KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — The final major of the year, and everyone was cramming for their last big exam.
Ernie Els and Adam Scott walked up to the 18th green at Kiawah Island on Wednesday evening about the time most people in the low country would be going out for a dinner of shrimp and grits. Behind them on the Ocean Course was Ian Poulter, facing the prospect of missing out on the Ryder Cup team, and Graeme McDowell, in Sunday contention at the last two majors and hopeful the outcome at the PGA Championship will be different.
The major that bills itself as “Glory’s Last Shot” felt more like a pop quiz.
Rain has pounded Kiawah Island throughout the week, and it got so bad Wednesday that play was suspended because of storms before anyone teed off. It has led to limited practice time on the one course where players really need it.
This is the first time South Carolina has hosted a major championship. Kiawah Island had the Ryder Cup in 1991, so long ago that Jose Maria Olazabal is the only player at the PGA Championship who played in the matches. And he’s only in the field as the European captain.
McDowell, Scott and Tiger Woods were among those who came to Kiawah last week for a look at the Pete Dye design, though all of them remarked that 2 inches of rain had fallen the night before and it was soft. Not much has changed a week later.
“The last couple of days have been very difficult from a preparation standpoint,” McDowell said. “The golf course has taken a lot of rain. It seems to drain extremely well, though. But there’s no doubt, this golf course is a long course, and this little bit of rain is going to make it play longer, and certainly is changing the dynamic of it as we speak.”
Then, he headed out for an emergency nine, one last chance to see the stretch of holes that could determine the winner.
“It’s going to be busy this afternoon,” he said. “Guys are scrambling around to get their preparation done. Thankfully, I feel like I have done enough so far.”
At most majors, practice rounds are busy Monday and Tuesday, with mostly work on the practice range on the eve of the championship, perhaps nine holes in the morning.
“It was a little strange to prepare — not your typical week leading up to a major,” Stewart Cink said late Wednesday afternoon. “But it was fine. We could get enough work in. Everybody is in the same boat, so it will be all right.”
No one is sure what to expect at Kiawah, the longest course in major championship history at 7,676 yards, depending on how they set it up.
The nines on the Ocean Course are divided by the clubhouse and practice range — the front nine is to the north and cuts through marshes, the back nine to the south, about a mile away from the ninth green, and featuring majestic views of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the dunes and sea oats.
The course looks wide open, although typical of a Dye design, it forces players to look at trouble without realizing there’s more room than meets the eye. The last time Kiawah was in a major spotlight — the ’91 Ryder Cup — the course was new and ragged around the edges, the wind picked up and it was pure survival. Hale Irwin had a 41 on the back nine and still won the decisive point for a U.S. victory, but only after Bernhard Langer missed a 6-foot par putt. That anguish on his face epitomized the emotions of the Ryder Cup.
The question is whether it becomes a product of Kiawah Island.
The hazards are plenty — 27 of the 86 acres that make up the Ocean Course are sandy areas, not to mention the water, the oppressive heat and humidity and mosquitos that do most of their damage in the morning. Darren Clarke was among those who got in a quick nine Wednesday morning, before a burst of showers. Walking off the 18th green, he wiped a small streak of blood from his wrist where he had killed a mosquito.
The last time the PGA Championship was held on a course hardly anyone knew was 2004 at Whistling Straits. It was big and intimidating, another Dye design, and several players said they would be happy to take even par for the week and wait in the clubhouse. Then, Clarke opened with a 65.
What to expect from Kiawah?
“Without meaning to state the blind obvious,” Clarke said, “it all depends how strong the wind blows.”
The gusts reached 20 mph Tuesday morning before the storms arrived, and when the course was open for a play again, what little wind there was came from the opposition direction. It was stifling Wednesday afternoon, with not much of a breeze.
“There are still shots to be hit,” Clarke said. “Guys will shoot some scores. The wind only needs to pick up to 10 mph and it changes completely. We shall see. It looks like a course that says, ‘Come on and play golf. Come feel it. Hit it high, high it low.’ It looks like fun to me. And if the wind blows, it’s more fun. You’ve got to have a challenge. You’ve got to ask questions of yourself, and have fun doing it.”
As the season’s last major, it’s not all fun.
Woods is trying to avoid going a fourth consecutive year without a major. He has been close in the last two, at least for a while. He was co-leader through 36 holes at Olympic Club, then tumbled out of the top 20 on the weekend. He was in the penultimate group at the British Open, only for his hopes to die while squatting on the precipice of a pot bunker on his way to a triple bogey on the sixth hole.
He says he is a fan of Pete Dye courses, though Whistling Straits was never terribly kind to him.
“Pete will give you a couple easy holes, and then he’ll just hammer you with a few hard ones,” Woods said. “Then he’ll give you a break, and it’s kind of the ebb and flow of most of Pete’s designs. … This is a golf course where it’s going to test our short games a lot. The guy who can chip and putt really well this week is going to have a great chance.”
The way the majors have gone, that could be anybody.
Els won the British Open last month to become the 16th player to win the last 16 majors, the longest streak in 25 years. Such is the parity in golf that the streak could be extended if the PGA Championship is won by the No. 1 player in the world (Luke Donald) or the betting favorite (Woods).
The sentimental favorite figures to be Scott, who had a four-shot lead with four holes to play at Royal Lytham and closed with four straight bogeys. At least he gets another chance for redemption without having to wait another year.
“I’m lucky that just three weeks later, I’m going to have another go at it,” he said.