Course Insight: The 99th PGA Championship

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View from the 7th fairway at Quail Hollow Club

The PGA Championship is sometimes thought of as the least prestigious of all major championships on the PGA Tour, but it has something The Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship all don’t have. It’s the last chance for major glory. When the iconic Wanamaker Trophy is raised triumphantly at the conclusion of play at Quail Hollow later this week, the 2017 majors will be in the books, and that fact heightens the pressure with each consecutive day, on each consecutive hole, until everyone in the 156 player field just runs out of holes to play.

The field this week is a virtual “Who’s Who” of golf royalty, and includes the top-10 players in each of the FedEx Cup standings, the Tour Money List, and the Official World Golf RankingDustin Johnson can put a stranglehold on his spot as World No. 1 by winning his second career major. Rory McIlroy looks to win his third PGA Championship and can make this season a successful one on the strength of this one victory alone. Jordan Spieth eyes golf immortality and the career Grand Slam. They’re the odds-on favorites to win and will be the most talked-about players heading into play, but any of them could be mocked, ravaged, and boisterously vanquished one-by-one because of the formidable and significant design changes Tom Fazio implemented on the par-71, 7,600-yard course.

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View from the 3rd ee at Quail Hollow Club 

Four new holes and a handful of altered holes will make Quail Hollow play very different than players are accustomed to seeing at the Wells Fargo Championship. Expect to see turbulence right from the start with two new par-4s that stretch brutishly longer than 500-yards, and a new par-3 that’s considerably more difficult than the old one. Newly contoured greens will be more daunting. Elevated landing areas with flanking bunker areas will put a greater premium on precise approach shots. Greens were resurfaced with Bermuda grass to play firmer and faster, but thunderstorms in the forecast throughout the week will factor into negating that new grass challenge.

Noteworthy Holes

The new par-4, 1st hole is a 524-yard behemoth that plays to an uphill landing area with routing that severely twists left to right. Players who aren’t able to clear the corner of the dogleg will have to contend with a series of fairway bunkers that can make hitting into the small undulating green a nightmare. The putting surface is protected by three deep bunkers with tightly mown areas surrounding them to gather even the slightest mishits. No. 4 used to be a green-light birdie hole. Now it’s potentially a ticket to board the bogey train.

Another brand new challenge for the players is the par-4, 449-yard, 5th hole that doglegs slightly to the right and narrows in the landing area with bunkers guarding both sides. The length won’t bother players, but a well-placed tee shot will be required to hold a green that’s slightly angled and bunkered on the front with a false front. A run-off in the back can make for a dicey up-and down. This green is one of the toughest on the course to hit.

The beefed-up, dogleg left, Par 4, 462-yard 11th could wind up being the toughest hole on the course. The tee-box is elevated and two large bunkers in the left landing area will capture drives that try to shave too much off the dogleg. Two fearsome traps on the front-left of an elevated green will make pin positions there very intimidating, and runoffs on the front and back of the putting surface will only give the most precise approach shots a good look at birdie.

Known as “The Green Mile,” the 16th, 17th, and 18th holes are one of the most difficult closing stretches in all of golf and players will need to strap it on and play well here as it can make or break a champion. No. 16 is a downhill, par-4, 506-yard hole with water coming into play off the tee on the left, and a bunker and large tree giving players reason to pause on the right. A downhill, mid-to-long iron will be required on approach into an almost peninsula-like green sitting on the edge of a lake with a deep bunker protecting the right.

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GPS View of Hole No.17 from the 18Birdies App

It doesn’t get any easier on the long, Par 3, 223-yard 17th hole with water protecting the green on the front and left. Pin positions on the left will require a left-to-right shot over the lake, and the slightest miss could be the difference between birdie and double-bogey. Players who opt to play it safe can bail-out on the right, however the rough on that side and a sloping hill off the green make for a very challenging up-and-down.

The tee shot on the downhill, par-4, 494-yard, 18th hole is extremely nerve-racking. A creek runs down the entire left size with nasty hazards on the right, and the fairway narrows the closer players get to the green. Second shots with a championship on the line need to be utterly precise for any shot at birdie into a deep green that slopes back-to-front with two deep bunkers on the right.

Players To Watch

Rory McIlroy’s record at Quail Hollow speaks for itself: six top-10s in seven appearances on this track, along with four top-5s and two victories. It’s also going to be wet this week and all four of McIlroy’s major victories have come at weather-affected tournaments. And when you consider that half of the last 14 Wells Fargo winners have been major champions, that seems to suggest this is Rory’s week. Except it won’t be. As much as I hate to say it, Rory’s performance at Bridgestone on Sunday troubled me. Most writers are saying he showed great promise and looks like he’s almost in peak form, and of course he absolutely murdered the ball off the tee in Akron. However Rory was tantalizingly close to the lead on the front-9 and then mid-round, for whatever reason, he looked like he was back on an emotional merry-go-round. Something’s not clicking for McIlroy mentally, and you just can’t have that and expect to win a major. I’d love nothing more than to see Rory win, but expect him to finish outside the top-15.

No matter what he says, I think Jordan Spieth comes into the week with more pressure to win than anyone. Will he eventually capture a career Grand Slam? That’s almost guaranteed. But in his first attempt to do so this week, the prospect of chasing history will definitely be on his mind, and that’s going to make him play a little tight. Even if that’s not weighing on his mind however, Spieth has been sporadic off the tee at times this year, and with the rain making Quail Hollow play even longer and softer than it would otherwise, accuracy with the driver will be paramount. Spieth will finish outside the top-15.

Winner Prediction

Rickie Fowler knows there’s one glaring hole in his resume, and that “elephant in his trophy room” grows belligerently bigger, more disruptive, and more hostile with each major he doesn’t win. Fowler can make this bulldozing beast disappear in the blink of an eye if he controls his nerves this week and I’m going with my gut that he will. Fowler’s Total Driving (3rd on Tour) and Ball Striking(13th on Tour) make Quail Hollow a perfect course for him to play well on. Hideki Matsuyama thrust himself into the “best player to not win a major,” narrative with his win last week at Bridgestone, and I’m predicting it’s going to come down to these two players on Sunday with Rickie finally removing that monkey off his back.

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