Winner must drive to PGA title
By By David Kraft
DULUTH, Ga. -- Gone are the dogleg par-4s of Southern Hills and the pot bunkers of Royal Lytham and St. Annes that kept drivers in the bag. In their place is a long -- really long and really wet -- stretch of southern Bermuda grass fairways and bentgrass greens that beckon players to hit it as far as they safely can.
Welcome to the PGA Championship.
Phil Mickelson will be pulling out the driver on most of Atlanta Athletic Club.
"This week is going to be one of those weeks where you are going to have to pull out drivers quite a bit," said defending champion Tiger Woods, relishing the opportunity.
The redesigned Highlands course at Atlantic Athletic Club encourages length -- hole after hole. Stretched out, as it will be for the 83rd PGA Championship beginning Thursday, it measures 7,213 yards and plays to par-70. Only one par-4 is shorter than 416 yards and five are longer than 450. Three of the four par-3s are longer than 200 yards. There are only two par-5s.
To some, that limits the field of potential winners to a couple of dozen of the game's big bangers.
"I don't think it's 25, but it's trimmed to where all of the longer hitters are going to have the most advantage," admitted Vijay Singh, who would be part of that group.
To others, it's a godsend (of course, most of them are the big bangers).
"It's nice to have a golf course where length will be a factor, especially given the technology today," said Phil Mickelson. "To have the course playing the way it is, I think it's tremendous."
The course played to a 7,015-yard par-70 for the 1976 U.S. Open, won by Jerry Pate at 277, highlighted by his memorable 194-yard 5-iron approach on the 72nd hole. It played at 7,070 yards when Larry Nelson won the 1981 PGA Championship at 273. Only three players broke par that year.
But the Atlanta Athletic Club members knew they needed to up the ante to remain a major championship venue. They hired Rees Jones to redesign the course in 1995, at a cost of $2.5 million. Every tee was rebuilt and several were realigned. All the greens were recontoured. Some bunkers were relocated to catch the long hitters. Water now comes into play on nine holes. Plus, the trees have grown significantly over the last 20 years.
In addition, two par-5s for the members will play as par-4s, including the legendary 18th, which will be a 490-yard crucible -- the longest par-4 in PGA Championship history. The other converted par-5 is No. 2, which went from 545 yards to 475.
"I played 15 holes (in a practice round) and I hit driver on every tee box except the par-3," said 22-year-old Charles Howell III, 11th in driving distance on the PGA Tour.
Mickelson contends that the extra length doesn't discriminate. Instead, it adds to the risk-reward drama of the sport.
"I don't feel the length makes it one-sided toward the longer hitters," Mickelson said. "I don't feel as though that is the case because the fairways are tight. They're difficult to hit. And if you're not hitting them, then you're not going to have a chance to make pars."
Same course, new look
The changes at the Highlands course at Atlanta Athletic Club since the 1981 PGA Championship:
Tees: Four new tees built: No. 8 (30 extra yards), No. 12 (37 yards), No. 14 (20 yards) and No. 16 (30 yards).
Greens: All rebuilt, with dramatic slopes replaced by more undulating ones. New bent grass.
Water: Added to the front-right on the par-5 12th. Greens brought to edges of existing ponds.
Bunkers: Repositioned and moved to border landing areas of today?s longer hitters.
Mickelson said he hit 6- and 7-irons into most of the par-4s. Singh hit a few 5-irons during his practice rounds. And if the fairways dry out, they'll hit even shorter clubs.
"I did not find the fairways bottlenecking at 300 (yards), 310, as so many courses do," he said. "What that does is it allows all players to hit drivers. So a longer player is able to take advantage of his length. He just has to keep it in play."
But the shorter hitters certainly will be at a disadvantage -- especially if it stays wet, as it has been during practice rounds thanks to a series of storms over the past week. David Duval said his drives plugged in the fairway during practice Tuesday. On Monday, Bernhard Langer and Loren Roberts both needed 3-woods to get home on the 490-yard 18th.
"There's not going to be many tee shots where you are going to hit 1-iron or 3-iron or something like we did in the last two majors," Langer said.
"I hate to see it go that way, where we end up to see who has the longer par-4 in the world or n the major championships," he said. "I don't think we need to go that way. There are so many good courses and good holes, and it is not all about length. It doesn't seem right to hit a perfect tee shot, and you have to lay up with a 7-iron because you have 240 (yards) to get it over the water."
Woods, naturally, disagrees.
"You can use a driver, you can drive it down there, you can get aggressive if you want to," said Woods. "Obviously, it is a reward for driving the ball in play and a long ways. If you stray off, there's a penalty and there should be. It's a major championship."
"This is a perfect set-up for Tiger," said U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen. "He's going to be smiling all the way around the course."
The bottom line, says Mark O'Meara, is that length matters. And accuracy matters. And the winner will have both.
"It's a golf course that's right there in front of you," O'Meara said. "It is a very fair course -- very tough and very demanding -- but very fair. I think it's an awesome golf course."