PGA Championship: Michael Block trying to go where no club pro has gone before

Club pro Michael Block is within striking distance of the leaders at the 2023 PGA Championship.

Michael Block reacts after his second round at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Michael Block reacts after his second round at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Friday, May 19, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The head golf pro at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club begins a typical work day at the lesson tee around 8 a.m. Michael Block instructs students until nightfall, breaking only to return to the golf shop to answer phone calls and emails or maybe to sneak in a few holes with his sons.

Any aspiring golfers who hoped to take lessons from Block this weekend will have to wait a few more days. The 46-year-old teaching pro from Mission Viejo, Calif., will be at the PGA Championship trying to turn an unlikely success story into an unfathomable one.

Block has carded back-to-back even-par 70s at Oak Hill. With the course not giving much of anything away this week — only nine of 156 players are under par — Block will start Round 3 just five back of the leaders and with a late Saturday tee time.

“I feel like I've got the game this week to compete, to tell you the truth,” Block told reporters on Friday. “I've made the cut, which is obviously a huge goal. I feel like I could shoot even par out here every day. I feel like at the end of the four days that that might be a pretty good result.”

Just by cracking the top 40 on the PGA Championship leaderboard after 36 holes, Block has already made history. Only four other PGA professionals have previously achieved that, according to the PGA, and none have finished the first two rounds ranked higher than a tie for 13th place.

Block can etch his name in the record books again on Sunday if he can somehow stay near the top of the leaderboard. The highest a PGA professional has ever finished at the PGA Championship is a tie for 11th by Tommy Aycock in 1974 and Lonnie Nielsen in 1986.

Whatever happens, Block will return home a legend to his friends and co-workers at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club. Fellow teaching professional Bob Lasken told Yahoo Sports on Friday that his phone hasn’t stopped buzzing since Block teed off earlier that morning.

“His students are all texting me that we need a party at the club on Monday,” Lasken said. “It’s crazy. Everyone’s going nuts. The ball boys. The maintenance staff. Management. All the members. It’s really exciting for everyone.”

Before Block reached the first page of the leaderboard at Oak Hill on Friday morning, he might have described earning a spot in the 2007 U.S. Open as his finest moment on a golf course. Block had to sink a clutch birdie putt on the first playoff hole to secure the last of four qualifying spots.

“If you make this, we're in the Open,” Block’s caddie whispered to him as he stood over the putt.

“Why not?” Block responded aloud before draining the 22-footer.

Since then, Block has played with personalized golf balls embossed with the two-word motto “WHY NOT?” For Block, the words are a reminder to swing confidently and dream big each time he gets the chance to play a tournament alongside golf’s biggest stars.

Block admits he hasn’t always successfully embodied that mindset in previous appearances on the PGA Tour. While he has performed well against fellow club pros for years, he has made the cut just four times in 24 PGA events since 2007 and hasn’t always felt like he belonged.

That nagging self doubt began to melt away for Block when he started playing more rounds with good friends and PGA standouts Patrick Cantlay and Beau Hossler. Block holds his own often enough that he complains with a grin that Hossler sometimes won’t give him even a one-stroke handicap when they play.

“I understand how my game doesn't quite get up to them, but I'm pretty darn close,” Block said. “I can compete with them.”

Some encouraging performances in recent PGA events have also boosted Block’s confidence. At last year’s PGA Championship, Block played the second round in a group just in front of the one featuring Tiger Woods. He shot a 73 in front of crowds “10 deep on every hole.”

When he returned home, Block recalls Arroyo Trabuco general manager Matthew Donovan telling him, “That was you not being a club pro anymore.”

“So it was a big moment for me,” Block added. “I've kind of lived off that ever since.”

Block backed up that performance last May with solid showings at two more PGA events this past January. He shot a first-round 65 at the American Express Golf Tournament and then outperformed both pros he played with at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Even so, Block entered his fifth career PGA Championship on Thursday with modest goals. He wanted to make the cut for the first time and to be honored on the 18th green on Sunday as the lowest-scoring club professional.

Those goals became foregone conclusions when Block followed up an opening-round 70 on Thursday with a strong start on Friday morning. Starting on the back nine, he rolled in an eight-foot birdie at the 10th and fired his approach to tap-in range at the 12th. By the time he converted from 12 feet at the 14th, he was 3-under for the tournament, one shot behind overnight leader Bryson DeChambeau.

Block didn’t encounter any real adversity until he followed up a bogey on the par-5 4th by badly shanking his tee shot on the next hole. The ball might have careened out of bounds had it not hit a tree and settled in the deep rough.

Block salvaged a double bogey out of the 5th hole. Then he tweaked his swing by moving his hands tighter to his body and carded pars on each of his final four holes.

“I figured out pretty quick where I was going wrong,” Block said. “Club pros, I always heard, figure it out within a couple shots. Tour pros figure it out within one shot. I was lucky enough to figure it out within one shot this time.”

When Block looked ahead toward the weekend, he admitted that being paired with someone like Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm would “be kind of huge for me.” Then a reporter pointed out that he was six strokes ahead of Rahm at the time, and tears began to well up in Block’s eyes.

“Pretty cool, to say the least,” Block said. “I don't know why that makes me emotional, but it does. Sorry, Jon.”

It’s nearly as emotional for those at Arroyo Trabuco who have known Block for years. They’re looking forward to throwing a watch party over the weekend as Block tries to extend his stay on the leaderboard.

Can the head pro at a Southern California golf club actually win the PGA Championship? “Why not?” Lasken says with a chuckle.

“That’s the attitude he’s always tried to have,” Lasken said, “but he really has that now. He has really embraced that mindset more than ever.”