A close look at Whistling Straits
It was the longest course in major championship history when we last visited Whistling Straits and there were some nervous voices that thought it could embarrass the best players in the world the same way that Carnoustie had in 1999. The PGA Championship committee, however, is far too savvy to let that happen and despite Singh’s lackluster Sunday round the course was well received by both players and fans. With very few changes from 2004, the course remains essentially the same, but if you’re anything like me, you don’t remember much about the holes because of all the visual distractions that steal the show.
Having just spent a few days there with the course all to myself I can tell you that there is enough ebb and flow to the layout to provide some salve to the brutality that deep rough, deep bunkers, fast greens and strong winds will inevitably cause. The first three holes – a short par 4, a relatively easy par 5 and beautiful but somewhat soft par 3 – allow the players to ease into the round before they are hit by everything that Pete Dye, Herb Kohler and Mother Nature can throw at them on the 489 yard par 4, fourth hole.
With the prevailing summer breeze in the players' face, a sloping fairway that weaves its way through bunkers and fescue and green that is long but narrow and is perched on a cliff, No. 4 could easily prove to be the hardest hole of the week. The par 5, fifth hole is a double dog leg that will produce some heroic moments with a lake that is shallow enough in front of the green to lure players into bold plays and exploding from its banks should they come up short. The sixth hole is a drivable par 4 that may be one of the more interesting holes I have seen. Disaster awaits should a player miss the fairway left and for the last 100 yards into the green the fairway slopes downhill so shots will feed into the green. The most prominent feature of the hole, though, is a new bunker that essentially divides the green and is about 7 feet deep and leaves a sliver of green on the right that will probably see at least two hole placements.
No. 7 is a par 3 that will take the breath away of players and fans but for different reasons. Sitting on the lake’s edge it is a photographer’s dream and at 221 yards, with a green that is 43 steps deep and about 15 steps wide, surrounded by harrowing lies, it is a player’s nightmare. The eighth is a par 4 over 500 yards, with a blind tee shot to one of the widest fairways on the course but if a player misses that fairway, he will do well to make bogey. The ninth, a mid-length par 4, will most likely give the players a crosswind to deal with and 7 mile creek to the right of the green will catch a few balls, especially in a south wind.
Another potentially drivable par 4 starts the back nine, which was the site of one of the most memorable shots from the 2004 PGA. Singh took driver out and with one swing set up a birdie that would lead to his victory. The eleventh is a long par 5 that is reachable in a south wind but by no means a birdie otherwise. The 12th is a short 3, but pure genius in its design, with one of the most unique greens I’ve seen. If the pin is back right the drama is not to be missed. Thirteen and fourteen are short par 4s that give a little breathing room before the final four holes that rivals the toughest finish in golf.
Fifteen is yet another par 4 of well over 500 yards that like Nos. 4 and 8 has a fairway that sits at an awkward angle from 150 yards out so if a player misses it, the layup or the run-up to the green is extraordinarily difficult. The par 5, 16th is along the shore of Lake Michigan and is going to give us a mix of highlights and disasters as it is reachable by everyone. It also has some of the thickest rough on the course, framing a fairway that weaves through a graveyard of bunkers and cliffs. The par 3, 17th is 223 yards and can play as long as 240 yards and, like all the other par 3s at Whistling Straits, sits on the water’s edge and intimidates all who stand on its tee. The finishing hole is a 500 yard par 4 that is as complicated as it is demanding because of a sloping fairway that makes one play away from a straight line to the hole, a creek that cuts across the hole at about 320 yards from the tee and runs up to the green making a missed tee shot a problem of enormous proportions. The green is both large and busy and will give players fits as they try to read its many obvious and equally many, not so obvious, subtle breaks.
This is not a course that allows for recovery or allows for anyone looking to build as the week goes on, as it will severely punish miscues and give us a wide dispersion of scores both good and bad. It will separate the field quickly and without bias to the world ranks. Only those in control of their tee shots have a chance here. Period. After that, you can separate with the normal prejudices to nerves and short game but if a player is missing fairways here he can pack his bags Friday night.
Because of the course’s unforgiving nature it’s likely we will get a surprising winner. Course set ups, in the last decade, have acquiesced to the best players visiting the rough often but that leniency is not subscribed to by the PGA or Whistling Straits.
Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59
Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.
While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.
He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.
"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."
Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.
"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."
Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot
When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.
Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.
"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"
The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.
Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.
"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."
DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate
World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.
Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.
"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."
Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.
Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.
"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."
Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.
"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."
LPGA lists April date for new LA event
The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.
When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.
The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.
The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.