA, won by Nick Price. Interestingly, the course was largely unchanged on that occasion with an overall length of 7,148 yards, but as an acknowledgement of the impact of modern club and ball technology, it has since been stretched to 7,547 with the par remaining at 72.

It was designed in 1960 by the old master, Robert Trent Jones, who famously characterised a great golf hole as "a difficult par but a comfortable bogey." As you would expect, the par fours have been beefed up significantly since Player's success, though the shortest of them, the cleverly conceived 11th, remains driveable at 355 yards.

In a gesture to the city of St Louis on the occasion of its bi-centenary, the USGA brought their blue riband event to Bellerive. As things turned out, a decidedly raw venue saw Ben Hogan decline to enter, Arnold Palmer miss the cut and Jack Nicklaus among the also-rans. Yet it gained a special place in golfing history when Player's win, after a play-off with Ken Nagle, meant he joined Gene Sarazen and Hogan as only the third winner of golf's four Major championships.

It was also a notable occasion for other developments. Using more than a dozen cameras and a crew of 75, the NBC Network transmitted the final two rounds in colour for the first time. And to enhance the images, a couple of well-intentioned club members surreptitiously arranged to have the last two greens sprayed emerald green, much to the annoyance of the USGA.

The US Open never returned there, which made the 2001 WGC event especially welcome. And it promised to be a special occasion for Tiger Woods who, earlier that year at Augusta National, had become the first player in history to hold all four Major trophies at the same time.

My plan for September 2001 was to head for St Louis after an American holiday with my wife, cruising down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh on the 'Delta Queen'. Instead, we headed home from Cincinatti after America's tragedy caused the tournament to be cancelled.

Meanwhile, with all internal flights grounded in the US, Woods made the journey by road, on his own, from St Louis back to his home in Orlando, Florida. He later described it as the longest drive of his life. "Some people might think I'm nuts for driving half-way across the country by myself, but it seemed like the thing to do," he said. "Besides, negotiating 1,000 miles would require concentration, something I welcomed after the events of the day before."

For Ken Schofield, executive director of the European Tour, the catastrophic happenings meant arriving back in London on the Saturday after an ill-fated attempt at getting to St Louis. He and four European Tour colleagues - Keith Waters, Peter Adams, Gordon Simpson and Ben Watson - had taken off from Heathrow on the morning of that fateful Tuesday, on a flight bound directly for St Louis. They never set foot on American soil.

"The way things panned out, the flight was a lot shorter than it should have been, which suggested to us that we weren't anywhere near St Louis," Schofield recalled. "Yet there was no mention of any change in the flight plan."

They had landed in the Canadian airport of Moncton, New Brunswick, the next stopping-off point beyond Newfoundland travelling west. A flight of about five hours meant it was around midday local time, about three hours after the World Trade Centre had been hit. In fact, during the 90 minutes between 11.30am and 1.0pm, 12 planes and more than 2,200 passengers were diverted to what became a Canadian haven.

Then, of course, there was the Ryder Cup, scheduled for The Belfry at the end of that month, which was now clearly unthinkable. When Jim Awtrey of the PGA of America attempted to apologise to the European Tour and the British PGA over his country's withdrawal, he was almost rebuked for thinking such thoughts. He recalled: "I'll never forget . . . They said 'Jim, don't do it. Don't even go there. It's going to be such a mess; let's start working toward next year.'" Which they did.

This time 12 months ago, McIlroy was wondering if Spieth, in the wake of a dramatic Open triumph at Birkdale, would become only the sixth player to complete the career slam at Quail Hollow. Or was the distinction destined for the Holywood star when he returned to the US Masters the following April?

In the event, neither player succeeded. Victory in the PGA went instead to America's Justin Thomas at the head of what became a fascinating leaderboard in the light of subsequent happenings. When considering the possible winners of Majors in the coming season, how many students of form, one wonders, noted the performance of prospective US Masters champion, Patrick Reed, then in a three-way tie for second place along with 2010 Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen, and none other than the bold Francesco Molinari.

Being tied second, however, isn't necessarily a welcome development for a player who has already scaled the heights. Though McIlroy expressed satisfaction at how he performed at Carnoustie, he must also have rued letting a glorious victory opportunity pass him by.

From a time when winning seemed to be the most natural reward for his prodigious talent, must he now ponder the possibility that current rivals may be too hot to handle? If so, he's not the first great player to face such a challenge and the hope is that he will find the mental resources to deliver an appropriate response this coming weekend, when he plays with Woods and the holder, Thomas, in the opening two rounds.

This will be an historic PGA in that it represents the last time the event will be staged in August or late July since Player won at Oakland Hills in 1972. Remarkably, that was 18 months after Nicklaus won the previous staging at PGA National in February 1971. And it was brought forward to July two years ago so as to accommodate golf's return to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

In the event, it is moving to cooler temperatures in May next year at New York's formidable Bethpage Black, and will retain that slot into the future, with a 2020 staging at Harding Park, San Francisco, two months prior to the Tokyo Olympics. World number one, Dustin Johnson, seems to like the idea. "It's going to kind of space everything out a little bit more instead of it all being kind of crammed together," he said.

Finally, memories remain wonderfully fresh of the scene behind the 72nd green at Oakland Hills, 10 years ago next weekend. As the soon-to-be-crowned PGA champion, Harrington stopped for a few moments on the walkway towards the recorder's cabin.

First he kissed his wife, Caroline, then the Wanamaker Trophy which happened to be on a table to her left. He then kissed their second child, baby Ciaran, before embracing his mother, Breda, who stood there silently, almost bemused at what her remarkable son had just achieved.

After signing for a second successive 66, he turned to find little Paddy racing towards him with one of those special, clinging hugs that only children can give. Moments later, Adrian Mitchell, his Yorkshire-born manager, was at his side. "It's hard to believe," were the only words a normally loquacious player could find. "It's hard to believe, Mitch."

Precious golfing scenes don't come any better.

Footnote: At last Tuesday's funeral mass, the final verse of the haunting 'Night Visiting Song', said it all. "I must away now, I can no longer tarry," seemed to capture perfectly the notion of Mary O'Connor having gone to join her late husband, Christy, in the great beyond. Behind the scenes, this proud daughter of Galway contributed more to the game of golf than we'll ever know.

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