ROCHESTER, N.Y. — It was nearing noon on Friday when Val Block, walking down the eighth fairway at Oak Hill Country Club during the second round of the 2023 PGA Championship, pointed to her husband and tried to explain something.
“This,” she said, “was never the goal.”
Val spoke with certainty. She’s been married to Michael Block for 20 years. The two met at a birthday party in Laguna Beach, Calif., when Michael, from Iowa, was caught off guard by Val, from Argentina. The accent hooked him. They went dancing that night. Two decades and two children later, they’re still at it.
Michael, now 46, was in his mid-20s when he met Val. She remembers him being, even then, at peace with his reality. A reality that so many others have so much difficulty accepting.
That he was never going to be a PGA Tour golfer.
“People told him it wasn’t realistic and he believed it,” Val said. “So he never chased it.”
It all felt difficult to believe because, while happily living as a dutiful club pro for his entire adult life, Michael never stopped playing competitively, and as Val spoke, the man was walking down the fairway only 30 minutes removed from being one shot out of the lead of the 2023 PGA Championship.
This was what the world saw: Block, 3-under through 12 holes, one shot behind Scottie Scheffler, the No. 2-ranked golfer on earth. At the end of the day he was at even-par, tied for 10th with a group that included Rory McIlroy.
Pure. 👌 Michael Block is absolutely on fire this morning. #CorebridgexPGA | @scpga pic.twitter.com/o0UXSrGBrp
— PGA of America (@PGA) May 19, 2023
Golf is, as you know, a cruel game, and in no ways is it more unsparing than in the harsh fact that at times the gap between those who are great, like Scheffler, and those who are simply really, really, really good, like Block, can seem both impossibly narrow and impossibly wide.
Could Block have been one of these tour pros if he had gone all-in on it as a younger man?
There’s no answer to that. There’s only what’s here. For Block, this whole week began as a chance to cap a playing career that he kept both hands on, oftentimes pushing it down. After playing Division II golf at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, he enrolled in the San Diego Golf Academy and soon after took an assistant pro job at the Lakes Country Club in Palm Desert, Calif. Thing is, he was a helluva player and the club’s membership didn’t understand why he was there. After Block won the 2001 California State Open, those members held a barbecue fundraiser to collect enough cash to send him to PGA Tour Q-School. He thought the plan was absurd and went begrudgingly.
That apprehension didn’t stop Block from advancing to the second stage at TPC Craig Ranch. There, though, came the affirmation that he expected all along. Not only were the other guys better than him, but they also looked miserable. The stress. The burden of living a life dependent on the fickleness of a game played with a crooked stick. Block didn’t want to pursue tour life, a decision he still calls “a no-brainer.”
“It didn’t take me 10 years to figure that out,” Block said Friday. “It took me one year and I was happy with it.”
But he didn’t stop playing. Today, Block is a 10-time Southern California PGA Player of the Year and 2022 PGA Professional Player of the Year. This is his fifth PGA Championship and he has also played in two U.S. Opens.
Block is also coming up on 50. On one hand, when he plays back home in Orange County with local tour pros like Patrick Cantlay and Beau Hossler, he sees that he can hang with them. On the other hand, he also plays about 40 yards behind them after each drive. Block came to Oak Hill with a now-or-never feel and set two lofty goals: Play the weekend and finish as low club pro.
Early on, all went according to plan. Block shot an opening even-par 70 on Thursday. He answered bogeys with birdies and was steady throughout. The round ended in near darkness and Block ended up at Oak Hill until about 8:30 p.m. Then he and Val left, stopped for dinner, and got into bed between 11 and 11:30 p.m. The alarm hit hard at 4:30 a.m. local time — 1:30 a.m. PT — and the two were back in the car 30 minutes later.
In some ways, everything happened so fast that Block never stopped to realize what was happening.
