As this fairytale on the fairways unfolded with more “Are-you-kidding-me?” moments Sunday afternoon – including a pop-fly, hole-in-one on 15 – Michael Block and his caddie could be seen pinching themselves.
They just wanted to make sure this really was happening, that they weren’t dreaming.
And who could blame them?
Here was Block, a 46-year-old golf club professional from California who had come to Oak Hill Country Club with the long-shot goal of making the cut at the 105th PGA Championship. He was so unsure of achieving that objective that he booked a flight out of Rochester ahead of time for Saturday morning. As it turned out, he had to scramble to change those travel plans at the last minute. He wouldn’t fly out of our golf-crazed burg until Monday morning, and he wouldn’t leave town until he authored the kind of story that reminds us why we fall in love with sports.
On a day when Brooks Koepka captured the Wanamaker Trophy, Block captured our hearts. In addition to striking golf balls, Block struck a blow for every hacker out there who fantasizes what it would be like to play against the finest golfers in the world on the biggest stage. This was Kevin Costner’s unforgettable movie character: Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, come to life.
That Block would share center stage with Koepka is remarkable, considering Koepka had cemented his place in golf annals by winning his fifth major and notching his third PGA Championship — a tournament number exceeded only by Jack Nicklaus, Walter Hagen, and Tiger Woods.
Not only did Block become the only club pro of the 20 in the field to make the cut, but he also found himself tied for eighth heading into the final round and paired with Rory McIlroy. At the start of the tournament, McIlroy was the hometown favorite. And that was understandable, given his local connections. (He married Irondequoit native Erica Stoll six years ago and had become an honorary member of Oak Hill.) It also didn’t hurt that McIlroy had received the endorsement of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, whose No. 17 jersey was the garb of choice among hundreds of tournament goers throughout the week.
But by Sunday afternoon, Block had overtaken McIlroy as everybody’s darling, particularly after the pro from Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, Calif. flew his 7-iron shot on the fly into the cup at 15. Block’s up-and-down chip on 18 to save par was almost as impressive as his ace. It enabled him to secure a 15th place finish and a qualifying spot in next year’s PGA. And it capped an indelible week in which he pocketed $288,333 – nearly four times his earnings for winning the national club pro championship in 2014.
“I just feel like I’m on cloud nine right now,’’ he said, while trying to come to grips with these four days that changed his life.
To call Block a “hacker” is hyperbole. He’s actually quite the accomplished golfer — as evidenced by that national club pro championship, his 10 Southern California PGA Player-of-the-Year awards, and the way he had to play his way into this PGA Championship by out-scoring club pros nationwide. But there’s an enormous gap between the skills of club pros and touring pros. The chasm between the two is driven home by the fact Block’s finish in this year’s PGA is the best by a club pro in nearly four decades.
We all love underdog stories, and the average golfer certainly can relate more to the talents of a Michael Block than a Brooks Koepka. So, people were pulling for Block from the get-go, and the better he played, the louder they cheered. In fact, an argument can be made that the loudest roar during this PGA occurred after Block swung his 7-iron on the 15th tee.
“I hit a flighty shot into the wind, and it headed toward the pin, so I knew I was in good shape,’’ he said. “I figured I was within five, 10 feet, and all of a sudden, the crowd’s going crazy and Rory starts walking over to me and puts his arms around me. I’m like, ‘Why is Rory giving me a hug?’ He’s not going to be giving me a hug for hitting within four or five feet of the hole. So, I look at him and say, ‘Is it in the hole?’ And he’s like, ‘Yes. It’s right in the hole.’ And I’m like you got to be kidding me. He had to tell me five times before I believed it. To do it on this hole on this stage is a lifelong dream. It can’t get any better. That’s it. I can retire. Good night.”
But just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, it did. Block had no idea that if he saved par on 18 he would automatically qualify for next year’s PGA.
“I made sure that I had no idea,’’ he said. “I told my caddie [John Jackson] at the beginning of the day, I’m not going to look at leaderboards throughout the day, no matter what happens. Good, bad or indifferent, I’m not looking, because in the past, sometimes I’d get ahead of myself … I no longer get ahead of myself. So, I didn’t look at the leaderboards. I was just grinding my butt off, and I did it.”
He did, indeed. One of the endearing things about Block’s story is the way he embraced, enjoyed, and absorbed every minute of it. His high-fives with fans greatly outdistanced his number of strokes in a week that saw him string together three consecutive par-70 rounds to go with his final-day 71.
His sense of humor was on display every minute he spent at Oak Hill.
“I’m like the new John Daly,’’ he joked to reporters Sunday evening. “But I don’t have a mullet and I’m not as big as him yet.”
There were tears, too. Tears of joy. Block bawled like a baby when a CBS reporter showed him a video of his club members celebrating his hole-in-one at a watch party 3,000 miles to the west. He spoke earnestly about how golf is his life, how he lives it and breathes it and always knew he would somehow, some way, make it his calling. It doesn’t matter to him if he’s cleaning shoes or giving lessons, he enjoys every minute of his job. And he can’t wait to get back to Mission Viejo. He’ll show members the flag from the 15th hole that PGA officials presented him with Sunday evening, and he’ll share beers and memories from a week he’ll never, ever forget.
“It’s been a surreal experience and I have this weird sensation that life is going to be not quite the same moving forward,’’ he said. “But only in a good way, which is cool.”
He’ll still probably need to pinch himself on occasion, just to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.m