From shootout to slugfest, the next stop for the world's best golfers is Southern Hills Country Club for the 104th edition of the PGA Championship.
After a 26-under winning tally in Dallas, they now flip the script to play at a course that has yielded an average winning score of 7-under the last four times hosting the PGA Championship.
As a major championship, we are sure to get a loaded field. There are 156 golfers lined up to start the week while the top 70 and ties will advance through the 36-hole cutline.
Let's hop right in and discuss the course which has seen a makeover since we last saw it hosting the 2007 PGA Championship.
Southern Hills Country Club is the star of the show this week. It returns to host the PGA Championship for the fifth time. The most recent hosting was the 2007 edition which saw Tiger Woods win by two shots (-8) over Woody Austin.
The course has also hosted many other big events including the U.S. Open three times, the TOUR Championship twice, as well as last year's Senior PGA Championship.
Originally a Perry Maxwell design that was built during the Great Depression. According to The Architects of Golf he was known for wildly undulating greens. The course was recently renovated in 2019 by Gil Hanse who increasingly has his fingerprints all over the courses used on the biggest stage.
The renovation trimmed back some trees, repositioned bunkers to modern standards, and rebuilt the greens and green surroundings. The overall result is likely a test that is a bit easier off-the-tee compared to before the renovation but brutally tough on approach.
Many of the greens are elevated and have now had their false edges restored. Most are heavily guarded by greenside bunkers but if golfers miss the bunkers they will also see a fair amount of collection areas that will swallow up and spit out any approach shots without proper control.
While many links courses will allow you to escape trouble and play the ball on the ground, Southern Hills demands the opposite because it's near impossible to score when missing the fairway. Your ball will either be gobbled up by the short but stout bermuda rough or you will have to navigate around all of the trouble just mentioned above (greenside bunkers, false edges, firm greens, runoff areas).
On paper, this is a par 70 that plays to 7,356 yards. From the absolute tips they can stretch it past 7,500 yards. We shouldn't expect them to stretch it out that long, though. After all, they played it just 7,131 yards during the 2007 edition and that resulted in a 272 (-8) winning tally and a leaderboard that had a good mix of big hitters and plodders.
There is water in play on up to 15 holes and 87 bunkers littered across the property.
Off the tee, many golfers have historically taken a conservative approach when taking on Southern Hills. Alex Cejka had this to say about it last year, "I want to hit a lot of drives, but you can get in a lot of trouble and the question is, is it worth to be 20, 30 yards further and then taking so much trouble on." Tiger Woods did not hit many drivers during his 2007 conquest, "A lot of the doglegs in the spots that you want to get to are going to be long irons or even fairway woods." Ernie Els had the same thing to say back in 2007, "You’ve got to keep the ball in the fairway. You know, you’re not going to use too many drivers out there. You can, but you know, you don’t have to. So basically the strategy is to get it in the fairway and then take it from there."
Expanding on what Els says about getting it in the fairway. That was crucial back in 2007 because the field averaged just a 33% GIR rate when missing the fairway but they were able to manage 76% GIR when attacking from the short grass. Tiger summed it up well on his way to winning, "The rough is still penal because if you get the ball in there, as I said it’s marginal whether you can get it to the green or not; and if you can get to the green, you can’t control it." Player after player talked about how the ball instantly sinks to the bottom of this bermuda rough.
Speaking of grass, they will see bermudagrass from tee-to-green this week with bentgrass putting surfaces that are heavily undulated and should be prepped to run on the speedy side of the equation. That is a similar grass mixture as Colonial Country Club which many have compared this to in the past.
It will be very interesting to see if the course strategy changes much after the renovation but historically this has been a course where you needed to drive it straight (not necessarily far) and do your damage from there.
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Quotes on the Course
Zach Johnson: "You’ve got to hit the ball on the fairway, bottom line. The rough’s not terribly long, but if your ball sits up in the rough, you know, it might happen once for the four days. It’s very penal. It drops straight to the bottom. That’s the way it should be."
Bernhard Langer: "So I think the key around here is obviously the greens. The greens are extremely severe, a lot of slope, a lot of very tight pin positions, which is going to be hard to get to because the ball might spin back or it might bounce forward. So it’s going to be difficult to get it close to the hole, which means you’re going to have some long putts, which can lead to 3-putt. The other thing about this golf course, especially the greens, they have a lot of false front, false sides, whatever, the ball just runs off. The green looks like it’s a good size, but if you take five yards here, five yards there, five yards on the front, all of a sudden that green becomes very small."
Scott Verplank: "A lot of new holes or not new holes but new areas that will run off a lot further away from the pin position. So that will make it play a lot different. They just lengthened it, they cleaned up a lot of the trees, made it actually I think it looks better. I love trees on a golf course, but they did, they pulled the right ones out and I think they did a fantastic job."
Phil Mickelson: "That’s the first thing I said when I got out here and started my preparation, was that this course reminds me a lot of Colonial. The grasses on the greens are identical. And the grass around the greens are identical. There’s a lot of similarities in the looks, the way the wind blows around the tops of the trees and the color of the grass brings out those similarities. And so that was the first thing that popped in my head, too, was how similar it was to Colonial."
Camilo Villegas: "It’s all about patience. You have to stick to your plan, especially on this golf course. They give you so many options on the tees. But I think the irons are the smart way. You make maybe one or two bogeys and then you want to attack the hole and pull a driver, pull a 3-wood and, you know what, you’re just begging for another bogey. So you’ve just got to stick to your plan and play smart around here."
Historically, this course has not overly rewarded big hitters so this is a rare chance for the shorter hitters to contend at a PGA Championship since so many of the venues they pick these days are stretched out to extreme lengths. The course is still going to reward great drivers, distance just isn't as big of a piece of the pie as some weeks.
Looking at last year's leaderboard and comparing it with overlapping success, here are the courses that popped up as potential pointers:
Tough scoring when missing the fairway is the key attribute here. Colonial gets the nod thanks to grass similarities and golfer quotes.
Thursday: Sunny with a high of 93 degrees. Winds over 15 MPH.
Friday: Sunny with a high of 86degrees. Winds over 15 MPH.
Adding to an already difficult test, it looks like the field will be faced with a steady stream of wind this week.