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THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Lots of learning by Grove during an ‘awesome’ week at the PGA

| May 25, 2023 1:30 AM

The perfect greens.

The brutal rough.

Hitting balls next to Rory on the driving range.

The free car.

The cheers from the gallery after a well-executed shot.

The frost that delayed his debut at this level nearly two hours — a delay which made for a quick turnaround from Day 1 to Day 2, and an even quicker turnaround from the first round to the second round.

The family and friends who were able to join him in upstate New York for the biggest tournament — so far — of his life.

And the ones who supported him back home, from some 2,500 miles away.

In the end, the scorecard read 79-79—158 and a missed cut in a major championship, but that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.

North Idaho College men’s and women’s golf coach Russell Grove gave it his best shot last week in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Pittsford, N.Y. He heard the cheers, took his lumps, watched the best players in the world, saw areas where he was just as good as they were, saw other areas where he needed to improve.

“It’s been an awesome week,” Grove said by telephone last week from the home he was staying at near Oak Hill, arranged by a friend who knew a friend who knew a friend …

“I’ve had so much fun. It’s just been an awesome experience.”

GROVE, 37, said he learned many things from his week at Oak Hill. He noticed he could hit it as far, if not farther than most of the players — he was sixth in driving distance in the first round with an average of 335.3 yards off the tee. Some guy named DeChambeau led the way at 347.

The difference?

“What impressed me the most was everybody’s short game; just the up-and-downs that they make, to save par,” said Grove, who played at Coeur d'Alene High and the University of Idaho. “Playing with Patrick Rodgers (of the U.S., who finished T29), his speed control on the greens, he never had to work on his second putt, ever. It was just nestled up … perfect speed.”

Grove said his short game's “obviously where I know I need to work now. And some of the shots they hit out of the rough — I’ve never seen rough like that. I wasn’t sure how to play out of it, honestly. So that didn’t help.”

As for the two 9-over-par rounds …

“I wish I could have them back, honestly,” Grove said. “How I went into it was, it was a test, and I’d probably give myself a D-minus on how I performed and executed. Not only some of the shots I wish I had back, but like, even some shots we thought were the correct shot that were not the correct shot and left me in a bad spot.”

(Of course, most of us would give him an A-plus just for qualifying for a major. What did you do last week?)

“And I’ve never made so many double bogeys in my life,” added Grove, who made three in each of the two rounds. “And I would make a bet that in all the events the rest of the year I play, I will not make that many double bogeys. Because I rarely make a double bogey. It was the kind of course where, if you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it, badly.”

GROVE SAID he was “cruising” through the first eight holes on Thursday, with just one mistake, a three-putt bogey on No. 2, and was 1-over after 8.

On 9, a 481-yard par-4 dogleg right up the hill, Grove hit his tee shot a bit to the right, but thought he was OK.

However …

“I guess what happened was it hit this tree branch and kicked like 70 to 100 yards dead right and onto a road, and then over the road,” Grove said. “Ended up taking double there, which kinda derailed me, because I felt like I was just cruising, I felt comfortable, confident, and then as I was walking up there, we had to clear a whole crowd to find it. It definitely rattled me.”

(Well, for one thing, playing in tournaments around here, there wouldn’t have been a crowd to clear to find a wayward tee shot.)

“I would say the rough was what really cost me, not knowing how to correctly play out of it, and not knowing how to judge how it was going to come out of the rough,” Grove said. “That was where I wish I could practice more I guess. That’s the other thing; I don’t even know where I’d practice (in rough like that around here).”

Also …

“I wish I would have gotten here a few days earlier than I did (to get to scout the course better),” said Grove, who flew back to New York the Saturday before the tournament. “There’s a few shots. … I made a double where I actually hit my target, and we were just left to a horrible spot to a tough pin. … just things like that.

“Yeah, I wish I could have it back, but I know I’ll be back there again, and I’ll know … ”

Grove qualified with a top-20 finish (T-11) at the PGA Professional Championship April 30-May 3 in Santa Ana Pueblo, N.M. He had played in the PGA Professional Championship five times before this year, coming close a couple of times before one of the 20 to earn their spot in the PGA Championship.

THOSE WERE some things a player just has to experience in order to get better.

Also …

“I need to learn to be more comfortable in an unfamiliar environment,” Grove said. “I’ve never really gone into something new and excelled — high school, when I first started golf, my first tournament, played horrible. First college tournament, played horrible. First professional event, played horrible. So, as sad as it sounds, I was afraid that might happen, because it’s always taken me time to get used to the surroundings and the people … I wasn’t really nervous out there, because there was nothing to be scared of.”

However …

“I fought over every shot. I never gave up, and fought to the very end. But yeah, it was a tough couple days, and definitely didn’t get the bounces and the breaks,” Grove said. “It was frustrating; I’d hit one in the rough and we’d walk up and … you knew if you could see it from 10-15 feet away, you knew it was decent, but there were a few lies I had, you couldn’t see the ball until you got right over it. So I had zero chance to advance it any distance.”

HE SAID the greens were “perfect,” even for his group (he played both days with Rodgers, as well as Ben Taylor of England, who made the cut at +4 and finished T69), which had the final tee time of the first round.

Grove said some of the strokes he gave away were because of the thick rough, some from not knowing where to “miss.”

Also, he had a driver he was hitting well in the first round, “and then it started rattling, so we had to swap drivers, and I didn’t hit it great off the tee the second round. … but those are just things that happen,” Grove said.

Grove’s group played in the late starting wave on Thursday and the early wave on Friday.

Because of the frost delay, darkness halted his group after 13 holes in the first round.