“I noticed this morning we walked from the car to the clubhouse at the same exact pace we did yesterday,” said John Jackson, a full-time caddie at Pebble Beach who traveled with Block this week to handle his loops. “We got out to the driving range, he hit five balls and then we started swapping stories. He was totally comfortable.”
Then Block began his round, played his game, and birdied three of his first five holes. He was, like that, sitting near the top of the leaderboard as those in the Media Center began Googling: “Michael Block.”
“There were suddenly a lot of people around, basically right when we made the turn,” said Taylor Pendrith, a member of Block’s group. “Then I saw the leaderboard at No. 2 and realized he was 3-under and one back. I was like, oh, wow. But it wasn’t surprising. The guy was absolutely striping it. He was in total control.”
Block, meanwhile, never peeked at the leaderboard throughout the day.
A bogey on No. 4 didn’t feel like a big deal.
Then came a twist in the storybook. Jimmy Chitwood bricked a free throw. On one of Oak Hill’s most manageable holes, the par-3 fifth, Block opted for an 8-iron from 165 yards out and hit one of the worst shots ever seen in all 105 years of this fine event. A cold, dead, 20-handicapper’s shank. No time to even yell, “Fore right!” Block’s shot would’ve crossed over a property fence if not for a kindly tree knocking it down. The ensuing double bogey created a sense of total doom. It felt as if there was a very real chance Block might implode, somehow go from among the leaders to a total collapse, and maybe even miss the cut.
Poor Val. “I just want simple pars,” she pleaded shortly after the wreck. “Don’t even care about birdies. Just finish this.”
The only one unconcerned? Her husband. After the shank, Block walked past Pendrith, made eye contact, and chuckled. Pendrith was taken aback. “Like, hey, if you can laugh at that, good for you, man,” he said afterward, brows raised.
After a par on No. 6, Michael looked over to Val off the side of the green and gave a reassuring nod, mouthing, “We’re OK.” Val, a bundle of nerves, nodded back.
He followed with a par on No. 7.
And a par on No. 8.
And a sand-save par on No. 9.
He rolled in that final putt, extended both arms and said out loud: “Thank you.”
Michael Block not only made the cut in his seventh major appearance, but he’s also five strokes behind the leaders. (Warren Little / Getty Images)
Afterward, going through a gauntlet of interviews, Block swallowed emotions over and over. He said he planned to watch the afternoon broadcast with an IPA. His life’s motto, he said, is to always make the hole look bigger. When you’re happy, the hole is bigger. “That’s how I figured out a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a tour pro. Because I was like, I don’t want to have to make putts to pay my mortgage. I need a real job that’s going to pay me weekly. That will make the hole look bigger.”
Live on ESPN, Block was introduced as only the second club pro in the last 20 years to sit inside the top 20 of the PGA Championship after 36 holes. “Don’t make me cry,” he said. “This is the last little goal I have for my career.”
What’s unclear is the genesis of that goal. Is it to prove he was always good enough to play with the real pros? Or maybe it’s to prove that he’s the best club pro around. Or maybe it’s to represent all his fellow club pros out there.
Because, yes, don’t forget, once this week is over, Block will go back to work. He’ll clock in at Arroyo Trabuco around 8 a.m., knock out payroll or whatever stack of papers is on his desk, then give a lesson or two. The going rate — $125 for 45 minutes on the range or a nine-hole playing lesson for $500. Then Block will come in for lunch before heading back out for an afternoon lesson.
But, then, around 5 p.m., Michael and Val’s two sons, Dylan and Ethan, will arrive at the course. Block spends time working daily with both of his boys. “And it’s the best thing in the world,” he said. And something he wouldn’t be able to do if he were a tour pro.
Dylan, 18, and Ethan, 16, are both elite juniors. Dylan, actually, is playing in the U.S. Open sectionals at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles on June 5 alongside his dad. Both could qualify for the U.S. Open.
After that, according to Val, young Dylan might bypass college and head to Q-School. He’s dreaming of being a pro. His parents are telling him to chase it.
(Top photo: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)