By T.J. Auclair, PGA.com Interactive Producer
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- When players arrived at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001 and got a glimpse of the Highlands Course, the general consensus was that the winning mark would fall around even par.
Instead, David Toms shattered the PGA Championship scoring-record with a one-shot victory over Phil Mickelson at 15 under.
Of course, that was then and this is now. Since 2001, many renovations have taken place at AAC, most notably a change in grass from bent to Champion Bermuda. In addition the course is playing as as 7,467-yard par 70 -- 270 yards longer than in ’01.
Simply put, the way the course is set up now, it’s practically heat-resistant and running as fast and firm as you’ll find anywhere.
“What I've heard was that the course has been closed for two weeks, and before that the members played on carpets for three weeks, so there was not a single divot on the fairway,” Masters champion Charl Schwartzel said on Tuesday. “It was amazing. You know, the fairways were as good as some of the greens we play on. It's just so much fun to play a golf course when it's in such good condition, and even the greens were just phenomenal.”
AAC should truly be the beauty and the beast this week. And the biggest beast of them all will likely be the 260-yard, par-3 15th, the hole Toms famously aced with a 5-wood in the third round of 2001 on his way to victory.
“Is that a par 3?” Schwartzel asked, jokingly. “I thought it was a par 4. Yeah, I mean, what can you say? It's just a beast of a hole. It's long. It's actually quite a small green from that sort of distance. When we played, we played off the back. The flag was in the front, and we still … I hit a 3-iron out of my shoes, and it just flew to the front edge.
“It's going to be a tough hole. I don't think you're going to be too disappointed if you walk off with a 4. You know, it's going to be just one of those holes where there's no bail-out, and you've just got to get down and commit to it. It's going to be the same for everyone that plays it.”
World No. 1 Luke Donald isn’t a fan of long par 3s, and he had no problem admitting as much.
“I think some of the world's greatest par 3s are very short,” Donald said. “The seventh at Pebble, 12th at Augusta, Postage Stamp, you can keep naming quite a few that are short and at the same time quite tricky.
“Today off the back tee, I hit a rescue,” Donald added. “Just seems like you take a little bit of the skill out of it when it's that long a hole. But it is the same for everyone, and I'm going to have to learn to try and love it for this week. There's not too many really long par 3s that are very memorable that I can think of, the only one really being Cypress, 16th hole. Again, I've never really been a fan of long par 3s. I think par 3s should be a little bit more shorter and more interesting.”
All that said, Donald is a fan of the course overall, which features just two par 5s -- Nos. 5 and 12, at 565 yards and 551 yards, respectively -- which most of the field should be able to reach in two.
“It's one of the best conditioned golf courses I've seen,” he said. “Very fast, slopy greens, which is going to be quite challenging, I think. If they get them any firmer and faster it's going to play … might be more like the U.S. Open than the U.S. Open was. It's pretty much in front of you. It's a modern layout, a long course. The last four holes are very challenging coming in. The greens, as I said, they are firm, but if you're in the fairway, you can hold them. But out of position it's going to be quite tricky.”
There’s a good chance that the last four holes at the Highlands Course could decide the 93rd PGA Championship. Once players get past the long, par-3 15th, there’s the long, 476-yard, narrow, uphill, par-4 16th with a nearly blind approach to the green.
“The course is in magnificent condition, and it's quite long and demanding off the tee,” said Adam Scott, winner of last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I think driving the golf ball this week is certainly going to be the only way to create opportunity for birdies. You must be in the fairway. So I think a premium on driving and from there, you know, it's just going to require a lot of good golf, too. It's a very demanding golf course.”
The 17th -- the signature hole at the Highlands -- is a gorgeous, 207-yard par 3. Proper club selection is a must with a lake protecting most of the green.
And last, but not least, there’s the 507-yard par-4 18th, which is one of the most demanding finishing holes in major championship golf.
“I think the last four holes are more of a factor on this golf course, and those are quite long and will play very tough,” Donald said. “You would like to have a few shot lead playing that last hole. It's a tricky hole. Even though it's 507 yards, it gets very narrow off the tee. I hit 3 wood today and gets a little narrow for driver, and that's for someone who only hits it 280. It's a tricky last finishing hole.”