2002: Hazeltine: Finesse over length
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Not so fast.
Hazeltine National Golf Club is long at 7,360 yards, but that doesn’t mean the 84th PGA Championship Aug. 15-18 virtually will eliminate the chances of medium-length hitters as the year’s first two majors, the Masters and U.S. Open, did. There’s plenty of evidence and testimony that shotmakers will compete against sluggers at the converted Minnesota farm.
“I don’t think you have to be a long hitter,” said defending PGA champion David Toms, whose driving distance of 279.2 yards ranks him in the middle on the PGA Tour at tied for 95th. “Obviously, it always pays off in any tournament – if you can be long and straight, you are going to have an advantage. But this golf course here, it’s got variety. I was shocked. I had heard how long it was going to be and everything.”
Toms, PGA winner last year at the Atlanta Athletic Club, made the observations after shooting 3-under-par 69 at Hazeltine on media day July 1. He went on to say, “I think I can play this golf course great.”
That wasn’t Toms’ mindset at those bomber palaces, Augusta National and Bethpage Black, for the 2002 Masters and U.S. Open. He joined other average-length hitters in saying they felt at a distinct disadvantage at those two courses.
They were eager to play on a shorter layout such as Muirfield, site of the British Open.
“Absolutely. The first two were not made for me at all,” said Toms, ranked sixth in the world and in the Golfweek/Sagarin Performance Index as of Aug. 1. “Even though I’ve played well at Augusta before, every year I’ve gone back there, they’ve done something to the golf course to play away from my hands, I guess you could say. And the U.S. Open, when it got soft, it definitely wasn’t for me.”
That Toms says Hazeltine suits him should hearten professionals not known as bashers. That nonsluggers Payne Stewart and Scott Simpson advanced to a playoffthere in the 1991 U.S. Open sends them a happy message as well. And consider that Luke Donald beat the likes of Charles Howell III there at the 1999 NCAA Division I Men’s Championship despite being outdriven by 40 to 50 yards.
More good news for the common man is that two par 5s, the 636-yard third and 597-yard 11th, are unreachable for even the longest hitters unless there’s favorable wind. And the 586-yard 15th won’t be easy to hit in two shots either. (Toms used a 5-wood downwind for his approach.) Three-shot par 5s are equalizers that negate the length of players like Tiger Woods. This won’t be like Augusta, where long hitters can hit the back-nine par 5s with a middle or even short iron.
“Because of its length, Hazeltine has a reputation of being a brute and a heavyweight, but a lot of the yardage is on the par 5s,” said Mike Schultz, Hazeltine’s head professional. “I wouldn’t call it a long hitter’s golf course. It’s more like Muhammad Ali, finesse and stuff. It’s not a big bomber like Joe Frazier.”
Hazeltine is something of a happy medium between the first two long-ball majors and the British, where the premium was on accuracy rather than length. Power will help, but not as much as at Augusta and Bethpage. And, despite thick rough of 4 to 5 inches, players will use more drivers than they did at Muirfield. Woods will hit more than three drivers, as he did the first round of the British. Ernie Els will be less likely to tee off with an iron on a 449-yard par 4, as he did three times on 18 the final day at Muirfield.
In his preview round, Toms used short irons on 12 approach shots at Hazeltine. He used driver 12 times on the 14 non-par-3 holes. He said he’ll hit fewer during the PGA, for he just wanted to see where driver ended up on a few holes. Schultz says most contestants will hit 6 to 10 drivers a day.
“It has some long holes, but still some variety,” Toms said. “You have some scoring opportunities if you are able to keep it in play. The guys that are always up there, I am sure they will be contending. But you might see some surprises also. I think on this golf course, anybody will have the opportunity to win here as long as they are playing well.”
Hazeltine will put a premium on driving onto the fairway and placing approaches on the right sides of the undulating greens. The winning score likely will be in the range of 6 to 12 under par. And it may be posted by someone other than Woods, Els, Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to be a real big hitter to play well there,” said former PGA champion Lanny Wadkins, who played Hazeltine July 1 as part of his job as CBS golf analyst. “If I had any advice to give to the players coming in, I’d get in here and play it early and play it often. The more you can play this golf course, the more you can learn the subtleties of the greens and the surroundings and just get a feel because a lot of greens are kind of up and go away. You need to really get a feel for what exactly is there.”
This PGA, of course, arrives is in the midst of a Grand Slam letdown. Rain, wind, poor shots and Els derailed Woods’ quest for a same-season Slam at Muirfield. It also comes in the midst of debate of how long is too long at majors.
Conventional wisdom was that only 6 to 10 players had a chance to win the Masters on a course lengthened almost 300 yards. To hear the pros, the list of potential winners was even smaller at Bethpage. Woods won both events, and fellow crushers Mickelson and Garcia were in the mix at both.
The British was completely different, for 36 players were bunched within six strokes at the top. The long hay, firm and narrow fairways, cross bunkers and doglegs took the driver out of many players’ hands. That isn’t golf as we once knew it, but dozens of players had a chance.
Which is better? Tournaments like the Masters, where six of the top seven in the world ranking (all long hitters) sat on top of the leaderboard entering the final round, and the Open at Bethpage, which produced some Woods-Mickelson-Garcia drama? Or the British Open, where the four-man playoff featured only one player in the top 60 in the world?
One can argue that both are good, that Grand Slam events should test players at all kinds of venues. Tennis provides a model. To win that sport’s Slam, one must win on grass, clay and hardcourt.
One can argue, too, that the PGA at Hazeltine will offer the proper balance.