KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Whether it’s a reputation or an identity that had been sorely lacking, the PGA Championship has become known for having the toughest field that faces the fairest test.
Being fair doesn’t mean it can’t be a brute, the overriding topic of conversation about the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island.
It’s not just the length, tipped out at 7,838 yards. No course seems too long in today’s game.
But throw in the stiff wind off the Atlantic coast — two loops that combine to offer nine holes in one direction and nine in the other, so it doesn’t matter which direction it blows. Add putting surfaces that appear elevated because of the severe, shaved slopes.
“This golf course is a beast,” U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau said Wednesday. “I’m sure the tee boxes will be moved up in certain areas, but for most players out there, if you don’t hit it long, it’s going to be a tough week.”
The real measure? Big hitters getting reacquainted with a 3-iron or more on par 4s and par 3s.
Dustin Johnson hit his 7-wood on the par-3 14th hole and on the 505-yard closing hole. It was either that or his 3-iron, and the fairway metal lands a little softer.
“I think I’ve used every club in my bag so far,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It just requires you to do everything well. Driving is definitely a big part of it. You’ve got to hit the fairways. They are fairly generous, but with the wind … and the way the holes are angled, you’ve got to hit good drives to get it in the fairway.
“And then obviously from there,” he added, “doesn’t get a whole lot easier.”
Rory McIlroy won at 13-under 275 when the PGA Championship was at Kiawah nine years ago, though that’s a little misleading. McIlroy is among the best in the world and he was at his best that week. Take him out of the equation, and the next best score was 5 under.
Multiple tee boxes have been in play during the practice rounds, and the PGA Championship will decide which ones to use depending on the forecast for wind. It most likely will not play to its full length all week. Players have been advised that some tees will be moved forward.
“Seriously, I hope so,” Jon Rahm said.
During his practice round Monday, the Spaniard said the shortest iron he hit into a green from the 14th hole until the end was a 5-iron.
“I’m not usually the shortest hitter,” Rahm said. “I was playing with Zach Johnson, and I think he pulled a head cover on every single hole except the par-5 16th coming into the green. For the sake of our sanity, I believe they’re going to use a couple of forward tees.”
Whatever the length, it’s all about the wind at Kiawah. Making this even more ideal is a forecast that suggests the wind could switch directions at some point during the week.
DeChambeau has tried to solve every equation for every variable in golf, except for wind. Not that he hasn’t tried.
“Man, you guys are going to eat this one up,” he said, bracing his audience for a spiel on science. “But the laminar flow of the wind and how it works … I mean, look, there are certain times where over certain dune hills and stuff on greens and before the greens where the wind will flow down and up and over certain mounds, so that’s going to make it feel weird, play different, and it’s just going to affect how the ball goes.”
Golf architects Pete and Alice Dye probably didn’t consider laminar flow when they designed the Ocean Course. But it was built for wind, and that’s been the best defense as long as golf has been played.
It starts to unfold Thursday with a field that features 99 of the top 100 players in the world, all of them offering different assessments on which part of their game needs to be the sharpest.
McIlroy is trying to end seven years without a major and comes into the PGA Championship fresh off a victory at Quail Hollow, his first win in 18 months. Jordan Spieth goes after the final leg of the career Grand Slam, with four straight top-10 finishes, including his first win since 2017.
Defending champion Collin Morikawa has as much recent experience as anyone. He came to Kiawah for a preview day a month ago and played in an opposite wind from what players have seen this week. Morikawa is known for his irons, not so much his length. He sees that as an advantage no matter how long and tough Kiawah plays this week.
“Out here with the wind, no matter what it is, you just have to control your golf ball,” Morikawa said. “So it doesn’t matter if you’re 150 yards or you’re 200 yards, you have to be able to know where you’re going to land certain shots, where you’re going to miss them.”
Phil Mickelson was looking where to miss on the 207-yard fifth hole, tossing golf balls behind and to the left of the hourglass green. He hit some mini-flop shots from a small swale before telling his brother: “It’s pretty easy (going) long. It’s back uphill and into the wind.”
There is length. There is wind. There is major championship pressure. It’s shaping up to be an extreme test.
“It’s going to be somebody out here that wins that’s the most patient. It may not be the person that’s playing the best,” DeChambeau said. “There’s certainly luck involved this week with the greens the way they are and the wind the way it is and the slopes around the greens. Sometimes you’re just going to get unlucky.
“It’s going to be somebody that has a lot of patience and a lot of resolve to fight back when things aren’t going well for them.”
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