Green Mile looms for Sunday's PGA survivor
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Green Mile nickname was not yet attached to Quail Hollow’s closing three holes when David Toms stepped onto the 18th tee in 2003. It was the final round of the first PGA TOUR event held at Charlotte’s most prestigious course. Toms led by six shots. Victory was a formality. He started with an errant tee shot into deep rough. Opted to chip his second shot backwards – and found more rough. Took two more shots to land the green. Heard some acerbic fan mention Jean van de Velde’s name. Then four-putted from 50 feet. Quadruple bogey. A relieved Toms still won by two shots. Since 1983 – when such records were first kept -- four players have won a TOUR event despite suffering a quadruple bogey at some point during the week. Toms is the only one to shoot his snowman in the final round. The point of bringing up this memory is not to belittle Toms’ finish – as he said afterward, “I know all you guys want to talk about that, but I want to talk about how I dominated the golf tournament for 71 holes” – but to illustrate one thing about the Quail Hollow finishing stretch that will likely decide the PGA Championship winner Sunday. It did not develop cruelty; it was born that way. Perhaps you’ve heard: No closing three-hole stretch on the PGA TOUR is as difficult as Quail Hollow’s 16, 17 and 18. Since 2003, the cumulative stroke average for the Green Mile is 0.916 above par; the next hardest stretch is at Muirfield Village at 0.598. Another stat to use on trivia night: Entering this week, 6,441 rounds on TOUR have been played at Quail Hollow. The world’s best players are a combined 5,899 above par. Of course, that total was accumulated during the 14 years that Quail Hollow hosted the Wells Fargo Championship. Being a major championship venue simply raised the punishment level. Through the first three rounds, the Green Mile is playing at 1.07 strokes above par. That’s similar to other tough closing stretches at major venues in recent years – Oakland Hills (2008 PGA) at 1.40; Merion (2013 U.S. Open) at 1.36; Winged Foot (2006 U.S. Open) at 1.12; and Carnoustie (2007 Open) at 1.09. Kevin Kisner, who’ll take a one-stroke lead over Chris Stroud and Hideki Matsuyama heading into Sunday, was asked how much tougher the Green Mile is playing this week as opposed to his six appearances at the Wells Fargo. “Probably a shot in my opinion,” Kisner said. “For some reason, 18's playing way longer. I think it's just the firmness of the fairways is not there. 16, normally if you chase one down there, you can hit a 6- or 7-iron in and I've been hitting four and five. “18, I've had 5-iron both days into until today, I had 7-iron to that front pin. I think the length is causing it. The last two days it was firmness of the greens, but today they were not as firm and I just think everybody is hitting longer clubs into it.” On Saturday, the last three groups – nine players -- played the Green Mile in a cumulative 17 over. The specific damage: 9 bogeys, 3 doubles, 1 quad against just two birdies. The most notable victims were Rickie Fowler and Jason Day. Fowler was 5 under until he went bogey-double-bogey, a water ball at 17 sandwiched by a couple of three putts. “You can’t limp in,” said Fowler, now six shots behind. “You’ve got to finish it off.” Day was also at 5 under after a rare birdie at 16. He bogeyed 17, then found all kinds of trouble after an errant tee shot at 18. The end result was a quadruple bogey, his 6-over 77 wiping out two previous days of productive work. Louis Oosthuizen, meanwhile, managed to play the stretch at even par Saturday despite not having an 8-iron to use. He had bent the club earlier in his round when hitting a tree root, forcing him to use 7-iron for his approach at 16 (bogey) and his tee shot at 17 (birdie). “Those aren’t holes you want to go with different clubs,” he said. Not to worry; he’ll have a replacement in his bag Sunday. Perhaps the most significant victim, though, was Kisner. Thanks to consecutive birdies, he was 10 under going into the closing stretch and leading by two shots. With the opportunity to create serious breathing room had he simply stayed out of trouble, Kisner instead doubled the 16th and bogeyed the 18th. It may come back to haunt him Sunday as he chases his first major title. “I had a chance to run away from guys and take people out of the tournament that were four or five, six back, and I didn't do it,” Kisner said. “Now I'm in a dogfight.” Assuming Kisner or none of his competitors run away with the tournament, the Green Mile will decide this 99th PGA Championship. A slim lead on golf’s toughest closing stretch will test nerves. The chasers, however, will have to figure out how to make up ground on three holes that have coughed up few birdies this week. It’s the balance of aggressiveness versus caution. “You can go in three behind and you can still win it with those holes,” Oosthuizen said. Billy Horschel, at 2 over, is too far out to make a charge. But he does have an interesting perspective about the Green Mile. Horschel entered this week as one of just six players in TOUR history with a career score under par on Quail Hollow’s final three holes. That’s out of the 570 different players who have recorded at least one competitive round there. In essence, Horschel is a 1 percenter. Through three rounds this week, he’s 1 over in that stretch. Asked Saturday what his secret was to playing the Green Mile, Horschel replied: “Just put it on the green. You can even have a club you want to be more aggressive with. Just put it on the green and try to make a putt. Too many times you get a club in your hand and think, ‘Oh, OK, I can be aggressive.’ “I’ve got a great example today on No. 17. Pin’s front left, very accessible, and just sort of want to go at it. You tug it a little bit and you’re in the water. So understanding what a good shot is and what a bad shot is.” Horschel doesn’t think the Green Mile will decide the tournament if the leader has a 4-shot lead entering 16. Anything less … well, game on. “It depends on who’s leading too,” he said. “Usually guys who are leading are playing really well. The guys up there now are proven winners, they don’t get nervous. If you get someone up there who’s not proven and you’ve got a 1-shot lead, I think you’re going to see him falter a little bit.” Earlier this week, before his career grand slam opportunity was put on hold until 2018, Jordan Spieth was asked about the best place to watch golf at Quail Hollow. Replied Spieth: “There's fans that want to hang around 16, 17, 18 and see some triumph and disaster.” Fourteen years ago, David Toms supplied both on the 18th green. Luckily for him, it only cost him a few strokes but not the tournament. Someone else will gladly accept the same fate Sunday.
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