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16th hole at Hazeltine
Johnny Miller once called the 16th hole at Hazeltine the "hardest par 4 I ever played." (Cannon/Getty Images)

Not-so-sweet 16th hole will play a key role

The PGA Championship won't be clinched on the short par-4 16th hole. But if history is any indication, this lovely and terrorizing piece of real estate will decide who hoists the Wanamaker Trophy.

By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

It started as a par 3 and was switched to a par 4, but plays like a par 5.

Welcome to the not-so-sweet 16th hole at Hazeltine National Golf Club. This week's PGA Championship won't be clinched on this shortish par 4 that runs along Hazeltine Lake. But if history is any indication, this lovely and terrorizing piece of real estate will decide who hoists the Wanamaker Trophy.

Johnny Miller once called it the "hardest par 4 I ever played," and the numbers support his opinion.

When the 1991 U.S. Open was held at Hazeltine, the 16th was the 12th-hardest hole on the PGA TOUR that year, playing to an average of 4.399. The field combined to post more double bogeys and “others” (46) than birdies (41).

The 16th played even more difficult at the 2002 PGA Championship, averaging almost a half-stroke over par (4.494) and making it the fifth-hardest hole on the PGA TOUR that season. There were 49 sub-par scores on the hole that week compared to 181 over par.

It's a hole, as the saying goes, where the best players would take four pars and race to the 17th tee.

What makes the 16th so daunting isn't its length – at 402 yards, it's the second-shortest of the 10 par 4s at Hazeltine. The degree of difficulty is enhanced because the tee shot requires a 220-yard carry over Hazeltine Lake that becomes even longer when the prevailing wind whips off the water that runs down the right and wraps around the back of the hole. There’s also a stream that runs down the left side of the fairway. Visually, there appears to be no margin of error.

"If you stand on the tee box and look at the middle of the fairway, all you see is the reeds off the tee," said Tiger Woods, who birdied the last four holes to finish a shot behind Rich Beem at the 2002 PGA. "That's the signature hole at Hazeltine, and I think it's going to be the one that everyone is going to remember."

Or want to forget. 

A good drive will leave a player with just a short iron for his second shot, but it has to be exact to a peninsula green that's guarded by the lake on the right. An errant swing can immediately add two strokes to a player’s score.

"Sixteen is the only hole that you really feel the full effects of the wind (at Hazeltine)," said Phil Mickelson, who finished 55th at the '91 Open and 34th at the 2002 PGA. "It's a very difficult two shots because the wind is the strongest right there, and so it is a unique hole."

It's been that way from the beginning. Course designer Robert Trent Jones Sr. originally made the 16th a 225-yard par 3 when the course opened in 1962. With a tree dangling over the left side of the green, some players at the 1970 U.S. Open – the first men's major held at Hazeltine -- mockingly called it the world's only dogleg par 3. That was the year when runner-up Dave Hill led a chorus of complaints against the course, saying all it was missing was some corn and some cows.

So in 1978, Jones converted the 16th into what was then a 384-yard par 4 by building a new tee along the shore of the lake and using landfill to create the peninsula green. He offset that move by changing the 17th hole from a par 4 to a par 3.

But Jones' changes didn't stop some of the world's best players from viewing No. 16 warily. "The 16th is going to be the most controversial hole, especially if it plays into the wind, but that doesn't make it a good hole," Jack Nicklaus said before the 1991 U.S. Open that was won by Payne Stewart in a playoff. "They should have let the hole flow naturally."

Despite the numbers and public opinion, the 16th can be tamed. Stewart was two shots back in his 18-hole playoff with Scott Simpson when he birdied the 16th (and Simpson made bogey) to key Stewart's comeback win. And both Beem and Woods birdied the 16th in the final round in 2002.

But there will be far more train wrecks at the 16th this week than fist pumps. That's the one certainty this week.

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