CHARLOTTE, NC – Rickie Fowler stepped to the 16th tee at Quail Hollow during Wednesday’s practice round ahead of the 99th PGA Championship, looked out into the distance and chuckled. “This will be a fun stretch this week,” he said.
He was joking, for the sweep of land he was referring to is 1,223 yards of cruelty. Coined the Green Mile in tribute of the 1999 prison movie starring Tom Hanks, the last three holes at Quail Hollow are a punishing trio that will go a long way in determining who hoists the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
From start to finish, this is an epic walk often spoiled by the difficulty at hand. The starter is the 506-yard par-4 16th, with the green protected to the left by a lake and a large airway bunker directly in line of the most aggressive tee shot. The middle section isn’t much kinder – the 223-yard par-3 17th that features a rock-hard green guarded in front and to the left by the same lake. The final blow is the 18th, a 494-yard par-4 that has a creek running down the left side of the hole and nasty bunkers standing guard on the right side of the fairway and short of the green. And all three are home to brutal rough and lightning Bermuda greens. “You just have to buckle up and survive,” Fowler said.
And if the ride to the Wanamaker Trophy needs more than 72 holes, the Green Mile awaits for the three-hole, aggregate-score playoff. Quite a way to end the last major of the season. “It's a tough stretch, one of the toughest stretches that we play all year,” four-time major winner and two-time PGA champion Rory McIlroy said. “I think 17 is the most difficult of the closing stretch. Especially off that back tee, you're raised up and you've got that very skinny green. You're looking down on it and you've got the water on your left. There's a bit of a bail-out area on the right. I'd say that's the only hole that you can sort of play defense on.
“On 16, you have to be aggressive off the tee. You have to take on that bunker on the right and try to get it down there as far as you can. It's a long enough hole. And the same thing on 18. I think aggressiveness off the tee; you can reward yourself with a little shorter iron shot in and be able to take on something a little bit more on the green. “I've had my fair share of good runs on that stretch and bad runs. It will be an exciting finish.”
Through the first two rounds, the excitement was watching the Green Mile beat up the field. In the first round, 156 players combined for a total of 19 birdies on the three holes. Those same 156 players accumulated 150 bogeys, 31 double bogeys and six of those dreaded “others” on the stretch. The three holes ranked 1-2-3 as the toughest on the day, led by the 16th, where the field averaged 4.46 strokes.
Rain softened the course and the Green Mile was a bit easier in the second round, yielding 31 birdies. There were only 107 bogeys, 22 doubles and just two of those “others.” Each hole, however, played to an average over its par. Through 36 holes, 45 balls wound up in a watery grave on the Green Mile.
When Jordan Spieth was asked where he would go if he were a fan to take in some action, he said he’d go to the drivable par-4 14th to see some birdies. To see some “triumph and disaster,” he said, he’d go hang around 16, 17 and 18. “A lot happens on those three holes,” Spieth added.
A lot happened to the leaders late in Saturday’s third round. Fowler fell down the leaderboard when he bogeyed 16, dumped his tee shot into the water on 17 and took double, and then three-putted 18 for a bogey. Jason Day three-putted 17 for a bogey and then took an 8 on the 18th when he got tangled up in some trees and bushes, chunked a chip from the rough, hit another poor chip and then lipped out his putt for 7. And Kevin Kisner maintained the 54-hole lead despite making a double-bogey 6 on the 16th when he hit his second shot into the water and then a bogey on the last when his approach wound up in deep rough. But there is something that has never happened on the Green Mile.
Well, here’s something that has never happened on the Green Mile. Quail Hollow played host to the Wells Fargo Championship for 14 years starting in 2003. In all that time, with all those players, not one ever went birdie-birdie-birdie on the Green Mile.
“You have just got to hit good shots,” said world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, never one to mince words. “They are tough golf holes. We play tough holes all the time. But having three tough finishing holes in a major, you know, the tournament most likely is going to come down to those last three holes. “Having a good game plan, a good strategy, and executing obviously is going to be the big key.”
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