Bellerive eager to produce memorable PGA Championship

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              Craig Bowden hits on the driving range during a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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ST. LOUIS (AP) — Bellerive Country Club is considered one of the “Big Four” of traditional, exclusive St. Louis-area clubs, a picturesque parkland course designed by Robert Trent Jones serving as its centerpiece.

For a while, big events bolstered its reputation.

Gary Player won a thrilling Monday playoff to capture the U.S. Open and complete the career Grand Slam, at the time the third player to accomplish the feat. Years later, his fellow South African, Nick Price, stormed to the PGA Championship at Bellerive for the first of his three majors.

Yet recent history hasn’t been so kind.

The World Golf Championship event in 2001 was cancelled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the first PGA Tour event to be cancelled in its entirety in more than 50 years. Heavy rains have washed out tournament play other years, unheralded winners have left galleries less than enthused, and some of the biggest names in the game — Tiger Woods, for example — have missed Bellerive because of injuries.

“I guess you could say we’re a little snake bit,” said longtime member Jay Williamson, who played 16 seasons on the PGA Tour and now works in wealth management. “It’s just part of the deal.”

Or, as one local walking the course Monday pointed out, “We’re owed one this week.”

As if on cue, a white picket fence near the 18th green broke under the weight of fans pressing for autographs, sending several sprawling to the ground — nobody was seriously hurt. Then, a line of wicked storms rolled through Tuesday, soaking the course and wiping out many practice rounds.

Tiger Woods managed five holes, which is par for the course when it comes to him and Bellerive.

Circumstances have conspired against him playing it for years.

He had come to town early in 2001 to conduct a clinic for American Express, the sponsors of the WGC event, and he was in the locker room at Bellerive when the planes hit the World Trade Center. He watched the TVs with mouth agape until he couldn’t stomach it anymore, finally heading to the course. He played nine holes of a practice round with Mark Calcavecchia while Woods’s head of security, Joe Corless, provided them with a constant stream of updates.

“That was a very surreal time, at least for me anyway,” Woods recalled. “They made the right move in cancelling the event. That was on the 11th, and I drove home on the 13th, 17 hours to get back to my home in Florida. It was a very surreal time for myself on that drive, a lot of reflecting.”

Davis Love III never even made it to St. Louis.

“My flight got grounded,” he said this week. “I did a lot of work for American Express, and the vice chairman and I were good friends — still good friends — and I immediately called to check on him and his employee friends that I knew in the city, and he said, ‘We will not be playing golf.’

“I lot of guys came on out here,” Love said, “but I knew that there was bigger things than golf.”

Many fans that bought tickets that week waited patiently for another chance to see Woods, and they though it would happen at the BMW Championship in 2008. But two days after beating Rocco Mediate in a playoff at the U.S. Open, Woods announced he would be having season-ending knee surgery.

What did show up that week? Remnants of Hurricane Gustav, which churned up the Mississippi River and delivered heavy rains. The first round was postponed and parking areas washed out, and only thanks to an army of groundskeepers and volunteers was the course playable that weekend.

Lousy weather also accompanied the U.S. Senior Open in 2004, turning parking lots into mud puddles and dousing part of the second round. Rain fell again in 2013 for the Senior PGA Championship, when the hugely popular Fred Couples withdrew early in the week and Kohki Idoki beat Kenny Perry and local hero Jay Haas to provide Bellerive with a relatively unknown winner.

Given all that misfortune, it wouldn’t have been surprising if PGA Championship chairman Mike DeCola had heart palpitations when dark clouds swept in Tuesday morning. The sound of sirens on the course were more plentiful than the sound of drivers hitting balls, and massive crowds that braved withering heat for Monday’s practice rounds were replaced by soggy fans seeking shelter.

When the rain stopped late in the morning, temperatures had dropped but the humidity had soared.

“To have a great major you need a little bit of luck, whether that’s weather or traffic,” Pete Bevacqua, the PGA of America’s chief executive, acknowledged on the eve of the championship. “You need to have everything come together perfectly.”

There are signs that might happen this week.

The forecast calls for dry weather, though temps are expected in the 90s again. The PGA’s chief championships officer, Kerry Haigh, thinks the course is in remarkable shape given the summer heat, and that changes made by architect Rees Jones will produce a more interesting challenge.

Woods is in the field. So is Love, who will be playing in his 100th major championship. In fact, 98 of the top 100 players in the world rankings are at Bellerive this week. Justin Thomas is back to defend his title, Jordan Spieth is trying to complete his career Grand Slam, and fan favorites such as Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy should provide plenty of roars around the course.

Perhaps all those bits of adversity and disappointment will have been worth the wait by Sunday.