Baltusrol provides lengthy challenge for final major

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- The 17th hole at Baltusrol Golf Club is the longest in major championship history, measuring 650 yards down a tree-lined fairway and across a patch of bunkers and rough to an elevated green. Most figure that Tiger Woods and John Daly are the only ones who have a chance to reach in two.

And even that might be a stretch.

Woods didn't get the chance Monday morning during a practice round for the PGA Championship. He hit his tee shot well into the rough and played it as a conventional par 5. And if he had hit the fairway?

"It's 650 yards," said his caddie, Steve Williams, as if the question was the most absurd he had ever heard.

What about a monster drive and a 3-wood?

"A 300-yard drive, you still have 350," he said. And then he repeated for emphasis, "It's 650 yards."

That one hole says a lot for Baltusrol, which is the longest course of the majors this year, but still not as meaty as Whistling Straits (7,514 yards) in Wisconsin last year at the PGA Championship.

It only seems that way.

The air was thick and heavy with clouds that threatened to burst open with showers on the first full day of practice for the final major, keeping the ball from going great lengths. It was different in 1993, when Baltusrol played host to its seventh U.S. Open and Daly reached the 17th with a 1-iron that skipped through the sand and onto the green.

For some players, it felt like Baltusrol had a lot of par 5s.

"It doesn't seem like the same course," said Davis Love III, who tied for 33rd in the '93 U.S. Open. "It's longer. I don't think it adds up to 7,400 yards."

Love doesn't profess to be an expert in math, but the Lower Course felt much longer than 7,392 yards -- at a par 70, with the only par 5s on the last two holes.

"You've got 17 and 18 that are 1,200 yards, and 6 and 7 are 1,000 yards," he went on.

Small wonder that when a spectator asked him what he thought about the course as Love played the eighth hole, he called out over his shoulder, "Hit it 300 yards and straight every time and you'll be perfect."

That's what awaits the 156-man field of professionals when the PGA Championship begins on Thursday, the final major of a year dominated by a familiar face.

Woods already has won multiple majors for the third time in the last five years, adding to his cache by capturing the Masters in a playoff and the British Open wire-to-wire at St. Andrews, winning by five.

He again is the prohibitive favorite at Baltusrol because of his sheer power, although he left the course just before lunch after sticking two tees in the turf the width of his putter and working on his putting, the same drill he used in the days leading to the British Open.

Still, Woods is no longer considered unbeatable like he was in 2000, when he won the final three majors and nine of the 20 tournaments he entered on the PGA Tour.

"There definitely was a perception if he was in the field he was going to win -- at that time," Lee Janzen said. "I think the perception now is that he's the guy to beat, but I don't think guys think it's a given that he's going to win. But he's definitely the player to beat. He just thinks differently than the rest of us do."

There aren't many secrets at Baltusrol. It is a traditional course with tree-line fairways that are squeezed even tighter by bunkers.

"It looks like a regular major championship golf course -- its' difficult," Stephen Leaney of Australia said.

Scott Verplank wandered over to the tee to start his first practice round, looked down the fairway of the 478-yard hole and said to his caddie, "Is this a par 5?"

Even so, the chatter wasn't the typical gloom-and-doom often heard during the practice rounds at a major, when someone inevitably predicts a winning score at par or worse. History suggests that as long as Baltusrol plays, low scores seem to be available.

Jack Nicklaus broke the U.S. Open scoring record with a 5-under 275 in 1967 at Baltusrol. When the U.S. Open returned in 1980, Nicklaus shattered his own record with a 272. And 13 years after that, Janzen and his moderate length tied Nicklaus' record of 272 for a two-shot victory over Payne Stewart.

Then again, those were at the U.S. Open in June, when the grass isn't always as thick and the air not so heavy.

"We were able to play the ball out of the rough and get it on the greens a lot of times, and the greens are flat, considering it's a major championship site," Janzen said.

The rough is deep and thick, not unbearable, but difficult to get the ball in the air for more than 170 yards. And the fairways are so lush that the ball probably won't roll, an overlooked component in distance.

"It reminds me of Oak Hill, an old-styled golf course that's right in front of you," Chad Campbell said. "If you can drive it in the fairway, you can attack the course."

But the par-5 17th was unlike anything Campbell had seen. Campbell could not recall another hole that played as a true, three-shot par 5. Some players, like Love and Justin Leonard, said the closest thing to that was the 667-yard 16th hole at Firestone, site of the NEC Invitational.

Woods has reached that green in two, however.

This one might be different.

Asked if anyone could reach the 17th in two shots, Campbell thought long and hard.

"Tiger, if anybody. But I don't think anybody can, not to put anything past Tiger," he said.

He paused again, then added, "Put Daly in there, too."

It was a short list of candidates for a long course.

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