Maybe it’s the long day, lack of sleep and/or the humidity, but while there are so many things to talk about after the first round of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, I’m a bit uninspired. Yet clearly I am inspired enough to wait for it to kick in at midnight and take the time to write this post when all I want to do is zone out to a new series on Netflix and pass out. But here we are.
The first round of the PGA Championship at the new and — well, um, arguably — “improved” Quail Hollow Club was relatively predictable, though everyone was curious to see how the PGA would set up the course and how it would play (before they spoke out too strongly on the changes and new holes, particularly the green at the par-3 4th). Overall, it was vintage Thursday at the PGA: Predictable.
And if you’ve already listened to the latest episode of the the WUP pod with Coach Mike Small and Kevin Na, then you know exactly what I mean. I’m clearly biased and this is yet another shameless attempt to plug my own “product,” but obviously, I highly recommend you SUBSCRIBE, download it and listen to it, like, ASAP, or now.
Here, I’ll even make it super easy for you and embed the player below. Or you can listen to it via iTunes and all those other places where you can subscribe and download podcasts. It’s super easy and once you *finally* get on the podcast bandwagon, it’s like, what the hell took me so long?? I only got hooked last fall and now you’ll rarely see me without my wireless headphones around my neck and/or at least one ear bud in.
I feel like my instant reaction to the leaderboard at the end of the day summed it up in 140 characters.
T1: Best putter on Bermuda greens
T8: Harman (who holds his own and by now means a “short” hitter, and don’t describe him as “diminutive”!)
That’s pretty much what the first page of the leaderboard looks like to me. Again, this was all very predictable. Sure, it wasn’t a bomber’s paradise that the regular Tour event at the “old” Quail produced with double-digit red scores. It was still favorable to long-hitters, but the tricky pin placements and firm greens provided a lot more defense than what we’re used to seeing.
“The greens are as firm as I’ve ever seen at a PGA Championship,” said Rory McIlroy, who won the Wanamaker in 2012 and 2014.
Before you go to cray town, let me stop you, no, the setup is not more like a U.S. Open than PGA.
“It still feels like a PGA setup,” said Rory. “It’s wide enough and it let’s you play. Even if you do get in trouble, it gives you a chance to get out of trouble. It’s not as brutal as a U.S. Open setup.
“Greens are as firm as a U.S. Open but that’s really — that’s it.”
But like most PGA Championships — at least in recent history, aka, since 2010 when I covered my first one — the venues favor bombers. Then again, long-hitters *always* have a leg up, regardless of the golf course, conditions, etc. In other words, distance is never a disadvantage. Duh.
As Bill Haas, Kevin Na, Mike Small, and every other player in the field will tell you, they’d rather have a 9-iron in the rough every time over a 5-iron in the fairway, *especially* this week with the new super slick and firm greens at Quail Hollow. I mean, my hands were shaking anytime Rory, Rickie and Rahm started their pre-shot routines over anything inside 10 feet and anytime it was downhill.
Jordan Spieth explains the situation very well (per usual):
“Some of these putts that I had for birdie are really one out of five maybe to make,” said Spieth. “On other greens you are looking at 50 percent. Out here, it’s just the way it is. The pins are on two and a half to three degree slopes. When you are pin high, it may look like — the crowd goes oh, but in our minds it’s really essentially a 20-footer with the expectation on the putts. They are difficult to make if you don’t leave it below the hole with not a lot of break.
“I wasn’t frustrated. I hit some good putts that missed. I burned a lot of edges today. I didn’t make the one out of five. Instead I missed the ten out of ten from that kind of range. If I grabbed a couple of those then I would be pleased obviously. Yes, you need to be defensive on these greens. You have to. I was defensive and still had to make four to five-footers for par on a couple them.”
