By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- They all praise the golf course. And why wouldn’t they? As major championship venues go, Atlanta Athletic Club is one of the prettiest, toughest and most pristinely manicured in recent memory. There aren’t the cliffs of Pebble Beach or the lakeside vistas of Whistling Straits, but for the golf purist, the plush, green zoysia fairways and lightning-fast, brick-hard greens make the heart skip a beat.
“This golf course is in phenomenal condition,” U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy said. “The fairways are probably the best I’ve ever seen. Greens are fast. You can’t really get the ball above the hole. I like the way they set the course up here.”
Those sentiments have been echoed by all the players so far. “Perfect shape,” said Tiger Woods. “The fairways are as good as some of the greens we play on,” said Masters winner Charl Schwartzel. “It’s just so much fun to play a golf course when it’s in such good condition, and the greens are just phenomenal.”
On and on it went. Adam Scott: “Magnificent condition.” Lee Westwood: “Immaculate!” Luke Donald: “One of the best conditioned courses I’ve ever seen.” Defending PGA Champion, Martin Kaymer: “Pure. The golf course is in great shape, so there are no excuses for bad scores.” Steve Stricker: “The best fairways I’ve ever seen.”
But when the conversation turns to the final four holes, beginning at the mammoth par-3 15th that can be stretched to just beyond 260 yards over water, and going through the 507-yard par-4 18th with water on the left and in front of the green, the tone changes. Expressions grow darker, and an almost imperceptible twitch appears around the corners of some eyes. The kindest words any of the players have for the finishing stretch are “tough,” and “a challenge.”
McIlroy, who hits it so far that he doesn’t consider a par 70 golf course measuring 7,467 particularly long, said of the closing stretch, “You can make a few birdies around the turn and then you’ve sort of just got to hang on for dear life coming in.”
Two par 3s and two par 4s shouldn’t strike such abject fear in the greatest golfers in the world. But these aren’t four ordinary holes. With a PGA Championship in the line, there will no shortage of drama in the final couple of hours.
No less an expert on tough finishes than Tiger Woods said, “I don’t think there’s another stretch that I can remember that’s this difficult coming in. You have two long par 4s going uphill; you’ve got a par 3 where guys will be hitting lumber. Obviously 18 being as tight as it is for as long as it is, it’s a hell of a test. If you par those four holes every day, play those 16 holes even par, you’ll be picking up a ton of shots on the guys.”
Steve Stricker took a deep breath and shook his head as if he were battling an undigested slice of bad cheese. “They are very extreme,” he said of the final four holes. “They are very long. Any little miss is magnified, especially like at 15 with the water and 18, too.”
The only real criticisms of the home stretch have come at the expense of the par-3 15th, the hole that David Toms aced in 2001 on his way to a one-shot victory. The green is firmer and faster than it was a decade ago, and the bunkers are deeper and angled to catch more shots. But it is the 25 extra yards that were added a before this event that have players howling.
“Mike Small (one of the qualifiers from the PGA National Professional Championship) said it best to me today,” Stricker said. “He said, ‘It’s a dogleg par 3. You play to the left if you can hit it in the bunker and then you play onto the green to the right.’ That’s pretty good. But it’s too long. It doesn’t need to be that long. It’s over the top.”
The No.1-ranked player in the world agreed with that assessment. “I’m never a big fan of long par 3s,” Luke Donald said. “I think some of the world’s greatest par 3s are very short. The seventh at Pebble (Beach), the 12th at Augusta, the Postage Stamp (at Royal Troon), you can keep naming them. It just seems like you take a little bit of skill out of it when a hole is that long. But it’s the same for everyone, and I’m going to have to learn to try to love it this week.”
Phil Mickelson birdied 15 in the final round of 2001 to gain a share of the lead. But he drove the ball in the rough on 16 and made bogey to fall one back, which was where he finished after Toms laid up on 18 from the rough and got up-and-down for par. Similar drama could be in our future.
“I think (the golf course) really suits my game,” McIlroy said. “It puts a premium on ball-striking.” The he nodded and smiled and said, “Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting going.”