5/14/24

A New Day: The Wildly Fun 2014 PGA

Even before the Rory win in the dark, the 2014 PGA was a ride that ushered in a new era of how majors are consumed

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The summer of 2014 was an unforgettable ushering in of what felt like a new era. Tiger’s best days seemed behind him and golf went searching for who was next. A committee of new stars were emerging to try and fill part of the void. Rory McIlroy burst out as the clear favorite to be the next great player, dominating for the final months of the summer. The majors were chaotic and energizing.

We’re 10 years on from the last PGA at Valhalla. It’s largely remembered as Rory’s last major win, a frenetic rush in the dark during which he alpha’d Phil, Rickie, and the PGA of America into a Wanamaker trophy. It was theater that left you enchanted with the pro game and its potential. It pushed me into really wanting to do this for many more years.

I tried to remember why that summer felt so fun, beyond the headliner winner and the odd finish at Valhalla. That 2014 PGA has been distilled down to those final moments in the dark, but there was so much more that made it such a lively week. It also felt like the real breakout moment for a new way to consume the game in real time. Both the wider golf internet and golf Twitter specifically had been around — Tiger’s drop on the 15th hole at the Masters the year prior felt like an initial key moment for those mediums. But this summer was the real dawn of the sport’s traveling circus arriving under the digital tent. No Laying Up had really just started firing that summer. The veteran pro scribes on site were now armed with accounts to sprinkle in their amusements and gripes. Shane Ryan was out on Tour as an outsider bringing a new lens for his first golf book. There was juice, and I asked Ryan about jumping into the fray that particular summer.

“I might be the wrong guy to ask because 2014 was the year I first covered professional golf seriously, so if a Twitter golf culture existed before then I would have been totally oblivious, and also my memory has a storage capacity of about 16 minutes, but it did feel in 2014 and 2015 like something new was growing,” he said. “Outlets like No Laying Up were gaining traction and a lot more would follow, and it felt to me like I had joined a scene that was in transition. That week in Valhalla in particular felt vital, and I remember hanging out with Bryan Curtis from Grantland and feeling like both the sport and the culture around the sport were in a really interesting moment.”

The players were also starting to #engage more. Luke Donald got 201 retweets for saying, presumably about Rory, “Hmmm drive and a 9 iron into 16 #wow.” Don’t let the olds tell you it was more creative or “better back then” on golf Twitter. But it certainly felt more alive. Other young digital natives, to use a horrible industry term, were starting to get their footing. Moments were captured for good via GIFs and Vines and spread widely to larger audiences not usually interested in watching golf.

And then the actual golf delivered. It all seemed to take full flight in a wildly enjoyable week at Valhalla.

I went for a walk on Monday morning and tried to remember why we think of that week so fondly. There were some vague recollections of the oddball and amusing minutiae that kept making me smile. Sometimes my memory was off, but I tried to track down corroboration for everything else. So let’s remember some things about the last time the PGA was at Valhalla:

  • Some recall this as Rory’s win in the dark, but the real ones remember this as the site of the great “forward shaft lean” debate. But seriously this was a time when everything around the event (the press conferences, pre-game and post-game shows, player tweets, all of it) seemed to generate increased coverage and consumption. So one could watch Live From and document it like you might Inside the NBA. 

  • But it became clear this was an era when a folksy name and some goofy online videos could not throw a blanket over the increased cameras, microphones, and social media documentation of behavior that belied that image. There was increased scrutiny on all of it, including a monolithic PGA Tour marketing of good guys with nothing but ever-present class. To his credit, Bubba would become a much better sport, and this now feels like a lower moment en route to happier days. But Ted Scott, not sure what happened to him.
  • There was a lot of Billy Horschel pants content.
  • Jason Day, who would soon be part of a newfangled “Big Three” narrative, played in the final group with Rory on Saturday. David Feherty found his ball for him in a marsh on the second hole. He forded a river, forgot his club, had it thrown over to him, rolled up his pants, and hit it barefoot. It was a fun bit of hysteria (the Vines are all dead but here is some visual evidence). Day is back this year, and a legit contender again. His staying power and return to form is commendable. He’ll probably have some clothes of his own that create a social media moment or two this week.
  • I remember distinctly that this was the first $10 million purse for a major and that it was a bit of a deal. Ted Bishop, the bombastic head of the PGA, threw his and the organization’s weight around the prior fall in a joint announcement with Tim Finchem that they were bumping their purses (The Players and PGA Champ) to $10 million. It was a big jump at the time and the other three majors did not match it. So they had that going for them. It was 10 years ago but $10 million is no longer the biggest purse in major, signature, or minor golf.
  • Thorbjørn Olesen, simply and more innocently known then as the Thunder Bear, slam-dunked a ball that went into the hole, bounced out of the cup, and came to rest 70 feet away for an eventual bogey. Everyone lost their minds about this.
  • Dan Jenkins spent a full week on Twitter mercilessly antagonizing the people of Louisville about their city.
  • During the Sunday rain delay (the leaders did not go off until after 4:15 in the final round), CBS showed Rory McIlroy unlocking his phone and everyone immediately tweeted his passcode. Rory then hopped on Twitter, joined in the fun and said he’d changed it, and then went out and won a major. Simpler times. 

  • Ian Poulter played fairly well and was somehow able to go out and make the cut on Friday after dealing with the ongoing hardship of his nanny getting bumped from first class. 

The replies went about how you would expect and the tweet has long since been deleted. 

Again, simpler times.

I won’t weigh you down all day by “remembering some things” from a PGA 10 years ago. This is just a snippet of what made it so fun, and this was all before we got to the mad scramble and wonderful actual golf that occurred in the final hours of play. The fun even continued after play concluded, with Rory saving a memorable Bishop trophy mishap. 
Embed from Getty Images

It was all a jam, and everyone (except maybe Bubba) seemed to be having fun with it, both online and IRL. The bullpen had been warmed, and the momentum would carry into a wild and dysfunctional Ryder Cup a month later. I won’t say things were better or worse back then, but that was an exceptional week of golf. And it was a moment when it felt like the way these big weeks are consumed had changed. It was fun as hell. Here’s to hopefully another one.