Just to clarify, there’s a difference between “fast” and “(too) firm.” Fast relates to speed, which is an easier factor to judge even when you’re in a “tap-and-pray” type of situation like today, whereas firm references how the ball reacts to the surfaces. And when you have a combo of the two with tricky pins and some questionable green complexes, that’s when things get a bit dicey and luck comes into play more than usual. Throw in another factor with the greens being new (takes a few years for them to settle in) and equipped with SubAir, a system that allows the setup people to control exactly how much moisture to suck out via an app on the iPad.
“We kind of joked about it today,” said Bud Cauley. “It’s amazing how much more difficult you can make a place when you suck the moisture out of the greens. We come here at the Wells Fargo, it’s softer and more scorable. I was surprised how much it dried out. Even still you are back there further than normal and going into greens that are still pretty firm. So it’s a good test.”
If I didn’t emphasize this yesterday, let me stress it again now: The players aren’t exactly gushing about the changes to Quail Hollow and they are really not fans of the par-3 4th green. (And yes, Joost Luiten aced it, but luck was more a factor than usual. I wish I had been around after he signed his scorecard to ask him how he *struck* the shot.) Here’s a sampling of reactions from Thursday:
Q. Just wondering what your opinion is of the fourth hole. Specifically the green there.
BROOKS KOEPKA: You want my opinion on it?
BROOKS KOEPKA: It’s too undulating. I think if they had made the green a little bit flatter, it would have been a little bit better. But it’s not. So — I mean, I don’t really care that much to be honest with you. It’s something, everyone’s got to play it. So it doesn’t really bother me.
You know, if we can get out of there — you’ve just got to try to leave the ball under the hole. Just small quadrants, that’s how I look it. On that green there’s probably four there: You have the back left, front left, back right, and in the middle it just funnels into whatever one that is.
But I think it’s a little too shallow, if I’m honest, and too undulating. So whatever. It’s fine.
Remarkable self-restraint from Paul Casey!
Q. Changes don’t seem to have been that popular. What do you make of them?
PAUL CASEY: No.
Q. You can speak freely.
PAUL CASEY: They are okay, the changes.
Q. Fourth green, a bit funky, apparently.
PAUL CASEY: Not a fan.
Q. Too severe with the club you’re going into?
PAUL CASEY: Yes. Yeah.
GARY WOODLAND: That pin today is brutal. There’s a lot going on there. Probably should be flattened a little bit. I mean, you’re hitting a mid iron in. Today the wind was in, so it played longer than it should. If you have a 9-iron or a wedge, it’s all right. It’s a tough green if it’s firm and you’re hitting a long iron.
GRAYSON MURRAY: I think it’s definitely not like the other 17. I mean, that’s the only way to put it. I played with Peter Uihlein today and he hit a shot. I think he hit a 7-iron and he landed two feet left pin high and it goes over the green and he makes 4. That’s a little absurd maybe.
It is what it is. We’re all playing the same hole. I mean, it’s just it is what it is. I think maybe after this week, they could probably go in and change some of the undulations to it and make it a little flatter. I’m sure they are going to mess around with that tee a little bit too, maybe we’ll hit a wedge in on day. If we have a wedge in our hand it’s fine. If we’re hitting 7-iron, 6-iron, some guys might hit 5 today to that pin, it’s very tough.
PATRICK REED: The par-3? It’s all right. It’s a new green, so it’s a little firm. But today’s pin was an interesting one. Our group was kind of feeling like if you move the tee up 20 yards instead of it being a softy 6 or full 7, if it’s a 9 iron you probably can stop it close. As this day gets warmer and firmer and faster, it’s going to be really hard to get close to that flag. I hit a full 7 today, I launched it to the moon and I pushed it from where my line was right at the flag, landed three yards short of the hole and still went over the green.
It all depends. Depends on where they are going to put the pins an flags. As a whole I think the green is fine. It’s one of those that you have to hit your number. If you don’t, you are going to be off the green.
TONY FINAU: Yeah, fourth green is a little dicey. I think you have a forced carry on the front and the back kind of slopes away. Not my favorite green.
