Tiger Woods, Bethpage and rowdy crowds: The PGA dream

Sometimes, things happen in sports that make so much sense you can’t believe it took so long for them to occur. The shot clock and the 3-point line in basketball come to mind. Knockout pools for the NFL come to mind. Batting helmets were a fine idea.

Moving the PGA Championship to May?

Goodness, what took so long?

Forever, there was the Masters, and all the pageantry that goes along with it in early April … and then golf took a two-month siesta, and whatever momentum the sport gained at Augusta National would slowly be stilled by the start of baseball and the end of basketball and hockey, and they’d have to crank everything back up to speed in time for the U.S. Open on Father’s Day Weekend.

And the PGA? Put it this way: for years it was the Fiesta Bowl of golf’s grand slam. You wanted to win it if you were playing in it, it counted as a major, sometimes it actually did reward the world’s best golfers. But it wasn’t the Masters or the Open or the British — the Rose, Orange and Sugar Bowls of the sport. It happened in August. By the dog days, you barely want to play golf any longer, let alone watch it.

So moving it to May was inspired to begin with.

And then, a couple of happy bonuses worked themselves out.

The first one was simply smart business: choosing New York as the place to hold the first May PGA since Sam Snead won a wartime event in 1942 (in ’71, it was moved for one year only to February, where it really would have died in obscurity except that Jack Nicklaus happened to win it, his ninth major, making the turn for home and his all-time total of 18).

The second was a stroke of extraordinary good fortune: Tiger Woods won the Masters last month. Now, regardless of how you may feel about Woods, he is a transcendent figure in sports, let alone golf. He is almost certainly the most recognized athlete in the world, and has been even when his game has suffered.

But presently, it is not suffering. Presently, he is riding a brand-new wave of success, and popularity. Galleries sound different when he walks among them. Competitors act differently. And golf tournaments simply feel different when he is playing in them, certainly when he is headlining them.

Tiger in New York?

Better yet: Tiger at Bethpage Black?

When the U.S. Open was staged there in 2002, it was the first time a public golf course had ever hosted the tournament, and it quickly became the People’s Open. Attendance records were shattered, and those who came brought every ounce of New York attitude they could muster. They taunted Sergio Garcia. They sang “Happy Birthday” to Phil Mickelson. And they went positively ballistic whenever Tiger did anything, including hoisting the trophy at the end.

Part of that was because the horseshoe of grandstands around the 17th hole allowed golf to sound like it rarely sounds, like a Game 7 at the Garden. Part of it was the marriage of Tiger Woods — who in an earlier time wouldn’t have been allowed near most of the Open’s past home courses except to caddy on them — and Bethpage, the ultimate symbol of the sport’s attempt at egalitarian evolution.

But there was also this: so many of the folks who came to Bethpage Black in 2002 — and again in 2009, when Tiger was a few months into his epic fall from grace and Lucas Glover edged out Mickelson and David Duval, among others — have been there lugging their own clubs, scuffling around a course so full of New York swagger that it greets every player who shows up with the same posted warning:

“WARNING: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

Honestly, do you think it would ever occur to anyone to post a sign like that at Pinehurst, or at Pebble Beach, or at Carnoustie, or at St. Andrews? But at Bethpage Black, that fits just right. In New York, it’s fair warning for what’s to follow. And this weekend, it serves as a splendid summary for what golf has set itself up for:

A field of highly skilled golfers. One very famous golfer. And a gallery of New Yorkers eager to remind the world why it so craves coming here, whether here is Shinnecock Hills or Baltusrol, Winged Foot or Bethpage Black. No polite applause here, thank you very much. No medals for trying, sorry. Go big or go home. Start spreading the news.

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