CHARLOTTE, N. C. – The first-round leader at the PGA Championship? That’s easy. G. Mile.
We’re talking the closing three holes at Quail Hollow, referred to around here as the Green Mile, in various tones of voices. Actually, it’s only three-quarters of a mile, but why quibble Thursday, as the bogeys piled up?
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It’s a brute in disguise. You stand at the par-4 No. 18 tee and look down the fairway, with a gentle creek hugging the left side. To your right, the par-3 No. 17 has taken you over a scenic lake, and behind that, No. 16 has doglegged out of the trees, down a hill by the Sarazen Suites, a 515-yard par-4. It’s all so pretty, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. There were 19 birdies on the Green Mile Thursday. There were 187 bogeys or worse. Masters champion Sergio Garcia went double bogey, bogey, double bogey. Padraig Harrington had back-to-back double bogeys. Bubba Watson went bogey-bogey-bogey. The mile might be green, but their vocabulary possibly was a tad blue.
“I think I wore out my 4-iron,” said Russell Knox, bemoaning all his long shots to the greens, having gone bogey-par-bogey.
Brooks Koepka even nailed a marshal in the head with a wayward drive on No. 16. “He was fine. Well, I shouldn’t say fine, he was drilled in the head. I felt terrible about it.”
With considerable length and deadly greens and little margin for error, the Green Mile was taking no prisoners Thursday. It was part of a Quail Hollow that could be beastly, especially when it came time to putt.
“With some of the pin locations, these greens are the fastest greens I’ve ever played,” Koepka said. “And the thing is, they are only going to get faster and firmer.
“If they get about a foot faster, they are kind of unplayable.”
So Quail Hollow and its brutal closing holes carried the day. But there was still room on the leader board for all manners of human stories, too.
For Thorbjorn Olesen sharing the lead after a 67, a product of Denmark who uses his middle name as his first name because there are gobs of Jacobs, but how many other Thorbjorns do you know?
For Kevin Kisner, also at 67, a product of Aiken, S.C., just up the road from Augusta National.
For Grayson Murray, among a gaggle at 68, who was in danger of losing his PGA Tour card until he won recently in the Barbasol Championship. His first memory of golf was meeting Arnold Palmer when he was nine.
For U.S. Open winner Koepka. And Chris Stroud, who only found out he would be playing here five days ago when he won the Barracuda Championship. Also both 68.
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Since then, by Stroud’s count, his inbox has included “1,400 text messages, 55 voicemails, and probably another 100 emails. I have replied to every single one of them. I’m a big believer in that.”
And for Gary Woodland, a former college basketball player whose 2017 has included a real-life heartbreak. He and his wife were expecting twins in the spring, when one of the babies was lost. The other was born 10 weeks prematurely, at only three pounds, and spent the first 40 days of his life in a Kansas City hospital.
Jaxson Lynn Woodland finally came home last week. His dad shot a 68 Thursday.
“This has been the hardest year of my life by far,” Gary said, standing outside the clubhouse after his round. “The struggle my wife’s had to deal with, it’s been hard for me to leave home. He’s finally out of the hospital, but he’s still hooked up to a monitor, he’s still working on breathing. But he’s home.”
Maybe that’s why Gary Woodland could play so freely Thursday. He had a bogey on the Green Mile, of course, at No. 16, but little other trouble. Any parent could understand the sense of relief he must have brought to Quail Hollow. Like 10 golf bags taken off his shoulders.
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“Before he was born, we didn’t know if he was going to make it and then he was born so early. It was a huge relief for my wife, too. There wasn’t any more guessing. We knew what was going on,” he said.
“I’m definitely more mature. It puts things in perspective real quick. Obviously bad rounds don’t mean as much. I played bad the first couple of rounds last week and then called him on FaceTime and saw him. That gives me a different mindset.”
Little Jaxson, who faces a hernia surgery soon, is back home with mom Gabby, so Gary was anxious after his round to connect with the family. It’s how he spends much of his day now.
“As long as he’s awake,” Gary said, “and I’m not out here.”
They’ll be out here again in the second round, the men of the PGA with all their tales, dueling with a course that apparently does not intend to often blink this week. Olesen and Kisner might be in the lead, but it’s the Green Mile they’ll be trying to beat Friday.