I think that’s — out of the changes they have made, that’s the only hole I probably don’t really like, just because of that. You’ve still got to hit a 6- or 7-iron it seems like to that green and tough to hold. But I made a three there today, and I think a three is a great score there just because of that green, the way it’s set up. You can only put the flag, it seems like, in so many places because of how the green is set up. But we’ve all got to hit to the same flag, so I was happy to make three today.
Q. Where did you land it at?
TONY FINAU: I hit it right to the middle of the green. Kind of front middle right. Hit a pretty good shot about 30, 35 feet left of it just past pin-high and was able to 2-putt that for par. But from the tee box, it looks like it’s in the bunker, so it’s not — visually, it’s hard to hit at that hole.
Those are fighting words coming from Tony Finau! Seriously. He is the most cheery, nicest guy on Tour, so when Finau says “really don’t like,” it’s equivalent to someone who isn’t afraid to stir the pot every once in a while, like Rory or Phil, saying, “Blow that green up first thing Monday.”
Thorbjorn (literally translates to “Thunderbear”) Oleson and Kevin Kisner share the first-round lead. I don’t care if you look up Oleson’s “driving distance” stat (which is such a perfect science!) and try to tell me he’s not a bomber, no question he is. “Yardage” never tells the entire story. The difference between what is considered an average hitter and bomber is club-head-speed.
Oleson hit seven of 14 greens.
“It was a little bit of a safe shot into the green,” he said, referring to his approach into the opening beastly par-4 1st. “That’s what can happen on this golf course, when you play safe into the greens, you give yourself very tricky putts, like the one I had, downhill, left-to-right. It was very, very fast. But it was just a very good roll.
“I feel like I’ve been putting well the whole round. Had a couple of good chances and missed but felt like I was rolling the ball very well. So it was nice to see that one drop.”
It all comes down to…yep, the greens.
“It warmed up a lot today, and that made the ball go a lot longer, and you got a little bit of run on the fairways now,” he added. “You didn’t get that the last couple of days. So that made it a little bit easier. But saying that, then the greens got a lot firmer, also.
“All of a sudden, the par-3s played really tough, I thought, because you’re coming in with long irons, and it’s very difficult to get it close to the hole then.
“So the greens are definitely the tricky part.”
Like I’ve said, it isn’t the PGA Championship unless there’s an inclement weather warning, but we got lucky on Thursday and the potential for thunderstorms never materialized. There’s a small chance for an isolated storm Friday, so we’ll see.
The longer hitters are certainly hoping for rain the next couple of days.
“I wouldn’t mind the course softening up just because off the tee, it’s all carry and then you’ve got to hit it soft into the greens, which are a couple things I feel like play right to my game,” said Finau.
“Either way, whether it starts to firm out or rain and get soft, I’m fine with it either way. The golf course plays long. Like today, 16, No. 1, No. 2, those holes played so long today. You know, mid-iron to long irons into those greens. So I don’t mind it playing like that because I could hit it with some length off the tee. But either way the golf course is going to play tough no matter what.”
Compared to the “old” Quail Hollow as a regular PGA Tour venue, the changes to the course have definitely kept driver in the hands of someone like Finau.
“It’s not nearly as firm (before the changes),” said Finau. “The golf course plays — 12, I think most guys are hitting driver there. I remember hitting 3-iron and pitching wedge to that green because you get something running down there, at about 240, it’s going to go 280, 290. Not the case this week.
“I’m still hitting driver and 8-iron, 9-iron. It’s different in that aspect. Having had experience in the past, I’m hitting a lot of different clubs off the tee. Where I’m usually hitting 3-iron or 3-wood, I’m still hitting driver this week. So a lot different but still trying to use my length off the tee to an advantage.”
“As far as the greens, I don’t know,” said the reigning U.S. Open champ. “I mean, I think they could slow them up a little bit, I really do. It depends. I think we’re supposed to have rain tomorrow afternoon, right, 50 percent chance is what I was told. So that could be a little bit of a factor. That could slow them up and make them a little more receptive.”
Boom. There you go.
