The Longest Mile
Quail Hollow Club, this week’s host venue of the PGA Championship, has always been revered as a course that is universally loved by the players.
Last year in a span of only 90 days, drastic changes were being made in preparation for this years’ PGA, the first Major ever hosted by Quail Hollow. Some of the greens were re-shaped and produce undulations and shallow areas that with the right conditions (fast greens) can make them almost unplayable.
One of the par-5’s has been turned into a long par-4 meaning that players are hitting long irons/hybrids into a green that was built to receive wedge shots and the 1st and 2st holes were combined to make a daunting 540 yard par-4 opening salvo. 2,000 trees were removed from the course giving it a look not unlike Augusta National, which is fine except that this is Quail Hollow, the gem of the Queen City. And the new greens are so hard and fast that if a flagstick is put near one of the crowns it can become almost unfair, but this is a Major and they are meant to be difficult.
The first round would bring these new changes to the fore as player after player struggled at various points of the course. Only one player in the entire field of 156, Chris Stroud (who gained entry into the PGA by winning last weeks’ Barracuda Championship), played a round without a bogey finishing with a 3-under par, 68 and a share of 3rd place with fellow Americans, Grayson Murray, Gary Woodland, DA Points and U.S. Open Champion, Brooks Koepka.
They would trail co-leaders, Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen, and American, Kevin Kisner who were at 4-under.
Pre-emptive pre-tournament favorites, Jordan Spieth (looking to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam) and Rory McIlroy who has won twice at Quail Hollow in his career, shot 1-over par 72’s that left them in the middle of the pack. They would never become leading actors on this stage.
Kisner paired his 67 with another in the second round to be at 8-under par and command a 4 shot advantage over the rest of the field after the morning wave of play. With the difficulty of the course it looked like that might hold up until heavy rains doused the course for an hour late into the day. When play resumed a softer, gentler, Quail Hollow presented itself and players took full advantage.
Leading the way was Hideki Matsuyama fresh off his 5-stroke runaway at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone event. The brilliant 25-year old Japanese superstar carded a flawless 7-under par 64 to join Kisner at 8-under.
Australia’s Jason Day who has failed to find the form this year that made him the game’s dominant player in 2015-16, played his best round of the year with a 66 to move into a 3rd place tie with Stroud, two behind the leaders.
Italy’s Francesco Molinari matched Matsuyama’s 64 to be in 5th place at 5-under tied with South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen.
Two shots further back at 3-under entering Saturday’s third round were young American stars Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas both looking to breakthrough for their first Major and 40-year old Englishman, Paul Casey who seems to be in contention every week.
The conditions facing the leaders as they played the closing 9 in Saturday’s third round were the exact opposite from Friday’s second round. The greens had dried out and were so fast that players were putting 20 foot putts with the speed they would normally putt from 2 feet. Lightning was on the ground and not in the air on this day.
The final three holes at Quall Hollow are known as The Green Mile and are arguably the most difficult trio of finishing holes in all of golf. Saturday would prove that as one contender after another saw their Championship hopes fade.
Day made a disastrous quadruple-bogey 8 on the 18th to fall back to even par while Fowler played them in 4-over par to drop to 1-under.
Kisner had taken command of the tournament at 10-under but he too succumbed to the Green Mile and played his last three holes in as many over par to finish the day still the leader but at 7-under.
Kisner would take a one shot advantage over Matsuyama and Stroud with Oosthuizen and Thomas a further shot back at 5-under. Murray was two behind them at 3-under and a quintet of players were on the periphery of contention at 2-under: Molinari, Canadian Graham DeLaet and Americans, Woodland, Patrick Reed and Scott Brown.
Whoever was to prevail on Sunday to claim the Wannamaker trophy would have to stare down these three holes and play the bravest and best golf of their career.
Fowler shot a 4-under 67 that gave him the early lead in the clubhouse at 5-under but was replaced by Molinari and Reed, equaling Fowler’s 67 and finished at 6-under with Oosthuizen who ultimately finished in a 3-way tie for second.
With only the Green Mile, to play Justin Thomas was 3-under on the day and had the lead at 8-under for the Championship while Kisner and Matsuyama were a stroke behind. Thomas made a great save from the greenside bunker on the 16th to save his par while Matsuyama missed a short putt for par. It was the 4th short miss on the day for Matsuyama whose putting can be his one weakness but his time will surely come.
On the par-3 17th Thomas hit a supreme 7-iron to 15 feet and then converted his birdie, as Kisner was making a bogey on the 15th to take a three stroke lead to the last hole. A closing bogey-5 meant a two shot margin for the 24-year old Thomas, a third generation PGA professional.
Thomas is one of the young guns, along with Spieth and Fowler (who were waiting beside the green on the 18th hole to congratulate their friend) who have become part of the new generation of great young players. The PGA becomes his 4th title of the year and moves him into another echelon as a player; a Major Champion.