ROCHESTER, N.Y. — At last year’s PGA Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Michael Block finally figured out he belonged in the field.
Playing a couple of holes behind a marquee group that included Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas at Southern Hills Country Club, Block posted a 3-over 73 in the second round with hundreds of fans watching.
“It was ten deep on every hole I played,” Block said. “I shot 73 with everyone there. My [general manager] even said, ‘That was you not being a club pro anymore.’ So it was a big moment for me. I’ve kind of lived off that ever since.”
Block, 46, is still a club pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club, a daily-fee course in Mission Viejo, California. But Block has proved in the first two rounds of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club, that he’s also one heck of a player.
While some of the best players in the world, including Tom Kim, Cameron Young, Sungjae Im and Sam Burns, are headed home after missing the cut, Block is sticking around to play the final two rounds this weekend. He is tied for 10th at even par after carding 70 in each of the first two rounds.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Block is only the second club pro to be in the top 20 of the PGA Championship after 36 holes in the past 20 years.
“I’m extremely comfortable,” Block said. “To be honest, a couple of my friends in Orange County [California] are Beau Hossler and Patrick Cantlay. I’ve played a lot of golf with them now [and] they’ve become my friends. I understand where they’re ranked in the world. I understand how my game doesn’t quite get up to them, but I’m pretty darn close, and I can compete with them.”
On Friday, Block was pretty close to grabbing at least a share of the lead. He birdied three of his first five holes and also No. 1, his 10th hole of the round, to move to 3 under, just 1 stroke behind the leaders. But then he had a bogey on No. 4 and a very untimely swing on the par-3 fifth. He shanked his tee shot and wound up with a double-bogey 5.
“I don’t know,” Block said. “I had the same swing I’ve had all week. It was a nice little 8-iron, front left pin. I love hitting baby draw with my 8-iron. I’ve done it well all week, and all of a sudden we’ve all been there, done that, and we look up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ The ball was just going off, somehow hit the tree, almost killed somebody, and then comes off and goes in the deep rough. I was actually fortunate enough to make a double bogey after that.”
Block has had an impressive career in minor circuits. He is the reigning PGA of America Professional Player of the Year. He tied for second at the 2023 PGA Professional Championship, which earned him a spot in the Oak Hill field. He set a course record at Arroyo Trabuco with a 59 in 2019. On April 17, he won the Stroke Play Classic at his home course and took home $1,600. He collected another $500 for finishing runner-up at the Pro-Pro Scramble at San Juan Hills Golf Club in California a week earlier.
Block says he rarely hits more than a bucket of balls a week. He spends most of his time giving instruction at $125 for a 45-minute session and $500 for a nine-hole playing lesson. Wherever Block finishes on Sunday, he stands to earn a nice payday.
It is his fifth appearance in the PGA Championship. He also played in the 2007 and 2018 U.S. Opens. He didn’t make the cut in any of his previous starts in majors. He had made the cut in four of 24 PGA Tour starts, earning about $38,038.
Block’s form has been good this year. In January, he carded a 7-under 65 in the first round of the American Express (he was in the field for winning the Southern California PGA section championship for the third time). The next week, Block beat both of the tour pros he was paired with during the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open (he went 74-73).
“I’ve been gaining that confidence from those finishes in those rounds where I’m like, why not?” Block said. “Why not come here and compete? Why not here at Oak Hill, make the cut? I’m not afraid of them anymore, to be honest.”
The best finish by a PGA club pro who advanced through the PGA Professional Championship was a tie for 11th by Lonnie Nielsen in 1986 and Tommy Aycock in 1974. Block might become the first one to finish in the top 10 in the past 40 years.
“As weird as it sounds, I’m going to compete,” Block said. “I promise you that.”
Like it says on his TaylorMade golf balls: Why not?
Americans have won each of the last seven PGA Championships. The last non-American player to win it was Australia’s Jason Day in 2015. But there’s a distinct foreign flavor to Oak Hill’s leaderboard after 36 holes.
Canada’s Corey Conners and Norway’s Viktor Hovland, along with Scottie Scheffler, are tied for the lead at 5 under. England’s Callum Tarren is tied for sixth at 2 under, and fellow Englishman Justin Rose is tied for eighth at 1 under. Austria’s Sepp Straka is tied for 10th at even par.
