Golf: St Louis spirit breaks mould: The staging of this year's US PGA has been an unqualified success, reports John Hopkins

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The Independent Online
IN PROSPECT, the US PGA Championship, which ends this afternoon in St Louis, was going to be just another US PGA: very much the fourth and final major championship of the year. If it is August, it must be the PGA, yawn, yawn - that sort of thing. In practice it was anything but. The 1992 US PGA was the US PGA Championship that wasn't, the one that broke the mould.

There are many reasons why the 74th championship bore little resemblance to its predecessors, the chief being its staging on a course that can hold its own in any company. Bellerive Country Club is not only good enough to stage a US Open, it has staged a US Open. Gary Player won here in 1965.

The course - 22 miles from the arch in St Louis that serves as the abiding landmark in this friendly, welcoming city - looks as if it was built by one of the master golf course designers of the early 20th century. It is not - it opened as recently as 1960 - and that is a tribute to the craftsmanship of Robert Trent Jones, whose creation it is.

At 7,100 yards, it is lengthy and testing, requiring a number of long-iron second shots. It has the exotically named zoysia grass - a strain that is not uncommon in the Mid-west - on the fairways and on the 17th hole, a par five that is worth gambling on reaching in two. Bellerive also has the big, buxom greens normally associated with a US Open course such as Winged Foot in New York. In short, it is nobody's pussycat.

It is a welcome surprise to find this championship being staged on such a course. Twice in the past six years, US PGA officials have chosen inadequate stages on which to ask the best players in the world to perform.

This year, the PGA is in St Louis because this part of the Mississippi valley is a golf-mad section of the country that has not had a major golf event since 1965. The result has been crowds of US Open proportions - 35,000-plus each day - as many in one day as previous PGA championships have attracted in four. All tickets were sold out four months in advance. All attendance records have been broken.

It is not the fault of the US PGA organisers that they have drawn the short straw of August as the month in which to stage their championship. At this time of the year there are precious few parts of the US that are not simmering beneath sweltering skies and heavy humidity. A temperature of 90F and humidity approaching the same figure, the pair punctuated by frighteningly fierce storms, are as much a part of this PGA as white golf shoes and white visors.

It was not like this in St Louis. To everyone's surprise - because the previous week it had been over 100F every day - a cold front blew in on Tuesday, the temperature plummeted to a comfortable 75F and the humidity was so low as to be unnoticeable. 'Just like home, in fact,' Nick Faldo said. 'A nice summer's day.' Not only did this make life more bearable for those players unaccustomed to the oven-like conditions, it also meant that the greens were stodgy because they were not grilled every day by the fierce sun. They were the slowest of a major championship in recent memory.

Years ago this championship attracted barely a handful of overseas entrants. This year the number of foreign-born entrants rose to one fifth of the field, which is perhaps appropriate for an event held on a course named after a Frenchman, Captain Louis Ange de Bellerive, the last French commander in North America and the first governor of St Louis. Three South Africans, seven Australians, three Japanese, a baker's dozen from Europe - in all, 29 foreigners.

For men like Ernie Els, of South Africa, who played so well in the Open last month, and David Gilford, the quietly spoken and increasingly impressive Englishman, coming over to the US is all part of the learning process, even if it has cost Gilford nearly pounds 5,000 to do so this year alone. 'It's a different sort of game over here,' he said. 'It's very penalising. When you come over from Europe you have to admire people like Nick Faldo for what they have achieved over here.'

Meet me in St Louis, the saying goes. It used to have a hollow ring to it. It does not any more. Not after the events of this past week. There are a good many golfers who will happily meet you in St Louis - any time.

(Photograph omitted)

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