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Will a Long Hitter Win the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National?

The 10th Green at Hazeltine
The 10th Green at Hazeltine

CHASKA, MN – Tauting machismo and unbelievable length, Hazeltine National, tops out at 7,674 yards, the longest major in golf history and featuring the longest par-3, par-4, and par-5 in the tournament’s history. Rumor has it -through the U.K.’s Daily Mail, that Tom Watson took one look at the yardage and tore up his invitation. But does the added length on this par-72 behemoth necessarily mean that a long hitter will win?

“Until we move back to V-grooves, rough just doesn’t deter these guys anymore,” explained Rees Jones. “Remember,” he continued, “Hazeltine is a par 72, not a 70 or 71. We need that length. Par-5s are the toughest to defend par, especially as these guys hit the ball so long and their wedges are so precise. The par-5s are now true, great three-shotters.”

On paper, that seems to favor Tiger Woods, who has won 10 of his 14 majors on par-72 courses, including four Masters tournaments. Statistics show Woods has an advantage of a ¼ stroke over the field on par-5s over the course of his career. That’s a stroke a day, a formidable advantage. Along with Woods, Angel Cabrera, and Phil Mickelson are among the popular favorites.

Cabrera is still under-rated solely because he is Argentine and plays on the European Tour. He overpowered previously invincible Oakmont at the 2007 U.S. Open with a 69 on the Championship Sunday, even though he hit only 5 fairways. That’s normally the stat of a guy who shoots 79, not 69, but he drove it so amazingly long – close to Woods’s staggering bombs – that he could hit short irons out of the rough and still hold the greens. He won again at Augusta, still a bombers paradise not that some trees and rough have been removed.

“That’s the fad today,” said Jim Furyk. “Longer, longer, longer is supposedly better. That being said, I think the best hole on the course is the second [one of] the shortest holes on the course. Longer doesn’t necessarily make it better.” Furyk added that tournament set-up committees probably couldn’t make courses too long for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh or Bubba Watson, the longest of the long hitters on tour.

“The length’s effect will depend on whether the course plays fast and firm or not,” suggested Sergio Garcia. “I hope it’s soft so shots into the greens will hold and so the ball won’t roll into the rough. I think the rough here is tougher and thicker at Oakmont. Cabrera was able to power it out there, but I think this might be thicker even if it isn’t as long. Plus the U.S. Open has added the new first cut which is forgiving.”

Perhaps the most poignant comment was offered by the venerable Dan Jenkins, the reigning Dean of American golf writers. “Every time they say a long hitter’s gonna win here, a short hitter walks away with it.” Tony Jacklin, Payne Stewart, and Rich Beem were all medium length hitters but hit it straight all week when they claimed the Wanamaker Trophy. “Straight’s better than crooked here,” concluded Jenkins.

Jenkins may be right. Moreover, the best par-5 at Hazeltine may be the shortest, the 570-yard fifth, with its requirements of a fade off the tee and a draw into the green. A pond guards the green, so – like at the Masters – it can result in an eagle or double-bogey. Still, Justin Leonard laid up four times and made four birdies on the strength of his short game. Zach Johnson won a Masters like that in 2007. The other par-5s at Hazeltine all exceed 600 yards.

Most players agreed that with the enormous length, playing from the fairway will be critical. Moreover, with the ruthless penalties Hazeltine metes out around the greens – nine holes feature water – it will be a complete test of everyone’s game. Of the long bombers, look for Woods, Mickelson, and Cabrera to have a solid week. Long hitters Bubba Watson, Boo Weekley, and J.B. Holmes should be competitive. For sleeper picks, Ben Curtis always seems to elevate his game at majors and Sergio is rounding into form and optimistic about his chances.

Finally, one stat screams to be acknowledged – here is a breakdown of the winners by nationality:

U.S.: 74
South Africa and Australia: 4 each
Fiji, Scotland, and England: 2 each
Ireland: 1

This tournament is a graveyard for foreigners. A foreign player wins on out of every eight years. This modern, penal course – perhaps the “Medinah of the North” – should crown an American as champion.