Longest course ever awaits PGA field
CHASKA, Minn. — Paul Azinger pulled the driver from his bag because there really is no other option at Hazeltine. The sign post on the opening hole has two words and two sets of numbers that serve as a not-so-subtle welcome to the PGA Championship.
490 yards. Par 4.
If that’s not enough, the wind was in his face.
A stream of fans were crossing the fairway about 200 yards off the tee, and as a marshal frantically waved his arms to stop the traffic, Azinger told him not to worry. He figured even he could keep the ball in the air that long, and he then ripped a shot that traveled well over their heads.
No need to put the cover back on the driver or any of the fairway metals for most players in the PGA Championship.
The final major gets under way Thursday, already in the record books without a single shot having been hit that counts on the card. Hazeltine National measures an official 7,674 yards, making it the longest course in major championship history.
The previous record was 7,643 yards last year at Torrey Pines for the U.S. Open. Before that, the record belonged to Medinah No. 3, which was 7,561 yards for the 2006 PGA Championship. And before that, it was 7,514 yards at Whistling Straits for the ’04 PGA.
You get the picture.
‘‘Looking forward to playing a major one day that does not promote itself as the longest ever,’’ Geoff Ogilvy said on Twitter.
If that’s the worst anyone can say, Hazeltine is doing much better. Dave Hill brought plenty of attention to his course in the suburbs of Minneapolis in the 1970 U.S. Open when he said, ‘‘All you need is 80 acres of corn and some cows.’’ And he was the runner-up.
The buzz word this week is long.
Scott Verplank, who is more on the short side of driving distance, was asked how many players could talk about Hazeltine without mentioning length or some variation of the word. ‘‘Zero,’’ he said.
‘‘The best hole on the course is No. 16, and it’s the second-shortest hole,’’ he said of the 402-yard signature hole that runs along Hazeltine Lake. ‘‘The shortest one is No. 14, the one the same length as the par 3 before it.’’
The PGA Championship bills itself as ‘‘Glory’s Last Shot’’ because it is the final chance of the year to win a major. That takes on particular significance for Tiger Woods, whose five victories this year do not include the kind he covets the most.
Woods is trying to match Jack Nicklaus and Walter Hagen with his fifth PGA Championship victory, and continue toward a more obscure record. Hagen won a major six years in a row; Woods is at four.
The world’s No. 1 player came close seven years ago at Hazeltine, closing with four straight birdies to finish one shot behind Rich Beem. The course was a mere 7,360 yards for the 2002 PGA Championship. Woods couldn’t help but notice the difference.
‘‘Oh, man,’’ he said when asked what he had seen of the course. ‘‘It’s a heck of a lot longer than what we played in 2002. It’s going to be a great test all week. You’re going to have to hit the ball pretty good here.’’
Hazeltine gets most of its length in the par 5s, the shortest of which is 572 yards and might be the only one where players can try to reach in two shots. Conveniently enough, the left side of the green is guarded by water.
The others are 633 yards (No. 3), 606 yards (No. 11) and 642 yards (No. 15).
That means the length could be somewhat of an equalizer if no one can reach most of the par 5s in two. Zach Johnson won the Masters (7,445 yards) in 2007 by laying up on every par 5. Verplank is another player who thrives on making birdie at par 5s with his wedge.
‘‘That’s not a bad assessment, except I can’t hit a wedge into any of the par 5s,’’ he said with a laugh. ‘‘It plays into the hands of a certain style of player.’’
He didn’t mention any names, perhaps because he hadn’t heard all the stories, such as Alvaro Quiros reaching the 15th hole with a driver and a 5-wood during a practice round Wednesday.
Majors are loaded with horror stories during practice rounds. Even at Whistling Straits, several players said they would take even par for the week and wait in the clubhouse. The first day, Darren Clarke opened with a 65.
The yardage, however, is just a number.
PGA Championship director Kerry Haigh is known to move tees around, making it play shorter and adjusting to the weather. He might move the tees up on the par-4 12th (518 yards) and the par-3 13th (248 yards), or one of the par 5s.
‘‘There’s a lot of scope to adjusting the setup,’’ Ogilvy said. ‘‘It appears there might be a few holes they can play forward. The best hole is the 14th (352 yards), and I hope they move that up so you can have a go at the green.’’
Wouldn’t that be a relatively easy hole?
‘‘There are 17 other bogey holes out there,’’ Ogilvy replied.
Attention shifts from the course to the guys playing it Thursday. The defending champion is Padraig Harrington, who showed his return to form in a spirited duel that Woods won last week at Firestone. Phil Mickelson missed the British Open while tending to his wife’s battle with breast cancer, and he’s hopeful of ending his turbulent summer on a high note.
Masters champion Angel Cabrera, U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover and British Open champion Stewart Cink already have hit their high and are looking for more.
Cabrera would figure to have the best chance because he has been pounding the driver lately, so his answer was no surprise when asked he like the golf course.
‘‘Si,’’ he replied.
And why is that?
‘‘Es largo,’’ Cabrera said, which translates simply to ‘‘It’s long.’’
Still, the strongest field of the year — 98 out of the top 100 in the world ranking — typically allows for multiple possibilities, especially in the final major of the year.
‘‘This golf course, for a long course, doesn’t necessarily favor a long hitter as most other courses do,’’ Paul Goydos said. ‘‘It favors a good player. It’s amazing how golf works out that way.’’