PGA proves golf is turning young, bold and more risk-filled yet athletic than ever

Martin Kaymer wins his first major by defeating Bubba Watson in a playoff that would have included Dustin Johnson if not for a rules infraction on the 72nd hole.
Sally Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 16, 2010; 12:00 AM


Golf is a whole new game - it's become an action sport. That was the longer-term conclusion to take from the tumultuous final round of the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. In the hands of the coming generation, those booming colossuses, something happened for better or worse on almost every hole: brilliance alternated with the raw stupidity of youth.

The trophy holder was Martin Kaymer, the 25-year-old from Germany, but the tournament really belonged to all of them, the comers who did so much wrong and right to produce such an enthralling finale, from the bombing-and-gouging Bubba Watson, 31, to the hard charging and pitiably robbed Dustin Johnson, 26, to the puppyish Rory McIlroy, 21. They showed audacity, and nerve, and they were unafraid to make mistakes - terrible ones - as they fought their way through the round, not quite sure yet how to win the big one.

"I don't really realize what just happened," Kaymer said.

What happened was that Watson, a lean, twangy, go-for-broke Southerner, chopped a risky 6-iron into the water hazard on the third and final hole of a riveting playoff. Watson went for a 210-yard shot over a canal at the par-4 18th, ignoring the fact that Kaymer was in trouble with a bad lie in the rough. Next, Watson skied a wedge shot into a bunker. He made one last gambling flourish, provoking a deep-throated roar by hitting the flagstick with his sand shot, before surrendering with a double bogey.

"And before you ask, if I had to do it all over again, I would hit it every day," Watson said afterward. "I play to win a golf tournament. I don't play to lay up and hopefully make a par and tie."

A gusting wind blew white streaks across the sparkling blue surface of Lake Michigan, and made the 7,507-yard, par-72 Whistling Straits as dangerous as a minefield, despite its lovely postcard vistas. Pete Dye's creation was at once gorgeous and treacherous, and between the breezes and the miscalculations of youth, there was movement and drama all across the course for 18 holes. They went for too much, let the wind get a hold of their shots, found themselves in heavy rough, on steep slopes, or in the water. Galleries ducked, marshals yelled "fore!"

But none of them backed up, or collapsed: Kaymer shot 70, Watson a 68, McIlroy a 72, and Johnson was 3 under par for the day and held a one-stroke lead when he reached the 18th hole in regulation, before he made his catastrophic, accidental mistake, grounding his club in a bunker.

Six men were within a stroke of the lead with three holes to play. Kaymer, Watson, McIlroy and Johnson jockeyed for places atop the leader board, with occasional intrusions from the veterans Steve Elkington and Zach Johnson. But the elders fell back over the last couple of holes, looking small and almost timid among the hectic attackers.

The younger generation has a certain look, and style. They have great shocks of hair that explodes from under their caps, and they wear their pants low on their hips. They are lanky, broad shouldered, multi-sport athletes. Watson is 6 feet 3, and he has never had a formal golf lesson, fashioning his swing with sheer untaught athleticism. "I just play golf," he says. ". . .The game comes natural to me and it's fun, and I don't want to make it a job." Johnson is 6-4 and can palm and dunk a basketball. Take away their buttoned down shirts, and they look like guys you could find in an NBA or Major League locker room.

They wield clubs made with space technology, and use videotape to study their swings frame by frame. "I think the players are just getting so much better at a younger age," McIlroy said earlier this week. "Their confidence is so high that they can take on shots that other guys just might not have thought they could. I don't know if that's because most of the guys swing it better out here now or whatever, but it does seem fast, the younger guys are coming out, and they're a lot better and more ready to win."

But they are learning on the job. Some of what they are learning is quite basic - and painful. For instance Kaymer, a lean 6-foot former soccer player who has five victories on the European Tour, learned it's not a great idea to race Go-Karts during the golf season. He broke four bones in his foot in a crack up last year and had to sit out for two months. McIlroy, the stocky young northern Irishman who has now finished tied for third in the last two majors, at the British Open and PGA, is learning that he needs to work as much on his putting as on that gloriously elegant swing of his. He missed joining the playoff by one stroke, "a putt here or there." The most costly was when he bogeyed the par-4 15th hole from out of the fairway, by three-putting.

But few golfers have experienced lessons as painful as Johnson has this season. His performance in this PGA represented an admirable recovery from his collapse in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he held a three-stroke lead only to shoot 82 in the final round. The strapping Johnson played with abandon at Whistling Straits all week, especially on the back side of the course Sunday, where he made the strongest charge of the final round. When he birdied the 13th, 16th and 17th holes, to hold the one-stroke lead by himself at 12-under, it seemed he would be the comeback story of the year and a brash new champion.

But then came his fatal error on the 18th - which was really twofold. First, he unnecessarily pulled driver on the tee, instead of playing something safer into the fairway. He lashed his drive deep into the gallery to the right, where the ball came to rest in what he mistook for "a piece of dirt." According to the rules committee, it was actually one of Whistling Strait's 1,000 waste bunkers, which pock the course both inside and outside of the ropes. When Johnson grounded his club, the rest of the hole became irrelevant. As Johnson walked off the jigsaw-shaped green he assumed he had bogeyed and was in a three-way playoff with Kaymer and Watson. Instead he was met by an official, who placed a hand on his shoulder. After several agonizing minutes, the news came that he was penalized two strokes and out of the playoff.

Johnson should have known better: warnings about the number and unusual nature of Whistling's bunkers were posted in the locker room, and were the No.1 item listed on the "Supplementary Rules of Play" issued to the field. Still, it was an utter shame, and handled poorly by PGA of America officials. Crowd control was non-existent, and the crush of spectators denied Johnson a decent view of the ground. "Walking up there seeing the shot it never once crossed my mind that I was in a sand trap," Johnson said.

But Johnson showed spine in dealing with such a competitive gut punch. He never denied grounding the club. "Gotta deal with it," he said. His forthrightness suggested he'll find a way to contend again.

In fact, each of the main actors talked about the round as just the first engagement in what they hope is a continuing rivalry - perhaps even a years-long one. McIlroy predicted "many more major battles in the future." Kaymer said, "I think we will have a lot of young major winners in the next five, six years." If so, the game is in good hands - uncertain and mistake-prone ones, perhaps, but strong and compelling ones, too.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company