By Dan Reardon
Unlike the major team sports, there is no home field/rink/court advantage in golf. As players advance in their PGA Tour careers, they develop a knowledge of the various courses on Tour, which they hope gives them an edge on the newcomers.
That local knowledge all but disappears when it comes to the three traveling majors. The Open Championship in Great Britain has a rota of courses it visits, and a player with enough mileage may have traversed the host site once or twice in a career. (Royal Birkdale hadn’t hosted since 2008).
Even though the USGA has a few fixed courses guaranteed a U.S. Open every few years (e.g. Oakmont), return visits are generally infrequent. The same can be said for the PGA Championship, although the PGA of America has been more adventuresome in visiting many regions of the country.
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The closest you get to double-dipping on experience are courses like Pebble Beach, Congressional and Riviera, which have been regular stops on the PGA Tour and occasional venues for majors.
That is why this week’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina has a unique feel. Early in its existence, the course was the host of the Kemper Open for 10 years, ending in 1979. It has also been a popular stop on the PGA Tour since 2003, first with Wachovia and now Wells Fargo as the title sponsor. The more recent stint is relevant to this week’s major.
The field has seen and played this course dozens of times. Rory McIlroy won for the first time in the U.S. there and added a second in 2015. Rickie Fowler also posted his maiden Tour win at Wells Fargo, beating McIlroy in a playoff. Good or bad, virtually the entire field of players — both national and international — have a sense of where to go and what to avoid at the course.
Although he has never posted a win at Quail Hollow, former PGA Champion Phil Mickelson could probably play this week in the dark. He has won more than $3,000,000 in 13 starts in North Carolina. Mickelson has finished second (2010), third (2013), tied for third (2007), tied for fourth twice (2015 and 2016) and tied for fifth twice (2004 and 2009).
Players will tell you that teeing it up at a course where they have enjoyed success is somewhat predictive of a greater chance to win. Tiger Woods is the poster boy for cloning wins at courses where he has won before (Torrey Pines (8); Firestone (8); Bay Hill (8); Doral (7); Muirfield Village (5)). Toss in his four Masters titles, and Woods amassed nearly half of his career wins on just six courses.
McIlroy recently referenced Woods in looking ahead to the close of his 2017 season, including Quail Hollow. “If you look at golf historically and you look at some of the great players that have played this game, they’ve had success on golf courses that they feel comfortable [on]. You look at someone like Tiger Woods who’s won eight times at Bay Hill, eight times at Akron, eight times at Torrey Pines. So any time you go back to a golf course where you have had success and you have those great memories, you know, it’s almost like you have an advantage over the field already.”
In the case of Quail Hollow, there are some asterisks to place next to its repeat-venue status this week. Greenskeepers will tell you that the course will play different in mid-August from its traditional spring date. Club czar Johnny Harris blew up a few holes at the start of the front nine from the day Wells Fargo ended in 2016 until this week. Last year, the club took the bold step of using the one-year move off the PGA Tour stop to entirely reseed the greens with a different strain of bent grass. Players who have visited the site say it has changed a little, but not enough to offset the familiarity that years of competing offer. The same formula applies this week at the PGA Championship that has been in place since Tom Fazio revised the George Cobb layout 20 years ago. If you want to win there, have a good score on the card before you step on the tee at the 16th.
The closing three holes have come to be known as the Green Mile, a combination of water and length that will swing fortunes either way over each of the four days. Less menacing in appearance than the stretch run at the Players Championship, it is no less destructive, particularly from the tee.
Then there is history that suggests that winning on a course that doubled as a Tour stop and major venue is rare. In recent times, only Pebble Beach and Torrey Pines have rewarded a previous Tour winner with a major championship, and in both cases it was Woods who recorded the double.
Two trends will crash into each other this week at the PGA Championship: Players who anticipate success because of past performances at Wells Fargo, and a 2017 PGA Tour that has featured first-time winners and players 25 and under who are just beginning to develop their history.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 33 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.