SHEBOYGAN, Wisc. – Before he tried to move forward, Ernie Els figured it was best to try and hang on. That’s the level of respect he extends to the closing stretch of holes at Whistling Straits.
“Four really tough holes,” Els said Nos. 15-18, which encompass more real estate than some shopping malls. Playing at 527 yards (15th), 570 (16th), 210 (17th), and 494 (18th), the holes don’t provide any measure of relief, but it could be argued that they are even more frightening when you start your day playing them as the finish to the previous day’s round.
That was the reality facing Els and a healthy list of other players, thanks to frustrating fog that has wreaked havoc on the 92nd PGA Championship. The thick, soupy stuff delayed thestart of Thursday’s first round by more than three hours and there was a delay of at least that long for Friday’s second round.
Els was called to a halt early Thursday evening, having driven into the fairway at the 15th.
“Nice shot to have to start your day,” Els said with great sarcasm. That’s because he had to roast a 5-wood just to reach the green. The fact that he pulled it off to make par, then brought it home without dropping a shot gave the big man something to smile about – tired that he already was. His first round, after all, had started Thursday afternoon and ended late Friday morning, after which Els knew he had about 30 minutes to eat before he’d start his second round.
Still, Els at least survived that dastardly 14-18 stretch, which is something others could not say.
Darren Clarke, most notably.
Resuming his round at 3 under, but standing over a long putt for par at 14, the big man from Northern Ireland bogeyed that hole, then went bogey, bogey, double-bogey to shoot 74. The lowlight certainly was the pulled 4 iron left of the 17th green. Kicking into the side of the hill, the ball wound up in one of Whisting Straits four million bunkers. That was bad enough; even worse is the fact the bunker wasn’t raked.
Given reason to steam, Clarke instead embraced perspective.
“There are so many (bunkers) out here, they’re going to miss one. That’s fine. I shouldn’t have been down there, Clarke said.
He barely got the ball out of the bunker, put his third on, then two-putted for double-bogey. Asked how deep the footprint was, Clarke held two fingers a few inches apart, but then shook his head at the stuff being thrown at him.
“I’d like to find an excuse, but I can’t,” Clarke said. “Good shots go on the green, not down there.”
True enough, but it certainly falls under the heading of “rub of the green,” because whereas Clarke drew an unfortunate break, Els concedes he got lucky at 17. Also missing left of the green, his ball stayed in the grass.
“There’s kind of a walkway if you go down there for the players,” Els said. “I kind of got fortunate there.”
His deft pitch to 3 feet saved par and allowed Els to record one of three bogey-free rounds.
It was a different story for Rory McIlroy and also for Steve Stricker.
Having closed his work at 1 under Thursday, McIlroy pushed even deeper into red numbers with a birdie at 14, but he made double-bogey at the 15th before a birdie at 17 allowed him to shoot 71.
Stricker was bogey-free on his opening round until he resumed in the morning and promptly hit a bad second shot at the 15th. It led to a double-bogey, though the local favorite was able to get one back with a birdie at 16 to shoot 72.
Phil Mickelson was another who stumbled over those demanding closing holes. At 1 under when he resumed play, the lefthander bogeyed both 14 and 16 to settle for a 73.
Disappointing, for sure, but there wasn’t much time to dwell on it. That’s because Mickelson had just enough time to grab a quick bite and roll a few putts before he headed out for the second round.
Oh, and the good news: He was going to start from the 10th tee, so he’ get 15, 16, 17, and 18 in short order.