The organizations that run the highest levels of professional golf want you to think you’re just like the guys you see on TV. Players and the equipment manufacturers who pay them to use their products harp on about how cool it is that you, the weekend hacker with an 18 handicap, can use the same ball they do, swing the same clubs they do, and even play the same courses they do. (Within limits. You can’t play Augusta National Golf Club.) Golf is your game, and you are just like them. There’s even some truth to it. When Gary Player says “the heart of the game is the amateur, not the professional,” he isn’t wrong. There would be very few golf courses if there weren’t millions of amateurs to play on them. There’d be fewer companies to make the equipment if the only clients were tour pros. There’d be no pro golf at all without amateur golf to feed a pipeline into it. But the likening of the common golfer to the best in the world is also a clever bit of marketing copy with little resemblance to reality. The big stars might as well play on a different planet. If you swung their clubs, it would be like trying to hit a ball with a knife. They do things in their sleep that even a pretty good amateur player does once or twice in a lifetime.
The PGA Championship exists as a counterweight to the cynical view. Golf media and fans often think of it as the least serious of the men’s game’s four major championships, perhaps because it is the one most naturally attuned to the (relatively) little guy. The organizer is the PGA of America, whose 29,000 members are club professionals who live their golf lives giving lessons and hanging out on driving ranges with accountants trying to lower their scores. (The PGA is very much not the PGA Tour, a little sliver of the PGA’s best players that ripped away in the late ’60s.) The PGA of America sets aside 20 spots in the Championship for these club pros, who are not nearly as good as tour pros, every year. Some think that’s too many, a dilution of the PGA’s most important moment of the year. And indeed, the very bottom of the leaderboard is loaded up, each year, with club pros getting a shot on the big stage. The last time one finished in the top 30 was 1994, when newly crowned three-time champ Brooks Koepka was 4.
Or that was the case until Sunday, when golf got the best story it’s gotten since Tiger Woods won the Masters in 2019. Michael Block, one of those club teaching pros who gave his career to golf in a much different way than his Sunday playing partner Rory McIlroy did, finished the PGA Championship in a tie for 15th. Block’s week had everything: Live walk-and-talks on ESPN and CBS telecasts with Scott Van Pelt and Jim Nantz; roaring Rochester, New York crowds that got behind him at Oak Hill Country Club and realized the significance of his run as he hung around the leaders into the weekend; and then two all-time moments on his 69th and 72nd holes of the week. On Oak Hill’s 15th hole, Block made a hole-in-one on the fly, sending the crowd into a frenzy and yielding a hug from McIlroy, who couldn’t seem to get over what he was watching. (“That was fucking awesome,” cameras picked up the Northern Irishman saying to Block a bit later.) Block finished his tournament with a devilish up-and-down from the left rough on No. 18, finishing right on the number (1 over par for the championship) that guaranteed him a spot in next year’s tournament:
The 46-year-old cried a lot this week, sometimes on the course, sometimes in his interviews, and sometimes when PGA Tour tournament organizers were inviting him to future events. Block said this week that he knew the best week of his life was unfolding right in front of him, and he wanted to properly revel in it. In doing so, he gave golf—a sport with a few problems right now—its best advertisement imaginable.
Block is not exactly the everyman that he is commonly being painted as in the aftermath. He’s not a dude off the street who mounted a Cinderella run to qualify in a major and then got hot. He’d appeared in four PGA Championships before, missing the cut in each and making a total of $12,600 for those eight rounds of golf. He’d made a couple of U.S. Opens, which have an open qualifying structure, in 2007 and 2018. (Side note: I was 12 when I met Block and got his autograph during a practice round of the 2007 U.S. Open. I remembered how nice he was, and so it was quite a thing to see him resurface this week.) That Block has played in majors in three different decades speaks to his tremendous talent. He is in golf’s 1 percent, just not the decimal that makes up the PGA Tour. This wasn’t Happy Gilmore.
The Cinderella element of things is still immense, though. For many years, Block told reporters, the biggest check he’d cashed from a golf tournament was $4,500 from a California state tournament in 2001. In 2014, he was chuffed to make $75,000 at a club pro national championship in Myrtle Beach. For this week, he made a cool $288,000, probably a life-changing amount of money. Club pros can make good salaries, but they are not rich and often have horrendous work-life balances. Block spoke about how tournament golf has helped him put away enough money to not work so much in his day job, and now here he is making hundreds of thousands while beating most of the best players alive.
That company, not the money, was probably the biggest pressure point. His Saturday playing partner was Justin Rose, a U.S. Open winner and Ryder Cup mainstay who is in a zillion commercials for financial products. Block said he spent the first few holes not looking at Rose’s face, but at his shoes, for fear that the moment “might get too big for me” if he’d looked Rose in the eye. He stayed within a shot of the Englishman, then was shook up when someone told him he’d play the next day with McIlroy, who sits on the polar opposite end of the pro golfer spectrum. McIlroy wound up three strokes ahead of Block for the week. Other greats of the game weren’t so lucky. World No. 1 Jon Rahm finished six shots behind Block. Xander Schauffele, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Max Homa, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Tony Finau all lost to him. (Being told on Friday that he was ahead of Rahm was yet another source of Block waterworks.)
What was it about Block’s week that tugged so specifically at the heartstrings? The answer will differ for everyone, but I think it revolves around the sport he plays. Everyone likes an underdog tale. A guy comes up to the majors after 13 years in the minors and gets his first hit? Great. A guy with a desk job gets to play goalie in an NHL game for a period? Amazing. But golf is uniquely suited to dreaming, because most of the people who watch it religiously still play it as hobbyists. It might be the most aspirational sport. People can play it for a lifetime and pretend, sometimes not even while being ridiculous, that they might do what the best in the world do. You would never catch a pass over the middle in an NFL game, but you might make a birdie on a major championship golf course if you tried enough times. (Just ignore the quadruple bogeys you’ll make on two of the next three holes.) Golf keeps people coming back with little moments of success, and here was Block having an entire week of that success under bright stage lights.
Golf’s promise is that, as long as you live, you’ll never run out of time to get better. A whole industry rests on that promise, including the club pro business that has a new most prominent member in Block. His week at Oak Hill was about that ideal. Block wore plenty of branded apparel, and he’ll get lots of chances going forward to sell more things to weekend hackers who watched him play. But as he made his way around a brutal course for four days, the only thing golf was selling was the idea that something you never thought you could do was right around the corner. You just need a teacher like, say, Michael Block.