Sport Golf

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Inches make the difference

Tiger's approach shots this year are leaving him further from the hole, writes Dermot Gilleece

By way of response to my recent estimation of literally thousands of bunkers on Whistling Straits, Herb Kohler leaned close and whispered secretively: "There's actually 1,200 but most of them aren't in play." The owner of this magnificent course on the shores of Lake Michigan will be host to a second staging there of the PGA Championship, starting on Thursday.

YE Yang, now a national hero in South Korea, is defending the last Major of the season in which an unprecedented five Irish challengers are headed by Graeme McDowell, the reigning US Open champion. In his company will be Pádraig Harrington, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and debutant Shane Lowry.

Tied third last year, McIlroy faces yet another demanding test after being subjected to excessive recent scrutiny, in my view, over the odd disappointing round. When we remember that another prodigious talent, Ronan Rafferty, didn't play his first PGA until he was 26, in 1990, there are almost unfair expectations of McIlroy at the tender age of 21. Yet to his credit, he bears it all with a patient shrug.

The Irish should feel very much at home at a venue where a signpost proclaims Portrush as being 3,607 miles away and where the tricolour flies proudly from the clubhouse. "It's there every day, as a tribute to the wonderful spirit in your land," said Kohler, who happens to be the son of an Austrian father and Dutch mother.

During the 2004 PGA which Vijay Singh won after a play-off, the owner explained: "Unfortunately, I have no Irish heritage, but we're not trying to copy or borrow from you. We just wanted to have people feel the Irish spirit here in our part of Wisconsin. You will never see a Scottish flag here. Nor a Japanese one. It will always be the Irish flag."

A proud if sparse Irish contribution to the history of this event contains some notable highlights. Like in 1931 in Rhode Island, where Greenore's Peter O'Hare effectively signalled the end of Walter Hagen's dominance by defeating the great man 4 and 3 in the first round, only to lose to the eventual winner, Tom Creavy. Sixty years later at Crooked Stick, Indiana, by which stage it had settled comfortably into a strokeplay format, David Feherty was tied seventh behind John Daly. Then Paul McGinley finished sixth in 2004. These achievements were overshadowed, however, by Harrington's magnificent victory at Oakland Hills two years ago.

Meanwhile, when the comeback by Tiger Woods to tournament golf became a serious reality with a share of fourth place in the Masters, there was the feeling that this year's Major venues gave him a wonderful chance of edging closer to Jack Nicklaus's record haul of titles. Especially at Pebble Beach and St Andrews. Yet Woods remains stuck on 14, returning to a venue where, by his standards, he struggled to a share of 24th place six years ago.

Putting is widely believed to be his main problem, emphasised by a changing of blades during last month's Open Championship. But American scribe, Michael Agger, came to a different conclusion in a fascinating recent analysis.

Revelling in his country's love of statistics, Agger makes the point that at the peak of his powers, Woods achieved the greatest advantage over his rivals with stunning iron play from distances of 150 to 250 yards. This was certainly evident in an 11-stroke triumph at Firestone in 2000, when he crushed the opposition with astonishing rounds of 64, 61, 67 and 67 for an aggregate of 259.

Our US scribe believes that the most telling statistic relating to Woods' current play is 'proximity to the hole', an average of how close to the pin a player has been landing the ball. "In 2010, Tiger has been landing the ball, on average, 2.5 feet farther from the hole," writes Agger. "That may not seem like much, but it's enough to drop Tiger from a 2009 ranking of 55th to a 2010 ranking of 141st.

"Being 2.5 feet farther from the hole, week in and week out, is an enormous disadvantage. That's because the statistics on putting are pretty simple: the closer you are to the hole, the more putts you make. It's Tiger's approach shots from closer in that have been dragging him down. From shorter distances, he's landing it farther away from the pin, and his ranking has dropped 40 or so places from 2009."

Given that distance control was always one of his greatest strengths, Woods' recent struggles become more understandable in the light of these revelations.

One thing for certain is that a player at odds with his game is not going to find any comfort at Whistling Straits. It rewards solid ball-striking, which explains Singh's victory, McGinley's outstanding performance and Clarke's first-round 65 in 2004.

With a configuration especially favoured by its designer, Pete Dye, the climax of the challenge includes a par-three 17th which is one of the more intimidating short holes from a man who gave us the notorious, island 17th at Sawgrass. At 223 yards, it borders Lake Michigan and if a bunker placed 20 feet below green level on the left doesn't catch a wayward shot, a watery-grave beckons.

"I like Pete Dye's 17th holes," said Harrington. "In fact, my ideal well-designed finish to a golf course would always include a difficult, intimidating par three. The thing about a par three 17th is that you won't effectively conquer it with a great drive. A big hitter can't overpower the hole. Everybody has to hit the one shot, making it more of a shoot-out." Just like himself and Sergio Garcia on the 17th at Oakland Hills.

Before designing Whistling Straits, Dye travelled with Kohler to this country on a number of occasions, visiting such iconic links as Lahinch, Ballybunion and Royal County Down. One of their favourites was Carne, designed by Eddie Hackett at Belmullet. "I tried like hell to buy it but they wouldn't sell it," admitted Kohler.

Though it seems that any stretch close to water qualifies as a links in the US, Dye had no intention of fooling anybody. "My primary objective was to achieve a links look," he said, which explains the extraordinary number of bunkers, mostly cosmetic. According to Harrington, it differs from a true links in being, as he put it, more ordered off the tee. "Even though it was windy there in 2004, the course didn't change as much as a natural links," he said. "You could better judge a lay-up."

Meanwhile, McDowell has been thinking about Michael Campbell, who hasn't won a tournament since his US Open triumph of 2005. "I always joked that if I won a Major you wouldn't see me for dust," he said. "I'd be sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping cocktails."

But of course the reality of his situation is very different. "I read a great quote, from Michael Campbell, I think," he went on. "He said that when you climb to the summit of Mount Everest, no one tells you how to get back down. And a lot of people die on the way back down. I see it as a good analogy to where I am right now."

In Killarney, he acknowledged that the impact of his first Major triumph was a lot more profound than he ever imagined, both physically and mentally. It has given him a sort of out-of-body feeling on the golf course which is both strange and frustrating. But, of course, he wouldn't change it for the world.

He is one of five first-timers among the winners of the last six Majors, the only exception being Phil Mickelson, who captured his fourth at Augusta last April.

"There are a number of Europeans familiar with Graeme's game who believe they, too, can win a Major," said Harrington. "And there will be a number of young South Africans who feel the same way about matching Louis Oosthuizen's achievement at St Andrews. Seeing your friends get a breakthrough encourages guys to open up a bit more; become more relaxed, and win. Players are no longer scared of winning and there's more of them capable of doing it."

On first seeing Whistling Straits in 2004, McDowell quickly became aware of Dye's ability to intimidate. "On a lot of tees, you can't see where exactly the fairway is," he said. "That makes you feel very uncomfortable even though you're aware there's actually a lot of room out there."

So, aspiring first-timers beware: this is a Pete Dye Major, with everything that that entails.

Sunday Independent

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