One of the rare benefits of holding the PGA Championship so soon after the British Open is that memories are still fresh from the final-round duel between 40ish golfers Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson. It would be compelling if they created a repeat this week at Baltusrol. It also would be a big upset.
With all due respect to the matchup between Stenson, 40, and runner-up Mickelson, 46, at Troon eight days ago, the PGA is not so kind to players in their age group. The numbers do not bode well for them, despite the fact their Sunday in Scotland has instantly been ranked (by Jack Nicklaus and others) among the top head-to-head finishes in golf history.
Only once since 45-year-old Lee Trevino won the 1984 PGA has someone 40 or older hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy. That was Vijay Singh at Whistling Straits in 2004. Five times in the past six years, the PGA has been won by a player in his 20s.
That is a keen contrast to the British Open, which has awarded the Claret Jug in recent years to Mickelson, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els. Seven years ago, Tom Watson tied for first at the age of 59, before losing in a playoff.
Watson, incidentally, was among those impressed by Stenson’s 63 and Mickelson’s 65 at Troon. At the British Senior Open this past week, even before he was asked to compare it to his fabled 1977 Duel in the Sun with Nicklaus at Turnberry, Watson said, “It was better. It was better. You just look at the facts of the matter: Henrik shot eight under par in the last round on a very tough golf course. Phil shot five-under, no bogeys. It was a shootout right from the start. Great shot after great shot. Great putt after great putt. It was one for the ages.”
Nicklaus said pretty much the same thing on social media last week.
But the PGA has been a Duel in the Sunset for 40-year-olds in their battle against Father Time. There are various possible explanations. Maybe it is just coincidence. Possibly, the British relies more on experience, course knowledge and patience, which favors players of mature years. More likely, it is a matter of green speeds. Greens at the British Open are significantly slower, which can be soothing on hands that have spent decades trying to remain steady over crucial putts.
Also, PGA Championship courses hold greater reward for length, which usually is an advantage for young bucks. Fittingly, the PGA is the only major that holds a sanctioned long- drive contest during the Tuesday practice round. The runner-up last year was Matt Dobyns, head pro at Fresh Meadow in Lake Success. (An additional charm of the PGA: Club pros get to earn their way in, producing scenes like the one at Baltusrol Sunday in which Dobyns and fellow Long Island pros Mark Brown and Ben Polland played nine holes with Jordan Spieth.)
Maybe the lack of a break between majors, caused by schedule reshuffling to accommodate golf’s return to the Olympics, will change everything this year. For the most part, the accelerated schedule is not such a great idea. Golfers didn’t have time to regroup. Fans didn’t have time to build up new enthusiasm.
It might work out for Stenson. He could take advantage of the hot golfer syndrome, the way Dustin Johnson won the Bridgestone after the U.S. Open and Jason Day won The Barclays and the BMW Championship last year after the PGA.
Mickelson, too, might profit from the Troon momentum. Add that to the strong backing he always gets in the New York area and the fact he won the most recent PGA at Baltusrol, in 2005, he could be primed for a Duel in the New Jersey Humidity.
Then again, down through the ages, PGA history has been made more by younger men.