The year’s first two majors were held on newly lengthened, toughened courses, and Tiger Woods won both. The British Open, by contrast, was held on a layout virtually unchanged in four decades and relatively short by modern tournament standards. Woods didn’t win (the elements did).
When the PGA Championship sets up shop Aug. 15-18 at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., the world’s finest players will face a layout that is among the longest in major history. At 7,360 yards, it is 211 yards longer than when it hosted the 1991 U.S. Open.
But length can be deceiving. Hazeltine will not play long at all. With fairways 30 yards wide, players confidently can hit driver on most par 4s and 5s. Jim Nicol, Hazeltine’s course superintendent, will deliver amazingly tight fairways, cut to 1⁄4 inch to facilitate maximum spin on approaches. The relatively large greens (average size 6,500 square feet and rolling about 11.5 on the Stimpmeter), will allow for some run-up, so that recovery on wayward tee shots should be possible. The 4-inch rough, however, will be punitive and allow only the strongest players to advance the ball to the green.
As a par-72, Hazeltine’s yardage is inflated by four bloated par 5s, averaging 590 yards. Of the yardage added in the last decade, 121 yards, or 57 percent, is found on three of the par 5s. Regardless of length, however, par 5s today are birdie heaven for modern pros. This week will be no exception. Woods will have a field day, but so will the rest of the players.
If three holes absorb the bulk of the additional yardage, the math also suggests an average of only 6 additional yards on Hazeltine’s other 15 holes. That’s nothing. Given the vastly greater distances tournament pros hit the ball than they did a decade ago, under-par scores should be readily abundant.
Forty years after this Robert Trent Jones Sr.-designed layout debuted, its saplings have matured, its doglegs have been straightened, and its parkland elegance has earned it elite status – No. 35 on Golfweek’s America’s Best list of top-modern layouts. Credit for this evolution goes to Jones, who acknowledged that the course wasn’t really ready when it hosted the 1970 U.S. Open, or for that matter, the 1977 U.S. Women’s Open. It fared better for the 1983 U.S. Senior Open. After son Rees Jones stepped in to shepherd Hazeltine’s subsequent revisions, it has been more favorably received. Players admired it at the 1991 Open, and the course is slated for the 2009 PGA and the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Hazeltine demands solid shotmaking, which should make for a wide-open tournament. If contenders are bunched, as is likely, over the weekend, three holes will prove crucial:
• No. 7, 542-yard par 5: Much of the field will be able to reach this green in two, but only if a long, left-to-right drive is followed by a high draw into the green that avoids the pond fronting the putting surface. It should produce high drama early in the round.
• No. 10, 410-yard par 4: Many will tee off with a long iron or fairway metal on this bold downhill dogleg left. The hole kicks left, so coming up short on the inside or long on the outside makes for a dicey second shot into a green that kicks toward Lake Hazeltine.
• No. 16, 402-yard par 4: Interesting how many so-called “signature holes” are in fact the least characteristic on a course. This one was created by Rees Jones and is the most striking departure from the original design. A layup is mandatory off the tee to a narrow fairway pinched by a stream left and heavy woods and water on the right. A narrow, snaky peninsula green juts into Lake Hazeltine. The hole offers more slope, more trouble and more anxiety than any other at this otherwise gracious layout.