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Hazeltine, 10th hole and 16th hole
The action on greens such as the 10th (foreground) and 16th will play a huge role in deciding the outcome this week. (Cannon/Getty Images)

Short game is what matters at extra-long Hazeltine

No major course has ever played as long as big, bad Hazeltine, which measures a daunting 7,674 yards this week. But, says Craig Dolch, in the end, this week will come down to whomever can best handle his nerves and his short game.

By Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

CHASKA, Minn. -- The numbers are a little numbing.

No, that's not the expected stroke average for this week's 91st PGA Championship, but the yardage at Hazeltine National.

Is this the season's last major or a long-drive contest?

No major course has ever played as long as big, bad Hazeltine. It's almost 240 yards longer than the three other majors played this year, and 314 yards longer than when it hosted the 2002 PGA Championship.

Hazeltine boasts a four-hole stretch on its back nine that includes the longest par 3, par 4 and par 5 in the history of the PGA Championship. The par-4 12th is 518 yards, the par-3 13th is 248 and the par-5 15th is 642.

No knockdown shots here.

But before everyone starts thinking this PGA will be all about the long ball, let's remember what happened here in 2002: The course didn't favor the guys with the big swings and the tight shirts.

Tiger Woods, who finished a shot behind winner Rich Beem, was the only player among the top five who can grip it and rip it. Beem has decent length, but he'll never overpower a course. The next three finishers -- Chris Riley, Fred Funk and Justin Leonard -- are three of the straightest but shortest hitters in the game.

The same trend continued down the leader board. Among the 21 players who finished inside the top 20 (because of ties), only three are considered bombers: Mark Calcavecchia (seventh), Vijay Singh (eighth) and Sergio Garcia (tied for 10th). The rest were a bunch of shot-makers such as Rocco Mediate (sixth), Jim Furyk (ninth), Robert Allenby and Stewart Cink (tied for 10th), Stuart Appleby and Padraig Harrington (tied for 17th).

While one has to be careful to look too closely at the results of one event because weather can distort what happened that week, then let's check out the pedigree of major-champion winners at Hazeltine. The 1991 U.S. Open was decided in an 18-hole playoff between winner Payne Stewart and Scott Simpson, neither long hitters; and the 1970 U.S. Open was captured by Tony Jacklin, another short knocker.

So don't let the numbers fool you. Hazeltine may look like it plays longer than a trip to your local driver's license office, but at some point the tournament will be decided by who has the best short game.

As it usually is.

Just look at this year's majors. If Kenny Perry gets it up and down from behind the 17th green, he's walking around in a Green Jacket. If Phil Mickelson doesn't three-putt Bethpage Black's 15th hole, as well as bogey the par-3 17th, we would have had one of the most popular U.S. Open winners ever. The same holds true for Tom Watson at Turnberry -- if he gets up and down from behind the 18th green, we'd still be talking about Old Tom's performance at the British Open.

Having the longest course in major history may make Hazeltine's members puff out their chests this week with pride, but it's not going to decide who lifts the Wanamaker Trophy (which, at 48 pounds, also is a brute).

Most major championships are decided by the players who best handle their nerves. Who can pull off the delicate chip? Who can make the clutch, late putt?

Harrington, the defending PGA Champion who has won three of the last nine majors, said he likes longer courses for majors. And not because he carries it 300-plus yards.

"I personally like to see a golf course with length to it," Harrington said. "The best majors are played on golf courses that have options. If the golf course is too short, it tends to get tricky with pin positions, because that's the only way of defending it. When you have a bigger, stronger golf course like Hazeltine, you can set a very fair course."

Of course, how can one set up a course today that doesn't favor Woods the way he's dominating the game again? Here was a guy who hit just one driver when he won the 2006 British Open at Royal Liverpool.

Woods desperately wants to avoid his first major-less season since 2004. That's why he was at Hazeltine on Monday for a practice round, less than 15 hours after he won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational for his 70th career PGA TOUR victory.

The odds against Woods winning this week? Longer than Hazeltine.
 

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