SPRINGFIELD, N.J. – When you look at a map of Baltusrol Golf Club, the layout of the golf course resembles a barbell with the left side over-inflated on the bottom. But to the professional golfers assembled here for the last major golf championship of the year, the 98th PGA, it looks more like the plumpest, fattest, juiciest chicken wing this side of Buffalo. Players are uniformly praising the golf course setup, the conditions and the design, and to a man they think they need to go particularly low this week to take home the Wanamaker Trophy.
“No doubt – double digits under par wins,” stated 2010 U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell firmly. “Especially if we get more rain like they are predicting.”
Indeed, rain is forecast for three of the four competitive rounds, and as the Lower Course was already softened by a shower Tuesday night, fairways will be easier to hit, greens will hold and scores will plummet.
“The rain yesterday made the course soften up a bit and play easier,” agreed reigning Masters champion Danny Willett. “And they [the PGA of America] set the golf course up as it is meant to be played, and if you play well you can shoot a good score. 8-under par - I think that would be a very good golf score. From what I saw yesterday, that’s kind of how it sits.”
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It’s not just the rain, though, that makes Baltusrol highly susceptible to low scores. Wider fairways than we normally see at major championships, open routes to greens and a fistful of short holes where players can spin short irons close to flagsticks all add up to a curse where players can go out there and sling it.
“Not only is there a balance of short and long holes, but the shortest holes tend to have the flattest greens. In fact the whole course has greens that are relatively flat for an A.W. Tillinghast design. There’s where you can attack the golf course,” surmised journeyman pro Kevin Streelman. "When I hit good drives here, I have 7- or 8-iron in my hand, and when we have 7-iron or less, we can attack the course.”
Wider fairways also play a part in Baltusrol’s player-friendly setup. Even as far back as 1967, Jack Nicklaus was writing about how Baltusrol’s rough was more reasonable than at most other U.S. Opens, the wider fairways more forgiving. At Baltusrol, the pros can go out and play golf for the title instead of tiptoeing gingerly around a minefield of unexploded double bogeys. It’s been that way since Jack Nicklaus started shattering record books back in 1967, and it’s a trend that’s continued every time a major championship is played on the Lower Course. In 1967, 1980, 1993, and 2005: They all saw multiple U.S. Open records or PGA Championship records tied or broken.
“I think there are going to be some hot rounds. I think we could see a couple 6- and 7-under-par rounds,” said Phil Mickelson, fresh off his stellar performance but agonizing runner-up finish to Henrik Stenson at the Open Championship at Troon. Records were certainly tied or broken that week. Henrik and Phil’s bookend 63s tied the single-round major championship record, while Stenson’s 264 broke the all time aggregate scoring record (formerly held by David Toms at the 2001 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club) and tied the 20-under score-to-par record set by Jason Day at last year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
“The great thing about Baltusrol is how the front of the greens are always open….every hole allows you the opportunity to chase one up, so you can get to the green even if you miss a fairway,” added Mickelson. “Driver will be the key club this week; you’ve got to drive the ball straight that’s for sure. But it doesn’t have to be long.”
That plays to Phil’s strengths. Phil’s average drive at Royal Troon was around 275 yards. Stenson may have ironed Phil to death much like Bernhard Langer used to do to opponents back in the day, but Henrik also out-drove Phil by an average of 25 yards. And speaking of Stenson, he’s actually taking a page out of Mickelson’s bag and adapting his game plan to fit the golf course.
“It’s a course you definitely want to play off the fairway…so it’s going to be a lot of 3-woods and 4-woods,” Stenson explained. “It’s a course with a lot of par 4s, and some of them a bit longer. That should play to my strengths, which is mid-to-long irons. I think this is a good course for me.”
If that were true, Henrik would have a point, but the mix of short and long holes will keep the shot-makers and the grinders within striking distance of the long bombers. Sure, holes Nos. 1 and 7 are par 5s disguised as par 4s for the tournament this week, but holes Nos. 2 and 8 are both par 4s that are under 400 yards (377 and 380 respectively), and even the fourth is only 425 yards. While the back is slightly longer – the average par 4 clicks in at about 450 - the back-to-back par 5s at 17 and 18 give players a chance to close with birdies or even an eagle.
“It’s very unusual to see that,” remarked Sergio Garcia, still searching for his first major, but playing well all year long, including a win at the Byron Nelson and strong showings at the U.S. Open at Oakmont and Royal Troon for the Open. “You can close the round with two birdies like Jack Nicklaus did to win the U.S. Open in 1980. I think it will be very exciting.”
He’s got that right. Right now there’s no “Big 3,” “Big Four,” “Big Whatever.” The Real Big Three were Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, and they won 35 majors between them. If you take the three active players with the most majors – McIlroy, Phil, and Harrington or Singh, you get 12…a measly total by comparison. What they’re trying to call a “Big Something” is really just a rotating group of young guns playing well regularly – a sort of made-for-TV quick look at “Who’s hot now?” - and then, even including McIlroy and Spieth, you get a total of seven majors. Junior varsity compared to the real Big Three who dominated golf for three decades.
“Right now any one of a two dozen guys or more can win,” stated Billy Horschel in a voice louder than his slacks. Then he added his voice to those licking their chops for a chance at hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy. “Double digits under par. With shorter holes and wider fairways, you can attack these greens. It’s all right on front of you.”
“The PGA Championship setup is generally somewhere in between a U.S. Open and a regular tour stop in difficulty. They don’t mind birdies,” McDowell added. “You have to drive the ball well here, no question, and obviously don’t be over the back of these greens, but you can see exactly what the task is ahead, and it’s a classic test, a style of golf that we have familiarity with.”
Only two-time PGA Championship winner Rory McIlroy was skeptical. In his television and media center interviews he confided that he couldn’t get the Lower Course to give up birdies that easily. He felt that he could hit a lot of drivers around the course and his length gave him an advantage, but he also stated that the large greens would result in many players hitting many of them in regulation and having a fistful of flat putts.
“These greens have more contour than they think,” countered quintessential golf course architect Rees Jones, who helped restore the Lower Course. “They’ll get close to 14 on the Stimpmeter, and they have a lot more contour than Troon.”
Jones explained several times in various interviews that the high green speeds here in America – right now they are running somewhere between 13.6 and 14 – make the contours come alive so much more than back in the days of Nicklaus when they ran 8-10. Jones also agreed that double digits was a strong possibility.
“It’s a testament to how terrific a superintendent Mark Kuhns is," Jones said. "He’s done a wonderful job of getting these greens ready and running so perfectly at these speeds.”
The field, which includes 74 international players from 25 different countries (including the United States) begin play over the par 34-36=70, 7,428 yard Lower Course early Thursday morning. The Lower Course also hosted a U.S. Open in 1954, '67, '80 and '93, as well as the 2005 PGA. The Upper Course hosted the 1936 U.S. Open won by Tony Manero. Two prior Opens were held on the “Old Course,” which no longer exists, and were won by Willie Anderson (1903) and Jerome Travers (1915).
NEWS NOTES AND QUOTES
Danny Willett on throwing out the first pitch at a New York Yankees baseball game - “We didn’t throw it five yards in front of us, and we didn’t hit somebody in the front row, so I think we did all right.”