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Trying to make sense of the Highlands Course

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – This is not a golf course problem, or a Rees Jones problem, or even a Phil Mickelson problem. This is a set-up problem.

As a rule, the PGA of America and Kerry Haigh, the organization’s point man on golf course set up, have gotten it right. There have been no Shinnecocks or Carnousties, set-up snafus to hang on the “never again” bulletin board. But this week’s blueprint at Atlanta Athletic Club doesn’t feel right.

On Wednesday, first-alternate Paul Goydos figured on the “Grey Goose 19th Hole” that he’s never played a course with a driveable par 3 (No. 15) and a three-shot par 4 (No. 18). After this week, many in the PGA Championship field are hoping they don’t see one again.

This goes beyond typical Tour pro nit-picking and cliché claims that “they all have to play the same course.” This is a question of intent, as in did Jones & Co. intend the closing hole to be played 4-iron/4-iron, the way Mickelson did earlier this week? Or the par-3 15th hole played to effectively the same yardage from two different teeing areas?

Mickelson said modern architecture is to blame, but in the case of the PGA it seems a lack of vision is the culprit.

“(No. 18) would be an awesome par 5,” Ryan Palmer said. “What is wrong with par 71? Why are entertaining par 5s so bad? If I’m a fan have guys hit a driver and have a rescue wood in. That’s exciting.”

The Highlands Course’s 18th is a par-5 51 weeks a year, with a back tee that stretches the hole to 573 yards, but has played as a par 4 for the PGA, a big, thoughtless par 4.

Sure, David Toms’ final-hole heroics in 2001 at AAC were entertaining, but there is a better than even-money chance Sunday’s winner will play the hole the exact same way. It’s the way a large portion of the field has been forced to play the hole this week. If everyone does it, is it still special?

Most players hit fairway wood or hybrid off the tee because the landing area for most drivers is little more than 18 yards wide - miss right and there are bunkers and a likely lay-up - miss left and the water awaits.

“There’s nowhere to hit it off the tee and the bunkers are virtually unplayable,” said Steve Stricker, who actually made par the Toms way on Saturday at the 18th hole. “It’s a better par 5 than a par 4.”

The 2008 U.S. Open was arguably the best major of the decade in no small part to the fact that U.S. Golf Association set-up man Mike Davis fought to keep Torrey Pines’ closing hole a risk-reward par 5. Instead of a false sense of par the USGA went for pyrotechnics, and it worked.

It would have worked at Atlanta Athletic Club, but instead we have a scoring average more than a half stroke over par (4.57), more double bogeys (37) than birdies (25) and virtually no chance for closing dramatics, just disaster.

And the one hole where there was excitement in 2001 (No. 15, where Toms made an ace in Round 3) received a nip/tuck that added an odd 38 yards and virtually nothing new or interesting to the hole.

“It played the exact same yardage (for Rounds 1 and 2),” said Palmer of the 15th hole.

Huh? According to the PGA the 15th hole played from the back tee on Thursday (253 yards) and the next tee up on Friday (236 yards).

“It was 240 (yards) both days, hit the exact same club, a hybrid,” Palmer said. “Because on Thursday the back tee is more elevated and the pin was in the front. On Friday the lower tee is not as elevated and the pin was back.”

Which makes the 15th hole’s new tee little more than wasted real-estate, and why this week’s set-up may have been a wasted opportunity.

New heat-resistant grasses at AAC promised almost unlimited set-up possibilities. The Highlands Course could have been set up as hard and fast as the PGA wanted, but instead of creative we got carnage. No, this was definitely not a golf course problem, this was a set-up problem.