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.
After Further Review: Spieth needs a break
Each week, GolfChannel.com takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.
On Jordan Spieth's much-needed break ...
Jordan Spieth is heading for a break, and that’s probably a good thing.
Spieth just wrapped a run of six events in seven weeks that featured largely underwhelming results. A third-place finish at the Masters that stemmed from a nearly-historic final round deflects attention away from the fact that Spieth has yet to enter a final round this year less than six shots off the lead.
A return to his home state didn’t work, nor did a fight against par at Shinnecock or a title defense outside Hartford where everything went so well a year ago. His putting woes appear to have bottomed out, as Spieth finished 21st in putting at Travelers, but now the alignment issue that plagued his putting appears to have bled into other parts of his game.
So heading into another title defense next month at Carnoustie, Spieth plans to take some time off and re-evaluate. Given how fast things turned around last summer, that might prove to be just what he needs. - Will Gray
On the difference between this week and last week ...
There wasn’t a single outraged tweet, not a lone voice of descent on social media following Bubba Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, a 17-under par masterpiece that included a closing loop of 30.
Nobody declared that golf was broken, no one proclaimed the royal and ancient game a victim of technology and the age of uber athletes. The only response was appreciation for what Watson, a bomber in the truest form, was able to accomplish.
At 6,840 yards, TPC River Highlands was built for fun, not speed. Without wild weather or ill-advised hole locations and greens baked to extinction, this is what the best players in the game do, and yet no one seemed outraged. Weird. - Rex Hoggard
On the emergence of another LPGA phenom ...
Add another young star to the favorites list heading to the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes outside Chicago next week.
Nasa Hataoka, the 19-year-old Japanese standout who needed her rookie season last year to acclimate to the LPGA, broke through for her first LPGA title Sunday at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
This wasn’t a surprise to LPGA followers. Hataoka won the Japan Women’s Open when she was 17, the first amateur to win a major on the Japan LPGA Tour, and she has been trending up this year.
Her tie for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago was her fourth consecutive top-10 finish. She won going away in Arkansas, beating a deep field that included the top nine in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She outplayed world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn and No. 3 Lexi Thompson on Sunday. - Randall Mell
Bubba waiting for Furyk's text about Ryder Cup
CROMWELL, Conn. – After winning his third PGA Tour title in the span of five months, Bubba Watson is now waiting by his phone.
Watson’s victory at the Travelers Championship, his third at TPC River Highlands since 2010, accompanies recent victories at both the Genesis Open and WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play from earlier this year. It also moved the southpaw from No. 7 to No. 5 in the latest U.S. Ryder Cup standings, with the top eight after the PGA Championship qualifying automatically.
After serving as an assistant captain at Hazeltine despite ranking No. 7 in the world at the time, Watson made it clear that he hopes to have removed any doubt about returning to the role of player when the biennial matches head to Paris this fall.
“It still says in my phone that (U.S. captain) Jim (Furyk) hasn’t texted me yet. So I’d really like for him to say I’m going to pick you no matter what,” Watson said. “The motivation is I’ve never won a Ryder Cup, so making the Ryder Cup team and trying to win a Ryder Cup as a player would be another tournament victory to me. It would be a major championship to me just because I’ve never done it, been a part of it.”
Watson turns 40 in November, and while he reiterated that his playing career might not extend too far into the future as he looks to spend more time at home with son Caleb and daughter Dakota, he’s also hoping to make an Olympic return in Tokyo in 2020 after representing the U.S. in Rio two years ago.
“Talking about the Olympics coming up, that’s motivating me,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life to watch all the other events, and then the golf tournament got in the way. I’d love to do it again. I’d love to watch all the events and then have to play golf as well.”
Casey comes up short (again) to Bubba at Travelers
CROMWELL, Conn. – Staked to a four-shot lead entering the final round of the Travelers Championship, Paul Casey watched his opening tee shot bounce off a wooden wall and back into the middle of the fairway, then rolled in a 21-foot birdie putt off the fringe.
At the time, it appeared to be a not-so-subtle indicator that Casey was finally going to get his hands on a trophy that has barely eluded him in the past. Instead it turned out to be the lone highlight of a miserable round that left the Englishman behind only Bubba Watson at TPC River Highlands for the second time in the last four years.
Casey shot the low round of the tournament with a third-round 62 that distanced him from the field, but that opening birdie turned out to be his only one of the day as he stalled out and ultimately finished three shots behind Watson, to whom he lost here in a playoff in 2015.
Casey’s score was 10 shots worse than Saturday, as a 2-over 72 beat only five people among the 73 others to play the final round.
“I mean, I fought as hard as I could, which I’m proud of,” Casey said. “Not many times you put me on a golf course and I only make one birdie. I don’t know. I’d be frustrated with that in last week’s event, but it is what it is.”
Casey led by as many as five after his opening birdie, but he needed to make a 28-foot par save on No. 10 simply to maintain a one-shot edge over a hard-charging Watson. The two men were tied as Casey headed to the 16th tee, but his bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 combined with a closing birdie from Watson meant the tournament was out of reach before Casey even reached the final tee.
