John Huggan: Kiawah may yet make USPGA Championship interesting
USPGA may be past its sell-by date, but quirky Kiawah will guarantee it is still worth watching
It IS a measure of this week’s USPGA Championship that by far the most interesting aspect of the year’s fourth and final major – “Glory’s Last Shot” – is not the unmatched strength in depth of the field, or even any speculation over the eventual destination of the giant Wanamaker Trophy, but the quirkiness of the host site. Sadly, just like the colourful collection of sweater salesmen running the show at the PGA of America, this event is long past its sell-by date and more and more reliant on gimmicks to keep it relevant.
Still, let us look on the bright side. This year’s venue, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in South Carolina, is no Atlanta Athletic Club, the oh-so one-dimensional host to the 2011 championship. Boy, last year was boring, quite apart from the fact that the belly-putter trend was started by Keegan Bradley’s victory. As Phil Mickelson put it so aptly: “It’s pretty obvious how you have to play the holes, because there are no options that allow you to play holes in different ways. You just have to execute.”
This year, however, there will be none of that pedestrianism. Architect Pete Dye’s seaside masterpiece may be controversial, but it does at least allow for a modicum of imagination, flair and, dare we say it in these technologically enhanced times, shot making. Which is typical of Dye, an old-school designer who came to Scotland to learn his trade and never forgot that golf courses are never supposed to be fair or uniform or consistent.
“At an old course, one bunker might be fluffy, the next a little hard,” he points out. “You can hit a ‘perfect’ drive and land in some God-awful divot. But that sort of surprise is lost at places like Augusta National. Everything there is perfect. I’d take the Stimpmeter [the device used to measure green speed] and throw it out the window. They say they want to keep greens uniform. I say: ‘Why? Who put that in the rule book?’”
So, thankfully, we can expect something a little different over the coming days. Which is just as well for a championship that nowadays has no business forming one quarter of the Grand Slam. For one thing, holding three majors in one country just doesn’t stack up in this modern international world. Such an out-of-date, anachronistic bias has no place in a game where the best practitioners today hail from all corners of the globe.
But I digress. Already host to a Ryder Cup (the notorious 1991 “War on the Shore”), a World Cup (in 1997, when Colin Montgomerie actually did win – the individual title – on US soil) and a Senior PGA Championship, Kiawah Island at a massive 7,676 yards – the longest in major championship history – will present a sizeable challenge to what is, statistically at least, the strongest field of the year. According to Golf Digest, the Ocean Course has the highest combination of slope rating (155) and course rating (79.6) in America. Which means it is very, very difficult, at least on paper or a computer.
It was certainly playing tough back in 1991 when the Ryder Cup was won and lost by scores that typically hovered somewhere between the mid-70s and low-80s.
“The course was brutal that week,” says Ian Woosnam, who was ranked number one in the world at the time. “Guys were winning holes with bogeys and sometimes double-bogeys. Especially around the greens, it was just so difficult. I remember watching more than one player chipping back and forth across the greens.”
And nothing much has changed, if early reports from those players who have already paid a visit are anything to go by.
“The back nine especially is very severe,” said Adam Scott, the man who should be Open champion. “It’s going to be really interesting down there. It rained a lot while I was there and the course is playing very soft and long. There are good scores out there in good weather, but if the wind blows, it’s going to be very difficult, even if they move tees forward. The green complexes on some holes are very severe, with an extreme penalty for a miss. There’s water on one side and big waste bunkers on the other.”
Scott, of course, isn’t quite accurate in his assessment. There will be no “bunkers” at Kiawah, not in the traditional sense. Presumably in an attempt to avoid the nonsense that befell Dustin Johnson at Whistling Straits in 2010, the PGA of America’s members have dragged themselves away from the selling of Mars Bars long enough to announce that all sandy areas through the green will not be classed as bunkers (or hazards). Players will be able to ground their clubs in said areas without fear of penalty for doing so.
So what can we expect to see, starting on Thursday? A lot will depend on the weather. Back in 1997, Monty shot 22-under par for 72 holes in calm conditions, but five years ago, when the seniors paid a visit for their PGA championship, the wind blew a bit on the opening day and the average score was a nightmarish 77.24. By the end of the week, and even in much improved conditions, only six players were under par.
In a prevailing northwest wind, the first five holes will play downwind, the next eight into the wind and the last five with the breeze again helping. So it will be case of trying to be under par on the sixth tee, hanging on for grim death until the 14th, then “going for it” again over the closing five. That’s the theory anyway.
The practice will surely be quite different, especially on “danger” holes like the 223-yard 17th, a par-3 that plays all across water. It was there in 1991 that Colin Montgomerie, two down with two to play against Mark Calcavecchia, sent his tee-shot to the bottom of the lake, only to see his increasingly edgy opponent produce what has to be the worst shot ever hit by a world-class player in a competitive situation. A sort of half-topped shank, the ball disappeared into the drink only a few yards from the tee and provoked the most honest and instinctive reaction ever from a television commentator. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” yelped Charley Jones of NBC.
Let’s hope we get more of that sort of drama and excitement this week, if only to help preserve the credibility and supposed stature of a championship that needs to be replaced – if only for geographic reasons – as one of golf’s four biggest events.
Think about it. The make-up of the “Grand Slam” has changed before and it should change again. The Open, the US Open, the Players Championship (the biggest event on the biggest tour) and a World Match Play Championship travelling around the globe makes far more sense in these increasingly international times. One in Britain, two in America and one on the move to places such as Japan, China, Korea, South Africa, Australia and Argentina. But don’t hold your breath on that happening any time soon. Those sweater salesmen probably aren’t going anywhere just yet. More’s the pity.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North