KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – The yardage on the Kiawah Island Ocean Course scorecard is an eyeful. It reads 7,676 yards. That amounts to the longest track in major-championship history. That means even a bomber like Tiger Woods calls the place a “big ballpark.”
Seventy-six seventy-six. Patriotically, it sounds like something out of our bicentennial celebration. Melodiously, it reminds of the wonderful tune involving trombones in “The Music Man.” As for golf, it sounds long and hard.
It makes one think that perhaps a contestant should grip and rip, or at least grunt at impact, or get in some resistance training before heading to the first tee, all the while risking the sprain of a rib muscle. After all, seven par 4s measure at least 444 yards, three of which are 480-plus. And the shortest of the two par 3s on the back nine is 223 yards, which, of course, is a career 3-wood for most recreational types.
Yet to hear various elite entrants in this 94th PGA Championship, finesse rather than brute strength figures to be the deciding factor.
“This is a golf course where it’s going to test our short games a lot,” said Woods, still in pursuit of his 15th major title more than four years after securing No. 14. “The guy who can chip and putt really well this week is going to have a great chance.”
In other words, can you say, say, Luke Donald? The soft-spoken Englishman not only ranks No. 1 in the world and hungers for a major breakthrough, but he has perhaps golf’s best short game. He ranks 12th in scrambling this year on the PGA Tour, and was no worse than eighth in three of the past four seasons.
The fact a premium is placed on the short game here hardly is lost on Donald. The vast majority of Pete Dye’s greens are raised, meaning the ball will fall off the sides if mis-hit. Because the course is long and wind tends to blow, players will miss hitting greens in regulation. On top of all that, the grass primarily is paspalum, a sticky turf which Tour players rarely face.
“Getting up and down is not easy,” Donald said Tuesday. “Around the greens, yeah, it is tricky. I think anyone who has good fundamentals that can use the bounce of their lob wedge, have some creativity, is going to fare a lot better than someone that has poor technique.”
Besides Donald, Jim Furyk (3), Phil Mickelson (8), Steve Stricker (9), Brandt Snedeker (10), Matt Kuchar (13) and Woods (14) are ranked in the top 14 in Tour scrambling. All of those have been playing well except Mickelson. Though he has had inconsistent results at times over the years, Mickelson is a four-time major winner, a magician around the greens and someone known to find form overnight.
Stricker figures to be one to watch, as well. One of the best players never to have won a major, he contended last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. And last year on Tour, he ranked second in scrambling.
Kuchar is another player whom you should expect to contend. He is a top-10 machine who knows how to get up and down. He leads the Tour in top 10s, with eight – a category he also topped two years ago. As for scrambling, the reigning Players champion was third and fifth, respectively, in scrambling in 2009-10. On top of all that, he lives in Sea Island, Ga., and is comfortable with playing conditions in this region.
The Ocean Course reminds players of Whistling Straits, another Pete Dye-designed gem that played host to the 2004 and ’10 PGA Championships. Two years ago, bombers dominated the leaderboard, what with Martin Kaymer beating Bubba Watson in a playoff and Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy coming close.
Yet count Watson among those who value recovery skills over 350-yard drives here. One reason is the scorecard length is diminished somewhat because at least three of the four par 5s are reachable in two.
“I think that it’s going to be down to the short game,” the Masters champion said. “It’s all about the short game. Putting and chipping are going to be the key around this golf course.”
In other words, gentlemen, sharpen your wedges.