Casey explained that a “bad night of sleep” led to some neck pain that affected his warm-up session but didn’t impact the actual round.
“Just frustrating I didn’t have more,” he said. “Didn’t have a comfortable swing to go out there and do something with.”
Casey won earlier this year at the Valspar Championship to end a PGA Tour victory drought that dated back to 2009, but after being denied a second victory in short succession when he appeared to have one hand on the trophy, he hopes to turn frustration into further success before turning the page to 2019.
“I’m probably even more fired up than I was post-Tampa to get another victory. This is only going to be more fuel,” Casey said. “I’ve got 12 events or something the rest of the year. So ask me again in November, and if I don’t have another victory, then I will be disappointed. This is merely kind of posturing for what could be a very good climax.”
Bubba thrives in his comfort zone
CROMWELL, Conn. – The 1:20 p.m. pairing Sunday at TPC River Highlands spanned the spectrum on the PGA Tour. In one corner stood science. Bryson DeChambeau, whose quantitative approach to golf seemingly knows no bounds, was looking to add another victory after winning a playoff earlier this month at Jack’s Place.
On the other side was art.
Bubba Watson doesn’t float golf balls in Epsom salt to identify minor imperfections. He doesn’t break out a compass to find the slightest errors in the Tour-supplied pin sheet. Even when he texts caddie Ted Scott, he prefers to use voice text rather than rely on his admittedly sub-optimal spelling.
But strolling along one of his favorite landscapes, Bubba the artist came out on top. Again.
Watson is in the midst of a resurgent season, one that already included a third victory at one of his favorite haunts in Riviera Country Club. It featured a decisive run through the bracket at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, and a return to the leaderboards at Augusta National where he fell short of a third green jacket.
It only makes sense, then, that he’d build upon that burgeoning momentum at the Travelers Championship, where he earned his first PGA Tour victory in 2010 and Sunday joined Billy Casper as the tournament’s only three-time champ with a final-round 63 to catch and pass Paul Casey.
This is a place where Watson can bomb drives by feel and carve short irons at will, and one where he officially put his stamp on the best season to date on Tour.
“His hand-eye coordination is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen,” DeChambeau said. “You’ve got me who was just struggling off the tee, and he’s just swiping shots down there. It was cool to watch. I wish I could do that. I probably could do that, but I just don’t feel like I’d be as consistent as he is.”
Consistency wasn’t an apt descriptor a year ago, as Watson went from two-time major champ to completely off the radar. His world ranking, which began last year at No. 10 and is now back up to No. 13 after he became the first three-time winner this season, fell as far as 117th before his win at Riviera in February.
Watson attributes much of the turnaround to a change in health. Never really one to tip the scales, he lost 25 pounds in a three-month span last year while battling an undisclosed health concern. After putting some of the weight back on, he’s now able to focus more of his time and energy on fine-tuning one of the Tour’s most distinctive approaches.
“Anytime any of these guys kind of get comfortable with just being them, and golf is secondary in a sense, it helps them reach their potential,” said Scott. “I think the hype and the pressure can sometimes put things out of sort. And right now he’s just very comfortable with who he is as a person, and I think in his life. It helps him relax on the golf course.”
What Watson doesn’t prefer to mention is the equipment change he made that serves as a not-so-subtle line of demarcation. The southpaw turned heads at the end of 2016 when he agreed to play a colored Volvik ball on Tour during the 2017 season, only to watch his results fall off a cliff. A return to the Titleist ball he previously used has coincided with some of the best results of his 12-year career.
“I don’t think it has had any (role) in my success,” Watson said. “My clubs weren’t going the distance that I used to. I couldn’t shape it the way I want to. Luckily for me, I know the problem, and the problem was with health and not all these other things.”
But regardless of the true source of his turnaround, Watson is back to doing what he does best. That includes carving up the handful of venues that most fit his unique eye, be they lined by thick kikuyu rough outside Los Angeles or dotted with menacing water hazards outside Hartford.
The artistic touch was on full display with his final swing of the day. Facing exactly 71 yards to a pin tucked barely over the edge of a yawning bunker on No. 18, Watson laid the face open on his 63-degree wedge and hit a cut shot that spun and checked to inside 3 feet.
“Teddy put his arm around me, like, ‘That was an amazing shot,’” Watson said. “He’s seen a lot of shots, he’s been out here for many years. So for him to realize it, and other players to text me and realize it, it was special.”
While it seemed at the time like a shot that gave Watson a glimmer of hope in his pursuit of Casey, it ultimately turned out to be the final highlight of a three-shot victory. It’s the type of shot that few, if any, of his peers can visualize, let alone execute with such exact precision with the tournament hanging in the balance.
It’s the type of shot that separates Watson – the quirky left-hander with the pink driver who openly talks about his struggles with on-course focus and abhors few things more than trying to hit a straight shot – from even the best in the game when things are firing on all cylinders.
“The skills have always been there, as you know. But he’s just more relaxed now,” Scott said. “And when these guys, obviously when they enjoy it, they can play at their best and not get too stressed.”