KIAWAH ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | When Justin Thomas looked at the Ocean Course scorecard for the PGA Championship someone sent him last week, he laughed out loud.
The scorecard yardage has the front nine playing 3,815 yards and the back nine playing 4,061 yards. Yes, more than 4,000 yards for nine holes.
The total scorecard yardage is 7,876, giving the Ocean Course the distinction – probably temporary – of being the longest course in major championship history.
“They can’t possibly play it that long,” Thomas said, perhaps hopefully.
He’s right, as big as the scorecard numbers are, that’s all they are – numbers. That can be manipulated like a good accountant can work a spreadsheet.
“I haven’t looked at the length of a golf course since junior golf,” Jordan Spieth said.
Still, the Ocean Course numbers draw attention like lemon-colored socks with a tuxedo.
The number that ultimately matters is the wind speed. The higher it gets, the more demanding and dangerous the Ocean Course becomes. Tuesday and Wednesday were breezy teases of what the remainder of the week could bring.
When a gusty wind blew here in the second round of the 2012 PGA Championship, the average score was 78, the highest single-day average in tournament history. Rory McIlroy shot 75 that day and it helped propel him to an eight-stroke victory.
“I wouldn’t say the Ocean Course is one that you venture to for fun,” Kevin Kisner said.
What matters about the distance the Ocean Course measures isn’t what it can play – but what it will play. When Pete and Alice Dye were constructing the Ocean Course, they created multiple teeing grounds to accommodate the wind which can blow from different directions, sometimes in the same day.
“All you can do is make your best effort and best estimate on how you’re going to set it up based on the information that we have. That’s exactly how we always do it.” – Kerry Haigh
Like the old real estate axiom “location, location, location,” the Ocean Course offers adjustability, adjustability, adjustability.
“All you can do is make your best effort and best estimate on how you’re going to set it up based on the information that we have. That’s exactly how we always do it. We’ll try and do it fairly with all the information that we have,” said Kerry Haigh, chief championship officer for the PGA of America and the man who will get the credit or the blame for the course setup.
The Ocean Course has a relatively simple routing. The first five holes and the last five holes play toward the east. The middle eight holes play toward the west on a course that stretches 2½ miles from the fifth tee to the 14th tee.
When the wind blows from the east, as it has done early this week and is expected to continue to do through Friday, it makes for a rugged start and a grueling finish. Players have reacquainted themselves with 3-irons and hybrids this week.
Consider Tony Finau, one of the longest hitters in the game. In a practice round, he hit a 3-iron into the par-3 14th hole, a 4-iron into the par-4 15th, was 80 yards short of the par-5 16th green in two shots, hit a 4-iron in the famously difficult par-3 17th and a 3-iron into 18.
“That gave me a little bit of a taste what it could be like this week,” Finau said.
The good news is players were informed that tee locations are likely to move substantially from day to day.
“It’s all wind biased. If there’s no wind the long holes are still long but they’re easier. They don’t dramatically make poor shots worse,” Kevin Kisner said. “It’s definitely one of the hardest tests I’ve played in my life for sure.”
What the wind may take away it can also give back. The downwind 514-yard par-4 ninth hole may be just a driver and 9-iron with the helping wind and firm fairways. It’s the same for the par-4 12th and 13th holes, which measure 484 and 497 yards, respectively.
“The par-5, No. 7, I think it’s 590 (actually 579) yards or something and I had 8-iron in today. When it gets this windy and as severe as the wind can get out here, they need those tees because the 590 yards can play 500 or 490 yards when you get that much wind.
“Same thing when you go back into the wind. They might move the tee up to 420 yards to play 520. … It is very intimidating looking at the scorecard.”
Here’s where it gets tricky: Through Friday, the wind is predicted to come from the same general direction at a pesky but playable 15 mph or so.
On the weekend, the wind is predicted to flip and come from the southwest, effectively showing players a different course than they will have played through the week.
“I look forward to it. I think you want that challenge. You want it to be hard,” defending champion Collin Morikawa said.
“You don’t want it to be unfair, but you want it to be tough because that kind of really makes you focus a little more and it really shows what a good shot will be like.”
Top photo: Gary Kellner, PGA of America via Getty Images
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