No player representing England has won the PGA Championship since Jim Barnes, who won the first two tournaments in 1916 and 1919.
“I think historically I’ve won typically on harder golf courses than not, so I think it fits my profile from that point of view,” Rose said. “Yeah, this is right up there. It feels a little bit of a hybrid kind of PGA-U.S. Open this week. Looking forward to the test, I think.”
How far is too far back?
During the PGA Championship stroke-play era since 1958, according to Elias Sports Bureau, 63 of the 65 eventual champions were in the top 20 on the leaderboard after 36 holes. The exceptions were Collin Morikawa, who won at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco in 2020 (tied for 25th) and Padraig Harrington at Oakland Hills in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, in 2008 (tied for 26th).
Each of the winners of the six major championships played at Oak Hill Country Club was in the top three after the second round: Jason Dufner (first, 2013 PGA Championship), Shaun Micheel (tied for first, 2003 PGA Championship), Curtis Strange (first, 1989 U.S. Open), Jack Nicklaus (tied for second, 1980 PGA Championship), Lee Trevino (second, 1968 U.S. Open) and Cary Middlecoff (tied for third, 1956 U.S. Open).
That might be bad news for several of the top players in the world, including Adam Scott (tied for 30th, 2 over), Hideki Matsuyama (tied for 35th, 3 over), Max Homa (tied for 35th, 3 over), Xander Schauffele (tied for 48th, 4 over), Cameron Smith (tied for 48th, 4 over), Jon Rahm (tied for 48th, 4 over), Tony Finau (tied for 59th, 5 over) and Justin Thomas (tied for 59th, 5 over).
“It was a grind again,” said Thomas, the defending champion. “It was a fight. Just got off to a poor start.”
Most of the big-name players who were in danger of missing the cut, including Thomas, Rahm and Jordan Spieth, rallied and moved above the line on Friday. There were a few notable exceptions, including Rickie Fowler (6 over), Billy Horschel (6 over), Matt Fitzpatrick (6 over), Tom Kite (8 over), Jason Day (8 over), Cameron Young (9 over), Sungjae Im (13 over) and Sam Burns (14 over).
LIV Golf League star Talor Gooch finished 10 over and also missed the cut. He came into the week ranked No. 63 in the Official World Golf Ranking. Gooch, a two-time winner in the LIV Golf League, needed a good week to crack the top 60 by Monday or June 6 to qualify for the U.S. Open.
Gooch earned a spot in the season-ending Tour Championship in 2022, which would have been enough to get him in the U.S. Open field in the past. But the United States Golf Association changed the language of that exemption this year to include players who were both qualified and eligible for the Tour Championship. Gooch wasn’t eligible to play after PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan suspended him for playing in LIV Golf events without a release. He isn’t receiving points in LIV Golf League tournaments, so he’ll miss the field for next month’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club.
It’s about a three-hour drive from Rochester to Toronto, so there have been quite a few Canadian fans in the galleries this week. They’ve had plenty of reason to cheer so far. Not only is Conners tied for the lead, but Taylor Pendrith is tied for eighth at 1 under, and Adam Svensson is tied for 11th at even par. Adam Hadwin is tied for 35th at 3 over.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, only three Canadian players have finished in the top 10 of the PGA Championship: Graham DeLaet (tie for seventh, 2017), Mike Weir (three times) and Nick Welock (tie for ninth, 1936). Weir is the only Canadian man to win a major, at the 2003 Masters.
Moving day has been gooood for the 🇨🇦 Corey Conners he is one of Day ✌️ co-leaders for the PGA Championship. Let’s get hyped up for our fellow 🇨🇦 with two days left to play. pic.twitter.com/UqAxTAPhCf
— Golf Canada (@GolfCanada) May 19, 2023
“It’s been a pretty special week so far,” Conners said. “I think being so close to Canada there’s a lot of Canadian fans out here. They’re cheering me on. That definitely feels good.
“Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. Really close with both Taylor and Adam [Svensson]. It’s fun to be part of the group of Canadian golfers right now. I think whether it’s myself or one of them or the others, someone is making some noise every week. It’s fun to be a part of.”