Many of them, especially golf newbies, might be new to such a delight. They need an Oldest Scribe, someone approaching 100 majors, to point out what matters, what doesn’t and which tells might tip who will end up with the big pot.
Okay, you have twisted my arm — I’ll try to help.
When I was a child, I thought as a child: Why am I here on Thursday? Why am I even here on Friday? Major championships are decided on the final nine holes Sunday. What do I do until then?
Gradually, I learned. Thursday is a slaughter of the giants. Don’t miss it. In one day, more than 100 of the 156 players in the field are left for dead. The pressure to get a fast start is almost as intense and crushing to some players as Sunday pressure.
No one in ultra-polite golf will tell you this. Those TV announcers protect themselves, knowing that, once in a blue albatross, somebody shoots a 73 or 75 in the first round and still wins a major. So they will tell you that Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods isn’t really going to be bothered much by that 72 — which puts him six, seven or eight shots off the lead. He still has plenty of time. Yeah, right.
To illustrate, titanic driver Dustin Johnson should own the Masters. But for most of his career, he couldn’t cope with the first round. In his first eight trips to Augusta, he was a horrid 17 over par on Thursday but 23 under par thereafter. Finally, in 2019, he opened with a 68 and finished just one shot behind the winner, Woods.
Why does Mickelson have such a fine Masters record, with three wins and nine finishes in the top three? Because he attacks in the first round, standing in the top six after Thursday nine times! He has blown up sometimes, too, but he knows that going low from the jump matters.
By sundown Thursday, the winner will, as likely as not, be inside the top 20. Not always, of course. But we love come-from-behind winners so much in sports that we give them too much weight in our memories. “Get near the front, fast” is major golf’s rule.
The slashing of Thursday repeats on Friday and Saturday as the number of contenders — on scores alone — tends to be halved each day, from 40 to 20 to 10.
You can even cut those numbers in half on common sense. Previous major winners and current hot players have a huge edge in majors, far more than on PGA Tour events, because the toughest courses select the best players. And what they never tell you about Saturday’s so-called “moving day” is that landing in the final pairing is by far the greatest move.
Have a handful of players come out of nowhere on Sunday to win majors? Yes. But it’s far more likely that the Wanamaker Trophy will be gifted to the winner by a Sunday gag-o-rama. You struggle for three days to get in position to see who will choke last.
At the first major I covered, the 1978 Masters, Gary Player shot a 64, birdied seven of the last 10 holes and came from seven shots behind to overtake leader Hubert Green. I thought I would be watching such heroics the rest of my career. Nothing like it has happened since.
Since 1973, when Johnny Miller shot a 63 to come from six shots behind to stampede the U.S. Open, such staggering Sunday comebacks have been rare. When you do rally — like all-time comeback king Paul Lawrie, who entered Sunday 10 shots behind at the 1999 British Open — it’s often because somebody — yes, Jean van de Velde — spit the bit.
Since Miller’s 63, there have been 186 majors. In 172 of them, the winner was within four shots of the lead entering Sunday. In 162, he was within three. If a Sunday charge happens, gasp and enjoy it. But don’t miss all the fun by waiting for a miracle.
If your first three days are watching the winnowing, then remember that Sunday is about who will crack and who won’t — or who will crack least. So look for signs.
Golf is the most psychological of all games. In part, that’s because there is no violent contact, so every course designer in history has studied ways to deceive the eye, mortify the pride or grind down the will of players.
So spend four days watching states of mind, play of expression on faces and reactions to misfortune. Nobody is the same golfer two days in a row and certainly not from one week to another. Players sense when their games or their minds are in a state of golf grace. Having both at once is almost too much to ask. Yet even great players have a hard time internalizing that, under the gun, you must play with the swing and the soul of that hour.
Look for players with internal narratives that sustain them. They can be as real as devoting a victory to a late beloved teacher or family member. The tales you tell yourself to gain resolve can be rooted in gratitude for a spouse who has survived a grave illness or, less nobly, a desire to prove your critics wrong. You may want to be the first Australian or fellow from Northern Ireland to win a specific trophy. Maybe you want to complete a grand slam.
Fifty guys’ major fairy tales will falter. But having a story to live out is worth a shot a day. Other athletes use ‘em. But golfers need ‘em.
Look for the serene player, especially if he’s usually not. Look for the man who can’t miss an eight-foot putt, even if he has in his previous 100 events. Of course, look for the 10 best players in the world, though only two or three are likely to survive on center stage by the end.
One final hint: Evil gusts of wind, divots in fairways and general “rub of the green” deviltry ensure that there will be more examples of dumb bad luck that ruin a chance of a lifetime on a major Sunday than in the championships of any other three sports combined.
So the one good break — that bounce off a rock in a creek onto the green or the ball that defies gravity and doesn’t roll into the water or out of bounds — is magnified and sanctified in the player’s heart. Maybe this is my big week!
If you give the PGA Championship a chance — and there probably hasn’t been a better sports moment since the Super Bowl — this may be a pretty nice week for you, too.