If winds are whistling, scores will soar
HAVEN, Wis. -- The answer to Whistling Straits, my friends, is blowin' in the wind.
On a course where tour pros have estimated any score from 15-under-par to 10 over could win this week's PGA Championship, the biggest variable will be the wind. On a cloudy, overcast Tuesday when temperatures on the course never reached 70 degrees, it was howling hard off Lake Michigan, giving the course the eerie feel of a British Open setting.
"I don't think I've played a golf course this difficult, if the wind blows," said Tiger Woods, who's seeking his ninth career major title, but first in his last 10 attempts. "If the wind doesn't blow, the guys will shoot good scores."
"It could play a little easier than a lot of people think if there's no wind," said Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly. "This place, if it's calm, I think 15 under could win. I think if it blows, even par could do pretty darned well."
That the wind is such a major variable comes partly from the fact that the course itself is the biggest variable of all, never having hosted a major or PGA Tour event. At 7,514 yards, Whistling Straits is the longest major championship venue ever, and when players are hitting untested shots a long way with a prevalent wind, there's no telling where a ball could wind up.
"It's hard to really assess a course like this because the winds change so often and it's such an integral part of the course," said Phil Mickelson, who has played practice rounds in varying degrees of wind. "The biggest factor on the scores will be the wind, because it comes from different directions at different strengths and makes the golf course play totally different as far as what holes you can make birdie on and what holes you're fighting for par."
If the breezes are blowing, ultimately the biggest buzzword this week will be "crosswind." Most players acknowledge being able to handle a strong wind at their back or into their face, but the crosswinds are Murphy's Law to a pessimistic group for whom the winds of change always seem to be blowing the wrong way.
"You rarely ever face any shot into the wind or downwind," said Woods, the world's top-ranked player. "Everything is always either off the left or off the right, which makes it very difficult."
"It's going to blow and it's going to be really tough," said Kelly, who needs at least a top-10 this week to qualify for an automatic Ryder Cup bid. "If we happen to get a crosswind instead of the major north/south variation, getting it in these fairways is going to be really hard."
But the effect of wind on drives and approach shots isn't even the biggest issue, said Ernie Els.
"Putting is going to be difficult in the breeze," said Els, who has finished second, T9 and second in the year's first three majors. "If you ask any player, that's almost the toughest part of the game ... when it's really windy, to make putts."
So, what exactly is the hardest thing about playing in these winds?
Said Els: "Driving and putting and everything in between, I guess."
Information from ESPN.com's wire services is included.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.