Closing stretch at PGA has players pulling off headcovers

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KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. (AP)Lee Westwood stood on the back tee of the par-3 17th hole at the Ocean Course and ripped a low 3-iron into the two-club wind barreling down the Kiawah Island coastline. The ball cleared the water in front of the green with a few yards to spare and settled 20 yards short of the putting surface.

”I don’t have a club for that. I’m not hitting 3-wood into it,” Westwood said.

”Just out of principle?” practice round partner Danny Willett said.

”Yeah,” Westwood said. ”I refuse to hit 3-wood.”

The five-hole closing stretch of architect Pete Dye’s Ocean Course is forcing players in the PGA Championship to pull out the longest clubs in the bag in situations when they’re rarely needed – approach shots into par 3s and 4s.

The holes are long – No. 14, 238 yards, par 3; 15, 466 yards, par 4; 16, 608 yards, par 5; 17, 223 yards, par 3; 18, 505 yards, par 4 – but the raw distance isn’t the biggest problem. It’s the east wind that’s been blowing a consistent 10-20 mph all week and isn’t forecast to change direction until Saturday at the earliest.

Rory McIlroy made the closing stretch irrelevant when he romped to an eight-shot victory nine years ago in the previous PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. But that event was played in August, when it was softer, more humid and – except for the second round – less windy.

”If the wind blows this way for the rest of the week, it’s going to be a battle to just get in the clubhouse,” Adam Scott said. ”One that comes to mind of just surviving was when Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open. He was the only guy to play the last four holes in par that day, I believe, and it could be something similar for anybody kind of near the lead.”

Each nine on the Ocean Course has an out-and-back routing along the coastline. With the wind blowing east, most holes are either straight downwind or straight into the wind.

Players get eight downwind holes before they ascend a dune at the western edge of the property to the tiny back tee box on 14. The severe, elevated green has been described as a tortoise shell, a camel’s back or, perhaps most accurately, an upside-down saucer.

Cameron Champ, Sam Horsfield, Justin Rose and Willett – all pupils of swing coach Sean Foley – opted to use a forward tee for their money game on Wednesday. Champ, one of the longest hitters in golf, had played the back tee a day earlier.

”Smoked a 3-wood,” he recalled. ”Barely got to the front.”

”And that 3-wood is about a 300-yard carry,” Foley said. ”So (Tuesday) it was playing 300 yards into the wind.”

The 15th would be a relatively benign par 4 in neutral or helping wind but becomes a stern test into the wind. The par-5 16th presents another situation the world’s best players aren’t accustomed to. They can rip driver, rip 3-wood and still have a full swing for their third shots.

”When you stand on 16 and it’s 608 (yards), it’s playing like 750,” Scott said. ”It’s probably numbers that we’ll never see on golf courses. But that’s what it’s playing like.”

Champ’s mood appeared dour by the time he reached the 17th late Tuesday afternoon. He hit a low hook with a long iron that splashed just short of the green. Then he pulled a hybrid from his bag and muttered, ”This ain’t getting there.” He pushed it to the right – no chance. Another splash.

Collin Morikawa, an average-length hitter, hit 5-wood into both par 3s and long irons into both par 4s during a practice round, but he believes the tough approaches play to his strengths.

”Everyone is going to have a long iron in. Doesn’t matter where we play. I guess if the tees are moved up you’re going to have a little bit less, but what helps me is that I can control my ball flight,” last year’s PGA champion said. ”All these guys out here can hit a 4-iron, can hit a 5-iron, but it’s who can control it in the wind, who can play it in the right direction, who can know where they’re going to miss it.”

If the wind turns around, that would take the bite out of the longer finishing holes, but not necessarily the par 3s, which could be just as difficult downwind because it’s harder to control the distance and the penalty for a slight miss can be severe.

Until the wind changes, the challenge is just reaching the green. Joel Dahmen led his practice-round foursome to the back tee on 14 during their money game on Wednesday, but when he got there, he pulled the headcover off his 3-wood with a resigned look on his face.

”I just don’t have a club. I can’t hit my hybrid that far into the wind and 3-wood’s too much,” Dahmen said, ”so I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”

He hit the 3-wood. It wasn’t too much.

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