Meanwhile, Kisner, who is NOT a bomber, might have had the best round of the day given he played late and he needs so many things to go right to post a low score.
“There’s about four or five holes that I have to birdie to compete and I birdied them all today,” said Kisner. “So that’s kind of been my game plan. Make a lot of pars and get to a par 5 or one of those short par 4s, I can do my wedge game and get it to ten or 12 feet. That’s my plan. Other than that, I’m playing for par.”
It helps that Kisner is the best putter in the world on Bermuda greens — not a hyperbole.
“I love putting on the surfaces,” said Kisner, who grew up and still lives in Aiken, South Carolina. “They are pure. You know if you start it on line, even late in the day they were getting a little choppy, but you start it online, it’s going to have a good chance of going in. I just feel so comfortable, I don’t feel like I have to read it and over read it. I can stand up and put like I’ve grown up doing.”
The two pre-tourney favorites Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are both very much in the mix despite their up-and-down days. Both shot one-over 72, but they’re only five shots off the lead.
“It was okay,” said McIlroy. “I started well, 2-under through 12, coming through part of the course where you’re looking to pick a couple of shots up on 14 and 15. Played that stretch of holes, 13, 14, 15, in 3-over.
“So if I just could have had that three-hole stretch back, but I think other than that, I played nicely. Did what I needed to do. Birdied the par 5s, birdied the holes that you should birdie.
“Yeah, I’m just disappointed with that three-hole stretch, but right in it. It wasn’t very easy. It was tough. Greens were difficult. Greens got very grainy as the day went on, as well. If you just hit a putt a tiny bit off line, it exaggerated it. It was tough to hole putts this afternoon. Hopefully the surfaces are a little better tomorrow morning and we can hopefully hole some more putts.”
Spieth, who is coming off his win at the Open Championship and trying to complete the career Grand Slam this week, didn’t have his best stuff on the greens Thursday morning.
“I don’t think I missed any short putts today,” he said. “I missed — I just had really poor speed on my really long ones.
“I created technically three two-putts that were three 3-putts. One of them I putted off the green; the other two were off the green. They were hard putts, but not ones that — it’s not — those three holes I would say average would be 1-over on those threes. It was so difficult. Instead I was three.
“It was just the putter. Everything else was fine, my bunker play actually made a lot of progress on. I bailed on my two bunker shots I had today which was frustrating. It was just the bunker play and the greens.”
I love both Rory and Jordan’s answers to a cliche question, yet I know it is sometimes necessary to ask something seemingly obvious or “stupid” to elicit the desired quote or reaction. So, basically, they were both asked some form of the old, tired phrase, “You can’t win it on Thursday, but you can lose it,” or “How do you like your chances?”
Spieth: “Historically, I’m pretty solid with the lead. So that was kind of the goal was to grab the lead. It’s much easier when you are on the front page of the leaderboard than it is coming from behind. Given it’s the first round, I know I’m still in it but I know that tomorrow’s round becomes that much more important to work my way and stay in it. I’ve got to make up ground. If I’m five back at the start of the day, I’ve got to be less than five back after Friday to really feel like I can play the way this golf course needs to be played and still be able to win.”
Rory: “I’m only five behind. 4-under is the best score out there. It’s a tough golf course. I shoot something in the 60s tomorrow, move right up there. So yeah, I’m in it.”
K, cripes, it’s almost 2am. Again. WTF. Let me leave you with this #tbt. As you may know, Rory McIlroy (2010) and Rickie Fowler (2012) both secured their first PGA Tour victories at Quail Hollow. In 2012 Fowler defeated Rory in a playoff, but you may not recall that there was another guy in that sudden-death battle: D.A. Points.
One more parting #tbt from 2012 at Quail — which was clearly an eventful tourney! The bizarre incident with Tiger Woods on the old par-5 5th in the second round of that year’s Wells Fargo Championship. Which remains one of the most mind-boggling things I’ve ever seen in seven years on Tour. (And I used to cover 30-35 events a year.)
K. Peace, I’m out!