The PGA Championship rarely captures the imagination but this year we have something very different at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island..
1 It’s more like the other majors
Coming into this week most people’s memory of Kiawah Island was Bernhard Langer’s missed putt at the Ryder Cup 30 years ago or Rory blowing everyone away in 2012. Now we have a course that has really captured the imagination of everyone. The PGA Championship is the poor relation of the four majors by some distance, if they were able to visit the likes of Kiawah more regularly then we’d all be a lot more on board.
“This is my cup of tea. I feel like this kind of is a little bit out of the norm for a PGA Championship. It's closer maybe to an Open Championship or maybe a US Open. I think hitting fairways, hitting a lot of greens is going to go a long way and putting yourself in a position to make a lot of pars and occasionally get a birdie,” explained the 2013 champion.
2 You’re not going to overpower it
Bryson DeChambeau’s US Open victory at Winged Foot was something else but, while his short game and putting was off the charts, it was his length that got all the headlines. That just won’t work around Kiawah and, while the sight of big Bryson clearing the water at Bay Hill was one of the sights of the year, most of us want a lot more from a major.
Here we have waste and native areas and plugged lies and penalty areas and knee-high drops. And wind which, generally speaking, will be the making of our Open every year. Here there’s no prevailing wind and they switch around. Better still the fairways are perched so they’re not too protected by the dunes.
“The wind just kicked my butt. Just grinding out there, it takes a lot out of you. Working really, really hard to hit every shot the exact way I want to, and then it doesn't happen, and you've got to be comfortable with it and going, OK, how do I get up and down? You're over a 4-footer. Wind is blowing really hard, and you think it's going to break. When the wind stops, it's not going to break. It's all just a really difficult thing that you've got to control out there. It's a lot of work,” said DeChambeau.
This is what we want from a major.
3 The greens are perfect
We all love lightning greens and the occasional ball rolling off the other side when a putt’s been hit slightly too strongly but it’s not really what we’re after. Putting’s a great skill and we want to see the best in the world show off their best bits. The common refrain is that these greens are the best they’ve ever seen due to the seaside paspalum nature of them. They don’t leave a pitchmark and they’re as smooth as silk. And, because we’re by the coast, they’ve left enough grass on them so they’re not silly. Good chips, from the collection of hollows around the greens are rewarded and we’re seeing a lot of putts holed. But there's still that wind and the players are repeatedly talking about having to grind even on the two-footers.
4 Who doesn't love a rollercoaster 17th?
We all love something special in the form of a unique par 3 late in the round; think Augusta’s 16th and the famous island hole at Sawgrass. On the card it says 223 yards but that barely touches the edges of what lies ahead. All of it is played over water and everyone who’s played here will have seen Mark Calcavecchia go to pieces in the Ryder Cup singles. That might have been 30 years ago but we all know what happened – he would end up hyper-ventilating and needing medical attention after what happened against Colin Montgomerie.
Like the 17th at Sawgrass the idea lay with Pete Dye’s wife, Alice.
“There wasn’t going to be a lake but Alice felt we needed a dramatic element at this point,” Dye wrote. “Since players of Ryder Cup calibre can handle bunker shots with ease, to make a realistic challenge, we dug an eight-acre lake that stretches from the tee to the offset green, which runs away from the player diagonally to the right.”
In 2012 the field averaged 3.30 with 28 double bogeys or worse – it ranked in the top-10 most difficult par-3s on the PGA Tour.
At the start of the week Xander Schauffele hit one tee shot into the water and another to two feet, both with a 2-iron.
“I think that kind of sums up the hole in all honesty. When you’re hitting a long iron into wind and it’s struck properly, it should hold its line and its flight. If you don’t, it’s going to go way offline and not hold its flight. You’ve really got to muster up some courage coming down the stretch.”
5 We have a closing stretch of major merit
“If I was designing a championship golf course, I would have a real stern test at the end because you want a true winner, and a true winner is going to have to hit the shots at the end and really take them on. You can’t have a soft finish in any shape or form. Nobody would have won this tournament until they’re through the 71st hole, that’s for sure.”
In practice Jon Rahm got a proper insight into how the last five holes can play.
“From 14 on I think the shortest iron I hit into a green was a 5-iron. I'm not usually the shortest hitter. I was playing with Zach Johnson and I think he pulled a head cover on every single hole except the par-5, 16th, coming into the green. For the sake of our sanity, I believe they're going to use a couple forward tees.”
On Sunday night someone is going to come through the tough closing stretch more unscathed than his peers. At the 18th there is a hospitality row where players can aim, away from the wasteland and sand, but you’re still going to have to get out the big artillery to get home. In the practice round Tyrrell Hatton hit driver/3-wood and still couldn’t reach.
And we have Phil Mickelson threatening at 50 to become the game's oldest ever major champion. It would be a win for both the ages and a sensational course but, whatever happens, we'll look back on the 2021 PGA Championship as being something very special and a huge highlight of the major calendar.