Romilly Evans assesses the challenges and challengers at this week's PGA venue, another formidable Peter Dye creation...
In the four-course meal that is the annual major rota, the best has been saved for last. That's because the PGA journeys to Kiawah Island, scene of the infamous "War on the Shore" at the 1991 Ryder Cup, for glory's last shot. Pete Dye's Ocean Course is among the most spectacular in the world, and the design-doctor has now decided to ramp up its difficulty, following his old mantra of "driving the pros crazy."
Respected golf magazine, Golf Digest, evidently concurs, ranking this coastal layout as the toughest in America. Some have added the caveat "and that's even before the wind blows." And while the latter comment is surely hyperbole, wind could be the crucial factor this week. For this track's challenges don't appear to reside in accuracy off the tee. Relative to other major venues, the fairways here are very accommodating, and while the rough is penal, you have to be a black-belt in waywardness to find the deepest bundu that lines the perimeters.
So if the Atlantic gusts and gales kick up, these landing areas will narrow accordingly, prioritising precision on many cross-wind holes. If it's comparatively flat, though, wilder bombers (like Bubba Watson, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson) could get away with a misfiring driver.
The most striking feature is the course's total yardage, a jaw-dropping 7,676 yards from the tips. "That's a big ballpark," deadpanned Woods last week. The biggest in history in fact. Long hitters are clearly going to enjoy an edge here then, which is a helpful criterion by which to cut the field of likely contenders.
But Dye would never have earned the nickname "The Marquis de Sod", if he didn't examine all aspects of a golfer's game. And the key tests he has inserted take the shape of innumerable greenside run-off areas, whose sloping swales will collect errant approach shots from every angle, leaving exacting up-and-down propositions. In this regard, it resembles Pinehurst No.2, renowned as one of the US Open's toughest venues, where target areas are like upturned saucers. Only the best chippers prospered from the surrounding collection areas. And it should be a similar story here.
The greens themselves have also been cut in line with the speeds of a US Open, but here any similarities with the second major stop. US Open venues can border on the sadistic, while the PGA of America set their courses up in a firm-but-fair manner. So reigning champion Keegan Bradley's soundbite that "the winning score could be well over-par" looks like baseless scare-mongering, even though early forecasts expect some heavy downpours to lengthen the course further.
Adam Scott certainly didn't agree with his rival's assessment. "It would have to blow up to 30 knots and rain," reasoned the Aussie. "There will be good scores out there if the weather's reasonable. The front nine is actually a really nice, playable golf course... but then the back nine is not," he mused. "The back nine is very severe."
In short, there's a strong bias here which can be exploited In-Play. So expect players to make their score over the front nine, before trying to hang on for the backside. Certainly, with a two-tee start in place, anyone who starts on the 10th tee and plays the opening half in something around par will be in a good position to climb the leaderboard. Conversely, those who don't take advantage of the opening section should be opposed as they turn for home.
This track may look like a classic British links, but it's really only a tribute act. This Ocean Course is also now possessed of the manicured bunkers, rougher waste areas and treacherous water hazards that define any Dye creation. It should consequently present the complete test and a worthy champion.
Course Guide - Pointers
Support long hitters who are good chippers - Total Driving, the category which combines length and accuracy off the tee, may appear like the key stat for Kiawah. So look out for players such as Jason Dufner, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia to subdue the cross-breezes. But I'd include the bombers with greenside good touch (like Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson).
Oppose shorter hitters - Players like Jim Furyk and Luke Donald may be in great heart, but this mammoth piece of real estate should take them completely out of their comfort zones.
Note the back-nine bias - An In-Play advantage could be stolen by supporting those who begin their rounds from the 10th and play the far more difficult back in around par. They should then thrive on the easier front side. The reverse can also be applied to those who don't start well from the first tee.