CHARLOTTE – After Friday evening fireworks sent the biggest names in golf skyrocketing up the leaderboard at the 99th PGA Championship, Quail Hollow Club has become strangely silent, the roars giving way instead to pained groans and polite golf claps.
It was moving day, but nobody went all that far.
After the excitement and energy that was so palpable as the sun went down Friday, we were all expecting a shootout of marquis players. Hideki Matsuyama – a four-time winner this year, coming off a win and a 61 last week at Firestone, and a strong candidate for Player of the Year – carded a dazzling 64 to put him at 8-under for the tournament, tied for the lead with surprising Kevin Kisner.
A pack of young lions prowled right behind them, claws and jaws ripping at their heels. Jason Day had an eagle and four birdies en route to a 66 that vaulted him to third place, two shots back at 6-under 136. 2010 Open Champion Louie Oosthuizen had crept to 5-under and Rickie Fowler and Justin Thomas were five back at 3-under. The course was softened by the rain, so the players could swing more freely with their drivers…The boys were set to light the fuse…
And then the PGA of America doused them with a garden hose.
“I could tell starting a few weeks back they were growing the rough up. I don’t know if the intent to make it this difficult, but it’s really hard,” explained 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, whose 1-over 72 Saturday left him 5-over for the tournament. “Especially today with some of the pins and tees and length of the course, it feels like a U.S. Open. We are dealing with a long golf course, tons of rough, and crazy fast greens.”
Webb Simpson is not a crybaby; he never complains about anything. He’s graceful, grateful, and God-fearing. It’s one thing when a malcontent or a rakehell like, say, Pat Perez complains, but when a phlegmatic, sensible, open-minded guy like Simpson complains, you really should listen…especially since he’s a Quail Hollow Club member.
“I don’t think historically that’s…the stereotype of a PGA Championship,” Simpson added. “I feel like I’m out there trying to survive, similar feelings to how when I play a U.S. Open. You shoot even par, you have done really well. In past PGAs even par is not that good. It’s definitely something to get used to.”
A U.S. Open in August – that’s what we’ve got suddenly. Survival – that’s what an intolerable five hours and forty minutes in sweltering 90 degree Charlotte heat turned the third round into. Everyone percolated, treading water in place.
Kisner’s tepid 72 leaves him the leader by one over Matsuyama, but he hardly looked like he was playing the caliber of golf we expect from a Wanamaker Trophy contender. His round included two bogeys and a double, and he played the Green Mile (holes 16-18) 3-over for the day. Matsuyama was even more flaccid, scowling and plodding his way to a 73, leaving him tied for second with Chris Stroud, the last man to get an invitation this week and who is one of a few players worth the interest. Oosthuizen and Justin Thomas are two back at 5-under.
Worse still, Saturday saw boring, plodding, dreadful golf by everyone except Canadian Graham Delaet, who lipped out his drive on the par-4 14th, but he made the eagle putt. That deuce came in the middle of a birdie-eagle-eagle-birdie stretch at holes 13-16, 6-under for four holes. The rest of the field had all the flair and energy of plain melba toast.
“It’s the quietest major I’ve ever heard,” said one veteran sportswriter from across the pond. He’s been the Voice of Golf in Britain since the 1980s and has reported on four decades of the game’s history. His comments were echoed by fans and media alike. Everyone left Quail Hollow last night underwhelmed and unsatisfied.
Some people are calling this week a “U.S. Open in August” but when you think about it, that’s not fair to the U.S. Open. Mike Davis learned the hard lessons of the Tom Meeks era and ushered in smarter set-up concepts like graded rough and a drivable par-4 or reachable par-5. Yes there’s less importance than ever in driving accuracy, but more birdies means more excitement.
Now it’s understandable the PGA would want to err this year on the side of “too hard” rather than “too difficult.” Of late the PGA Championship scores have been so low that records have been falling at the speed of…I can’t say Usain Bolt here, because he came up limp yesterday… but you get the idea. The last three champions’ winning scores to par were 14, 20, and 16-unde par. Moreover, Quail Hollow had surrendered two 62s and a 61 in its previous tournament history and didn’t want to be saddled with the label of “too easy” – the worst golf albatross that could get hung around a club’s neck.
Enter Tom Fazio. The first hole is now the hardest on the course, (a narrow, 524 yard brute that, as we go to press, ranks 3rd hardest hole for the entire PGATour season thus far, 4.491 stroke avg.), there’s an unplayable par-3 (four or 17? Take your pick…), and the rough swallowed balls and players whole. The Bermuda here is longer, bit more importantly thicker, than the fearsome, indeed downright legendary, Bermuda rough of Southern Hills in Oklahoma.
The adventure only continues once you get the greens, and if there’s one good thing about Quail’s design, the greens are wildly undulating. That should increase the chances of crowning a proper champion. But this week the greens reached a record high on the stimpmeter – a whopping 15…at times, an all but unputtable 15.
“They [the greens] are much firmer than they were there. The pins are on knobs. Unless you are in a perfect location, your putt has to be absolutely perfect,” noted a shell-shocked reigning Open champion and three-time major champion Jordan Spieth. “You really only have half the hole to make a lot of putts because of where the pins are That’s the defense of the golf course for sure.”
Nothing sucks the air excitement out of a tournament venue than a Tom Fazio redesign. That’s what happens when you add length and rough and ratchet green speeds up to “Asphault Fast.” Look what Fazio did to Augusta National. The 2007 and 2008 Masters were among the most deadly dull in tournament history. They reversed his changes shortly thereafter.
To create excitement, you need temptation. You need to shorten holes and add water, like Sawgrass. Quail Hollow has 14 and 15 for excitement, and everything else is a minefield of unexploded double bogeys. As a result the best defensive golfer may win, but not necessarily the best golfer.
“I think we are seeing a trend in golf when courses are redone, they are 99 percent of the time harder,” concluded Simpson. “The players I’ve talked to this year, they love coming to Charlotte, they love Quail Hollow, they love our club. I think the big vote is it’s maybe a little too difficult. But again, I say that, it’s up to whoever sets up the golf course each day. They can set it up however they want.”