By the time he left the course Thursday night. It was only a little over 8 hours until he had to be back, in order to get warmed up to play the final five holes of the first round.

And once their first round ended, his group immediately started its second round.

He started on the back side in round two. The 12th hole, a 413-yard par-4, “was just another mistake of not knowing the course well enough,” he said. “I was in the rough off the tee, just trying to get it on the green somewhere, short of the green, or in the bunker or in the rough — you just couldn’t be long of the pin. I was long of the pin, chipped it back down and it ran past the pin, into the thick rough again.”

On 2, a 410-yard par-4, he hit his approach into a bunker and short-sided himself.

“I had to get it up like 8 feet in the air, and it was on a downslope in the back,” Grove said. “I literally had nothing. I was going to chip it 5 feet so I could get it on the upslope … and that went way over the green, like 50 yards. There were just some spots where you absolutely could not be, we (Grove and his caddie, former Coeur d’Alene High teammate Taylor Pierce) just didn’t do enough getting good notes and getting to know the course, and knowing certain pins.”

WHAT WAS Grove most proud of last week?

“Probably just getting in the field, and just hanging in, and not giving up,” he said. “It’s just been a great experience to learn. I guess what I’ll take away the most is, and this may sound weird, looking at my scorecard, but I know, off the tee and with my irons, I’m just as good or not better than the guys I played with. Their short games are just miles ahead of mine at the moment. And none of them went from not playing any tour events to playing their first major, so that was not an easy step for me … but it was just a great experience to just kinda know that I can compete with them.”

Grove was joined back east last week by his girlfriend, her parents, his father Russ, his brother Sam, who played tennis at Coeur d’Alene High, and two other family friends.

“I would like to say thanks for everyone who has helped me along the way,” Russell said. “So many people have helped me in one way or another. Some might look at this week as a failure, but I don’t look at it that way at all. It was a new experience and I learned a lot, and I’ll take a lot away from it. It was fun to have family and friends here, and I know a bunch were following online.”

(For reference, others who also missed the cut at the PGA included Matt Fitzpatrick, Ricky Fowler, Billy Horschel, Gary Woodland and Jason Day.)

Russell played practice rounds with Joel Dahmen (who finished T69), JT Poston (T40) and Denny McCarthy (T29), and played a few holes with Russell Henley (missed cut).

“Everybody I played with hits a fade with their driver,” he said. “Some more than others, but everybody primarily works their tee shot left to right. I was primarily more straight (off the tee), so I will definitely try it.”

With the current equipment, most players are plenty long, even if a slight fade costs them a few yards that they would get hitting a hook. On those courses, keeping the ball in the fairway is critical, and “when it’s firm, you have to keep the roll under control, and that’s where a fade comes in.

“And on the range, literally everyone hits a fade. Not one person hit a draw, that I saw.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

A return trip to the PGA next year, at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. (where Tiger beat Bob May to win the PGA in a playoff in 2000), is one goal.

By qualifying for the PGA this year, Grove earned a pass through local qualifying for this year’s U.S. Open, and a berth in a 36-hole sectional qualifier on June 5; he hasn’t learned yet which course he has been “assigned” to. He had played in a couple local qualifiers, and has been on the alternate list at a sectional.

This year’s open is June 15-18 at the Los Angeles Country Club.

“I’d love to play in a U.S. Open,” Grove said. “And after seeing this week, I feel like I can get there. The hard part is qualifying … you’re trying to beat so many people, and you have to play well at the right time. Even watching Rory (McIlroy), I might have thought it was this thing that wasn’t attainable — I didn’t see that at all. That was good for me to walk away feeling that.”

After the sectional, he’s scheduled to play in the Oregon Open in mid-June — unless, of course, he earns a trip to SoCal.

After that …

Grove said with the merging of PGA Tour Canada (formerly the McKenzie Tour) and PGA Tour Latinoamerica — both tours played on by Derek Bayley of Rathdrum in recent years — the increased prize money potentially available could encourage him to give that tour a shot. Both those tours provide a pathway to the PGA Tour.

“I’ll never stop competing, or trying to improve. It’s a never-ending process,” Grove said. “So I didn’t really start competing until I was 14-ish … (and) you look at all these guys — Jordan Spieth, JT, Rory, they were all competing at high-level tournaments at 8 and 10 years old. That’s where the majority of your learning habits develop, in those years.

“I’m trying to catch up on all the things I missed out on, starting late … just slowly learning everything as I go. This is the longest I’ve been, this is the best my game has been, and I know way more now. It’s just a matter of staying healthy.”

But first, as he spoke Saturday evening, he had work to do with his “other” job.

Following this interview was a Zoom call with his NIC team, which was preparing for the Northwest Athletic Conference championships in Yakima, Wash. He would miss the first round Sunday, flying back to Seattle and driving to Yakima. He was there on Monday when the Cardinal men won their fifth straight conference title, and the women nearly won their first since 2017.

“It’s just a journey for me,” Grove said. “This wasn’t the beginning, or the end, it’s all a process, and it’s all part of the journey, really. And I learned a lot, and it was definitely a great experience, and I know what to expect now, I know what I need to work on in my game … it’s been an awesome, awesome week.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 208-664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter @CdAPressSports.

photo

SCOTT TAETSCH/PGA of America North Idaho College men's and women's golf coach and Coeur d'Alene High alum Russell Grove hands his putter to his caddie, former Viking teammate Taylor Pierce, during the second round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Friday in Pittsford, N.Y.

photo

SCOTT TAETSCH/PGA of America North Idaho men's and women's golf coach and Coeur d'Alene High alum Russell Grove hits his tee shot on the 10th hole during the second round of the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Friday in Pittsford, N.Y.