The bad news for the golf business heading into this week’s PGA Championship is that it’s definitely running out of real estate. The good news might be that it will never run out of wind.
Both factors will be on display at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, which checks in at a beefed-up 7,800-plus yards to claim the title of longest major championship venue ever. But without the winds whipsawing in off the Atlantic coast, even that won’t be enough to contain this generation of power hitters. So far, at least, the winds have held their own.
“For the sake of our sanity,” Jon Rahm, one of the longest hitters on tour, said after a gusty practice round, “I believe they’re going to use a couple of forward tees.”.
“If the wind blows this way for the rest of the week,” concurred Adam Scott, “it’s going to be a battle to just get in the clubhouse.”
The Ocean Course is a quirky jewel designed by architects Pete and Alice Dye. She insisted on raising the fairways and crowning the greens so that golfers could actually see the Atlantic instead of just hearing its roar. That view came with a cost, exposing those same golfers’ shots to the raking wind. Depending on its direction, an approach shot at the same hole — take the 590-yard, par-5 seventh — might be a floating 8-iron one day and a wind-cheating 3-iron the next.
“The 590 yards can play 500 or 490 when you get that much wind,” said Justin Thomas.
Like Rahm, he didn’t want to even think what playing some of the holes from the back tees would be like, especially the par-3 14th. “Guys are going to be literally hitting driver on that hole. Unless the PGA wants seven-hour rounds,” Thomas added, “I wouldn’t advise it.”
Rory McIlroy beat the Ocean Course when it hosted the PGA nine years ago (and measured 200 yards shorter) with a sizzling 13-under score — eight shots clear of his closest pursuer. But that was in August, when the winds are gentler and the turf a lot spongier.
McIlroy is also one of the few players in the top 10 who also happens to be hitting it well at the moment. If in-form golfers is any predictor, look for the resurgent Jordan Spieth and steady Daniel Berger to be in contention. Those are the only two golfers with a strokes-gained measure of 2.0 against the field this season, with Spieth doing most of his gaining in and around the greens, which figures to be crucial at the Ocean Course.
Defending champion Collin Morikawa shot 65-64 on the weekend at Harding Park, thanks to some spectacular iron play. He thinks that will be a requirement this time around, too.
“Out here with the wind, no matter what it is, you just have to control your golf ball,” Morikawa said. “So it doesn’t matter if you’re 150 yards or you’re 200 yards, you have to be able to know where you’re going to land certain shots, where you’re going to miss them.”
The Dyes offset the generous fairways and putting surfaces with huge swaths of sandy waste areas with unpredictable lies. But the length of the golf course is going to test the patience of the biggest hitters to take big risks.
“If you don’t hit it long, it’s going to be a tough week,” said U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau. Golf’s mad scientist — and the PGA Tour’s leader in driving distance — spent the pandemic-induced layoff packing on muscle for just such an occasion. But DeChambeau is smart enough to know what he can’t control.
“If there was a way to figure out the wind,” he began, before tucking into a word salad about “laminar flow” and then wistfully acknowledging that nobody has yet figured out how wind might affect putting “other than intuitively.”
Speaking of which, the guys who run tournaments have so far been guided largely by intuition. As pro golfers like DeChambeau hit the ball farther and farther, they’ve scrambled to graft on yards here and there like Band-Aids to keep their courses competitive.
If the players tear the Ocean Course up this week with the wind howling and all its defenses intact, it’s another sign that tournament golf is running out of room a lot sooner rather than later.