Final Notes from the 2021 PGA Championship

Our on-site correspondent sums up a week at the Ocean Course


It was delightful to cover professional golf from the ground for the first time in almost two years! Here are some final thoughts from my week at the 2021 PGA Championship.

The real low club pro

Brad Marek had a sensational week at Kiawah Island, even becoming a social media darling thanks to his unique stretching routine.

(If you haven’t tried it yet, you should; it really does feel great.) More importantly, though, he was one of two club pros—and, let’s be honest, the only real club pro—to make the cut.

Having played a lot of golf with Brad over the years, I found myself getting a bit emotional watching his first-round 73 and hearing the cheers from his 20+ friends and family in attendance. He’s gone through years of struggle and disappointment, so seeing him on the game’s biggest stage with a big group of supporters was special.

My acquaintance with Brad dates back to the early 2000s, when we were paired together at a junior event. It was a big deal for me. Brad was one of the best junior golfers in the state of Illinois, definitely a “big name” in that world. He went on to play at Indiana University with Jeff Overton, and I’ve followed his career off and on ever since.

Fast-forward to New Years Day, 2014. I was in my mid-20s, living in downtown Chicago. I left a bar slightly worse for the wear and got into an Uber. About five minutes into the ride, I realized my driver was none other than Brad Marek. We caught up on his career, his battles on the mini-tours, and his hopes for the future.

Later, he joined Calumet Country Club, where I was a member, and we played together frequently when he wasn’t on the road. Eventually he moved to California to chase pro golf, but soon he gave up on his PGA Tour dream. He now teaches junior golfers at Corica Park in the San Francisco Bay Area, and he’s a dedicated, well-regarded instructor.

I can’t imagine the satisfaction Brad felt to be in the PGA Championship—not just playing, but showing he could compete, make the cut, and get the best of the likes of Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas.

Brad Marek’s story is mostly a familiar one, but this was an extraordinary chapter. It helped me appreciate the PGA Championship’s annual inclusion of 20+ club pros in the field. This isn’t just a quirk; it’s part of the tournament’s DNA. Yet over the years, I’ve heard calls to strengthen the field by keeping the club pros out. I’ve even made a few of those calls myself. But now I understand how ill-advised that would be. The club pros give the PGA Championship its soul, its point of difference from other majors. The Masters has its past champions, the U.S. Open and Open Championship have their qualifiers, and the PGA has its member pros.

Congrats to Brad on an amazing week.

You had to be there

I’m not a huge proponent of golf as an in-person spectating sport. It’s incredibly hard to watch, and there’s a ton of downtime. But every once in a while, it’s useful to attend an event and remind yourself of how freaking good these guys are. (Your regular reminder: ditching the “These Guys Are Good” slogan was a monumentally dumb move on the part of the PGA Tour.)

Observing how the best players in the world dealt with the elements at the Ocean Course was fascinating. I wrote a whole article on how Phil Mickelson thrived in the tough conditions, but  here are the Cliff’s Notes: golf is at its best when it’s not just about hitting the target but also about controlling the trajectory, spin, and shape of a shot. Most weeks on the PGA Tour, distance and direction are the only relevant coordinates. That was absolutely not the case last week at Kiawah Island.

Setup for success

The Ocean Course acquitted itself wonderfully, but it also got lucky. A myriad of factors all fell into place. Conditions were dry leading into the championship, the rain stayed away during the tournament, and a healthy wind, in different directions on different days, blew for three of the four rounds. It was the perfect combination of ideal weather, tough design, and an idyllic setting.

The 14th hole at the Ocean Course and the ocean. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

Could the Ocean Course get better?

In my opinion, absolutely. As Garrett Morrison detailed last week, the Ocean Course is a far cry from Pete Dye’s original vision. Some changes were necessary, like the switch to sticky paspalum grass, which tolerates the course’s poor water quality. Others, like the expansion of maintained turf areas, were misfires.

I understand why the resort decided to add rough. Regular players were struggling to get around the Ocean Course, so installing longer grass to slow balls down and keep them in play must have seemed logical. But like many issues in golf, this one is counterintuitive. When the resort added rough, it also expanded irrigation. And when it expanded irrigation, the native areas outside of the playing corridors, where guests often find themselves, became completely unplayable.

The changes have simultaneously made things easier for professionals. Last week, I saw many shots saved from going into hazards by the rough. A good example is the par-4 4th, where the primary trouble off the tee is on the right—bunkers and a marsh. But the rough on the left made going left a fairly safe bail-out. If it were all short grass, more drives to the left would have barrelled into the marsh, punishing those who hedged away from the hazard.

Tee-shot distribution on the 4th hole during the PGA Championship. Note how the rough impeded many balls from finding the hazard. Credit: PGA Tour Shotlink

All of this was obviously the resort’s choice, but PGA decision-makers played a role here, too. They decided to keep the rough and make it a bit juicier. Why is this the best we can expect from a championship setup crew? Why have we learned simply to be relieved when the PGA and USGA don’t screw a course up by narrowing its fairways and adding rough? These organizations devote enormous resources to tournament preparation. Why don’t the venues ever seem to improve from the process?

At Kiawah Island, removing the rough and replacing it with short grass would have made the course more dynamic and improved the championship. It’s too bad no one seemed to think these kinds of changes were even in the realm of possibility.

Volcano bunkers and crossing hazards

The Ocean Course’s volcano bunkers were a pleasant surprise. They’re odd-looking, for sure, but effective at exacting a penalty on tour pros, much like the pot bunkers at Open Championships. During the third round, Phil Mickelson found a volcano bunker on No. 12 and had to pitch out. On the 4th hole, which I discussed above, those who find the volcano bunkers on the right usually have to lay up short of the crossing hazard, resulting in a mid-iron third shot.

Volcano bunkers on the left side of the 13th fairway. Photo credit: Andy Johnson

True three-shot holes

One of the biggest differences between the Ocean Course and the typical PGA Tour venue was a set of par 5s where getting home in two wasn’t a foregone conclusion. For one week, we saw pros struggle with the complexity of the layup, a shot that plagues amateur golfers.

The long par-5 16th especially stood out in the first two rounds. Playing into the wind, the 600-yard hole played closer to 750. Many players even hit drivers off the deck on their second shots in hopes of having a wedge for their third.

The key feature in the layup zone on No. 16 is a massive waste bunker on the right. For those who played left off the tee, closer to a lake, this bunker wasn’t as big of a factor on their second shots. But most players in the PGA Championship favored the right side with their drives. In doing so, they simply delayed their encounter with a scary hazard. As a prolific procrastinator myself, it was fun to see the repercussions of that decision. It made the layup brutal! The waste bunker became a crossing hazard that penalized any misses short or right. It also brought the dunes on the left into play for slightly tugged shots. On the 16th hole, 5 was a good score and 4 was exceptional.

I hope we’ll see more true three-shot holes in the future—which is to say I hope there’s a modest equipment rollback, not more 750-yard holes.

That’s it! Thank you all for reading and listening along. We will have one more podcast recapping this epic PGA Championship, which will air early this coming week.