SPRINGFIELD, N.J. — Dustin Johnson eats par-5s for breakfast. The longest hitter in the game also boasts a top-10 scoring rate on par-5s.
When he came to the tee box at the 649-yard par-5 17th on Tuesday for a PGA Championship practice round, his mere presence elicited a deafening silence of anticipation from the gathered crowd.
His drive, a 330-yard bomb, drew oohs and ahhs from the people watching. No “Bababooie!” or “Mashed potatoes!” This was shock and awe.
Yet when he got to his ball, he had nearly 320 yards left to the pin, and even for the lanky, angular DJ that was too tall a task.
Johnson took an iron and placed it perfectly short and right of the gnarl of bunkers protecting the elevated 17th green. But then he did something I only saw one player do all day: he paused, dropped another ball, and grabbed his 3-wood—to applause from the gallery—and went for it.
That familiar bowed wrist and explosive action at the ball whooshed through impact. He’d pured it … 20 yards short.
Even for the hottest golfer on Tour with a dynamic swing and distance for days, the 17th bared its teeth.
According to one marshal who had been at the hole Monday and Tuesday, just one man hit the 17th green in two: Nicolas Colsaerts … and he apparently hit it to six feet.
But what followed offers insight into his approach to 17. He threw balls in the bunkers and the greenside rough. He didn’t hit a single approach shot with a wedge. He was preparing to take on the mighty 17th in two and live with the consequences of spraying it or coming up short.
In the last 25 years, the only guy to reach the green in two in tournament play was John Daly back in 1993, and legend has it he did it with a special edition 1-iron. (At the 2005 PGA, let the record show, Tiger Woods did something perhaps more amazing than hitting the green in two; he flew it.)
But that was back when the hole was 630 yards. They’ve added nearly 20 yards to the back tees and turned one of just two par-5s on the course into potentially Balty’s most strategic.
Three-wood off the tee just to hit the fairway, as many players do, isn’t going to work this week.
Brad Ott was short off the tee on 17 on Tuesday. The discussion with his caddie was how to get him to a 120-yard shot, his preferred yardage. “OK, then it’s a 260 shot,” his caddie replied.
That’s 260 yards with bunkers short, bunkers long and abandoned-lot length grass off the fairway.
The tee box on the 17th sits in a chute of trees so narrow, it rivals the 18th at Augusta. Giant, sweeping cuts or draws are no good, which means miscalculation on launch direction can turn into trouble in a hurry. More than one pro took another off the tee box after hitting into the trees left or right.
Director of golf Doug Steffen says the hole is basically a 100-yard par-3. It’s getting to the 100-yard part that can be tricky.
If you drew a circle around the flagstick on Tuesday, about 12 feet in diameter, you could have filled it with 85% of the players’ shots into the green. Sure, they had to hit driver, 3-wood to get there, but once they get to the wedge, the hole really isn’t that tough.
Consider it Baltusrol’s version of “But other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Jordan Spieth missed the fairway left off the tee and muttered to himself as he walked off the tee box. “That’s going to make the hole really hard if you miss the fairway,” he said.
It seems obvious, but for most Tour pros, spraying your drive on a par-5 isn’t a killer. Guys like Bubba Watson, Jason Day, and Johnson can still make eagle from off the fairway.
Not at 17, and especially not with the kind of rain New Jersey has seen this week. The fairways aren’t going to run. You won’t see Rory McIlroy hit one 370 because he got 40 yards of run in the fairway.
Stroke average on 17 at the 2005 PGA was a ghastly—by Tour standards—4.93.
Conversely, the par-5 18th played 4.47 with 13 eagles. The 17th? Just one. In fact, the 17th had more bogeys than three of Baltursol’s par-4s and one of its par-3s.
PGA Tour pros come to par-5s and stand on the tee box expecting to make birdie. And there are birdies to be made. That is, if your drive finds the fairway and you hit your second 250 yards or more while avoiding any of the 15 or so bunkers on the hole.
Given how well the average Tour pro hits a wedge from 100 to 120 yards, it doesn’t make sense for even the longest hitters to go for the green in two considering the trouble around it. A 100-yard pitching wedge is a lot less stressful than a 40-yard sand shot to an elevated green.
Don’t expect to see players really lean into drives and then step on 3-woods to force it there. In fact, Johnson and Branden Grace were the only players all day (from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) who even attempted it. Both came up short.
That few players even tried the shot is telling: This is a true three-shot par-5, one of a dying breed on the PGA Tour.
All of that may change, however, come Sunday, when players arrive on the 17th needing to go low and with only par-5s in front of them.