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WITH LOVE FROM ROCHESTER

Updated: May 25, 2023

After the recent passings of two icons, the sports world needed a feel-good moment. The PGA golf tournament in Rochester gave us a beauty.


Michael Block, a PGA pro but not a full-time professional golfer, stole Rochester's hearts this past weekend by holding his own against the biggest guns on the tour.


Vida Blue, a star pitcher for my beloved early-'70's Oakland A's, just died on May 6th. Jim Brown, perhaps the greatest NFL running back of all time and also a post-football Hollywood actor and civil rights activist, followed Vida to jock heaven on May 18th. In the wake of such losses the sports world was accordingly a bit glum heading into this past weekend.


But then an unlikely hero– an underdog, an everyman, one of us, almost– suddenly shot to national fame on the fairways and greens of the ultra-tony Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.


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I am emphatically NOT a golfer... but through some sort of broadcasting brilliance, the folks in charge of satellite radio have managed to make their coverage of weekend tournaments into such extremely compelling entertainment that I regularly enjoy it while driving my usual 450-mile daily route every weekend. Part of the appeal is their downright comical drama– from the hushed putting whisper ("this... for birdie at the thirteenth... and a share of the lead heading into Armageddon Alley...") to the overall air of seriousness, as if these ridiculously-attired white men were simultaneously solving climate change and worldwide famine instead of whacking a little ball around an environmentally-disfigured expanse of once-wild acreage.


Yet another attraction for me is the Irish golfer-turned-commentator Maureen Madill, whose delightful and quirky phraseology combine with her uniquely soothing accent that twists vowels in a manner that I can neither replicate nor even transcribe. Even though I have no use for her actual content, I could listen to this woman for hours.


And so I regularly tune in to Sirius station #92... especially on Sundays before the NFL season kicks in. And this past weekend featured one of the four golfing "majors"– the PGA Championship Tournament... live from my native heath, Rochester NY.


The PGA (Professional Golfers Association) was formed in 1916 with multiple (and, as time would tell, sometimes contradictory) purposes, all intended to "establish and elevate the standards of the profession and to grow interest and participation in the game of golf." The PGA Tour eventually spun off (in 1968) as an entity separate from the larger organization of "golf professionals," i.e., the guys one sees behind the counters at every on-site golf course "pro shop" where they sell equipment and offer expert advice and also arrange for one-on-one coaching sessions. It is fair to say that the average golf pro can knowledgeably and consistently play a good round of golf, mind you, but he shouldn't be confused with an actual professional golfer who lives and dies by entering the big tournaments every weekend.


As a consequence of the sometimes adversarial give-and-take during the PGA's long history between the the actual touring professionals who popularize the game and the 20,000+ strong army of pro shop guys who personally facilitate it for the masses, 20 slots in the 156-player PGA Championship entry field are reserved for the latter... a real-life manifestation of the fictional World Boxing Champion Apollo Creed magnanimously offering a title shot to an obscure club fighter named Rocky Balboa in ROCKY I.


Aside from assuaging and accommodating the pro shop guys with a theoretical (if slim) chance at winning the Wanamaker Trophy every year, I personally suspect that the PGA cleverly accomplishes a secondary and decidedly less generous goal by doing this– It makes EXAMPLES of them... it illustrates for all the world to see just how hard it is to play top-level golf, even for the "pro" at your local course.


Golf is really hard... except for the extremely gifted among us, even decent natural athletes require years of practice to simply not publicly embarrass themselves on the links. What's more, the courses on which professional tournaments are held are way crueler than those on which the general public plays– in preparation for professional play, the fairways of tournament courses are tightly narrowed, the rough allowed to lengthen, and the greens are shaved to unforgiving shortness and speed. For extra measure the pin locations are often moved to the most inaccessible corners of the carpet on the final day. And so, while the tournament layouts might not appear so on TV, they are actually exponentially more difficult to navigate than the municipal course in your town... difficult enough to make some of the pro shop guys look like amateur hacks as they sand and rinse their Titleists in hazard after hazard en route to bogey-bloated rounds in the low eighties.



So how did the 20-strong 2023 slate of PGA club pros do at Oak Hill? Rocky Balboa went the distance and emerged from the ring with a broken nose and some newfound respect despite his split-decision loss. For the most part, the club pros fared far worse than Rocky, not even making the cut after Day Two– pretty much the equivalent of an early-round, ignominious KO in boxing.


One of them, however, somehow managed to hold his own with the big boys and survive the cut to play on Saturday, when, to the astonishment of the golf press and fans alike, he carded his third straight even par. And while poised at a respectable yet safe distance from the lead on Sunday, Californian golf pro Michael Block had already secured a warm place in the hearts of golf fans in Rochester and everywhere else as he teed up for the 15th hole, a short par three.


And then THIS happened–



Most improbably, a similarly huge moment transpired at the 18th, where Block was in contention for a top-15 finish, which would automatically qualify him for entry into next year's PGA Championship tournament. He absolutely needed to par the hole, but he was in serious trouble after his errant second shot joined the gallery. Block kept his nerve, however, and finished like this–



I can add little to what has already been said about Michael Block. It's safe to say that he'll never pay for another drink in Rochester again, and that– thanks to his great finish– next year's PGA will have not the usual twenty but rather twenty-ONE club pros teeing off at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Kentucky.


I WILL say this– after losing two beloved sports icons in the preceding fortnight, Michael Block provided us with something wonderful to cherish, and for that we should all be very thankful.


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NOTES:


In the interests of journalistic integrity, I must point out that both Vida Blue and Jim Brown experienced serious legal troubles and other related issues that cannot and should not be erased from their legacies. To me, however, that doesn't make them ineligible for greatness; rather, it makes them as human as the rest of us.


I am actually writing this on the Monday morning after the event... which will explain in advance any corrections and/or revisions I make after publicly posting this.


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