JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Tiger Woods posed over his approach into the 18th green Wednesday morning as the ball descended toward the flag and the crowd began to murmur with anticipation.
This was only his final practice round for the PGA Championship. Imagine facing this shot with a one-shot lead Sunday afternoon, not having Woods’ power, and it starts to make sense why David Toms laid up with a wedge 10 years ago.
Only it’s not just the closing hole at Atlanta Athletic Club.
In what ranks as most of the more difficult closing stretches in championship golf, the last four holes feature a pair of par 3s over water, including one that measures 260 yards on the scorecard. The shorter par 4 is only 476 yards, but is entirely uphill. The closing hole is 507 yards that bends to the left and has a lake in front of the green
“I don’t think there’s another stretch that I can remember that’s this difficult coming in,” Woods said. “You have two long par 4s going uphill, you’ve got a par 3 in which more guys will be hitting lumber, and obviously 18 being as tight as it for as long as it is, it’s a hell of a test coming in.
“If you play those four holes per day, those 16 holes even par, you’ll be picking up a ton of shots on the guys.”
It was difficult enough in 2001, and now they are a combined 85 yards longer.
They played a key part of the PGA Championship the last time it came to Atlanta Athletic Club. The 15th hole is where Toms made an ace with his 5-wood in the third round to take the lead. Of course, the hole was only 227 yards back then.
“First of all, 5-wood is not going to be enough club for me,” Toms said.
The 16th hole is where Phil Mickelson heard a fan shout out Sunday afternoon that his long birdie putt was slower than it looked. Mickelson ran it by some 8 feet and three-putted for bogey, a lost stroke that he never got back and finished second.
On the 18th hole, Toms had a 5-wood from the light rough to clear the water. Instead, he laid up with a wedge, hit another to 12 feet and make the putt to win his only major.
Ten years later, not much has changed as far as the test that awaits when the final major gets under way Thursday.
“We were talking at lunch, if you had to par the last four holes to win the PGA Championship, it’s going to be a tough road,” Toms said. “Those last four holes are very, very difficult now.”
That’s where most majors are decided, anyway.
Martin Kaymer thought the finishing stretch at the PGA Championship was among the toughest he had ever seen, with a pair of par 4s at least 500 yards, and a 223-yard par 3 for the 17th.
Then he came to Atlanta Athletic Club.
“Whistling Straits, the last four holes, I think they played a little bit easier because there was no water involved,” Kaymer said. “There was always some room for misses. I would rather play the last four holes at Whistling Straits. They were a lot more difficult here.”
It’s not just the closing stretch on the Highlands course at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Rees Jones overhauled the course for this PGA, and it now measures 7,467 yards, the longest in major championship history for a par 70.
The good news is that it might not play that long. For one thing, PGA officials are contemplating moving the tees forward on two of the par 4s, one on each nine. Plus, with temperatures in the 90s and an immaculate course with fairways that could be running fast, players might get ample distance.
Dustin Johnson, one of the longest hitters in golf, hit driver on the 18th and had a 9-iron into the green.
“It doesn’t play that long,” McIlroy said of the entire course. “The ball is going so far because it’s so hot. I mean, you’re hitting 7-irons nearly 200 yards. I don’t think it plays the 7,400 yards that’s on the card.”
If there is one hole getting plenty of attention, it’s the 15th. A new tee makes the hole play as long as 260 yards, among the longest ever for a par 3 in a major. Oakmont had the par-3 eighth that could play - and did play in the final round of the 2007 U.S. Open - around 300 yards. But it didn’t have a pond hugging the right side and front corner of the green.
“Cunning par 3, isn’t it,” Clarke said of the 15th.
Like so many other players, he doesn’t understand why architects have failed to notice the best par 3s are the shortest, whether it’s the 106-yard seventh hole at Pebble Beach or the 155-yard 12th at Augusta National or the famed “Postage Stamp” hole at Royal Troon, which is 123 yards of sheer terror.
“At some stage, they’re going to realize length is not the way to toughen a golf course,” Clarke said.
So how does one play a 260-yard par 3.
“I don’t know,” Clarke said. “A 3-wood and hit it well or it will be a redo. Because balls don’t float.”
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell summed up the length at Atlanta Athletic Club by suggesting it would be a good week for 3-woods and hybrids.
As for the longest par on the course? He shrugged.
“There’s no need for 260 yards on a par 3, but we’re becoming quite used to them. I couldn’t really tell you a par 3 I love that’s over 220 yards.”