All geared up for an ‘interesting’ week
It’s the final Major of the Year – the USPGA – and I’m happy to be here in Wisconsin. Perhaps, in the past this tournament didn’t quite get the same level of coverage as the other three Majors. However, I can’t see that being the case this year with all the hype about the course surrounding the build-up to the event. Whistling Straits is the track – it’s a Pete Dye design and it’s very interesting.
There’s already been a lot written and said about the course – and no wonder. It’s the longest course ever to stage a Major and just about every hole will present a stiff test. Of course, you notice that it plays long – there are three par-4s that are 500-yards plus, after all, while the shortest par-5 is close on 570 yards. Indeed, I had heard a lot of things about the course before this week and ‘brutally difficult’ would have certainly been the phrase coming into it.
But for all that, when I played a practice round on Monday – it was a nice, warm day with a breeze and not a strong wind – I found it very playable. If it got very windy or cold or if it rained, then it would be brutally difficult. But in normal conditions, it's a great test…an interesting test.
The European issue
Europeans, as history shows, don’t have the greatest of records in the USPGA, but I’m not sure whether this course is more likely to favour PGA Tour players or guys off our own circuit. You see, this golf course obviously is not like anything else. It's unique. I think we're all coming into this course not knowing exactly who it suits. Ultimately I think the golf course will suit the guy who strikes the ball well. A good striker of the ball will do well out there because you have to hit it a long way and you have to control your ball flight whether it's left to right wind, right to left wind, low or high. So look out for a good ball striker who possesses a good short game, as well. You have to expect to miss a few greens out there.
After the Irish Open I had two weeks off tournament play. I’d had a shoulder and neck problem that had niggled me during the Open and then in Ireland. I did some practice while I was off – a different sort of practice, I suppose. So, I definitely had a good break and feel my neck isn't giving me any trouble. I also worked on building my shoulder back up. I hopefully caught the problem in time before it got to a chronic stage. During my break I also went to see my coach Bob Torrance for a couple of days. What did we work on? Just the same old stuff that I usually need to consider.
I got to see some of the Buick Classic a couple of weekends ago, and I thought Tiger looked like he's right back to where he was a few years ago. He really looked on top form. Will he ever be as dominant as he once was? I think a lot of players have caught up, so I don't think that's possible. He could have runs of a couple of months and things like that, but I don't think he could have another year like in 2000, when he was way ahead. Indeed, even if he got back to playing as well as he played in 2000, I think the players have closed the gap. There are a lot of other good players who are capable of competing with him.
The opening hole at 408 yards and the 2nd – a 593-yard par-5 – could present early birdie opportunities, depending on the prevailing conditions. But it soon starts to get pretty tough with the 4th, measuring 493 yards, the first of the long par-4s. It’s not as long as the 507-yard 8th – another par-4 – where you are confronted by a long-iron approach into a deep green that is well bunkered and has Lake Michigan looming behind it.
The 143-yard 12th is the shortest hole out there, but it still presents its own complications with the putting surface taking some reading. The 15th is another monster par-4 at 518 yards – power and accuracy are required here to just make par.
Similarly, at the 500-yard closing par-4, you need to get your tee-shot away over sand and dunes before avoiding a creek with your approach into a large green.
I’ll let you know after the weekend on how the tournament unfolded for me.
The facts state that I finished in a share of 45th place at one-over-par. But there was a good few pluses I can take out of my week at Whistling Straits, one being that I had more birdies (22) than anyone else in the field. Obviously, the final day was disappointing – no doubt about it. But over the first three days I played some decent golf and kept myself in contention until Sunday afternoon. Even so, I haven’t contended in this year’s Majors as I would have liked and that’s a frustration for me.
I was delighted with my first round 68. What made it doubly satisfying was the fact that I’d got off to a poor start and was lying two-over after six holes.
But I didn’t reach for any panic buttons, staying calm and I hit back with a number of birdies. In total, I managed eight with a run of three on the bounce from the seventh.
It was a good day for the Irish contingent, all round, with Darren Clarke clearly in great form. He managed to get it to seven-under par to lead after the opening day. Paul McGinley also got off to a solid start, finishing a shot back from myself on three-under. So, while everyone had been worrying about Whistling Straits being a ‘monster’ it was actually pretty fair on the first day with several flags you could really attack and the greens relatively soft.
Solid second day
I was out in the afternoon for the second round and did enough to keep myself right in contention. My one-under 71 left me at five-under overall and only four shots off the leaders.
The situation could actually have been better as I was two-under through seven holes, having birdied the 1st and 7th. But the wind picked up and I lost some momentum after the turn. I bogied the 11th, 12th and 15th to drop back. However, a birdie at the par-5 16th and then another at the following par-3 left me in a position from where I felt I could seriously challenge from over the weekend.
I was playing with KJ Choi on the Saturday and shot level-par. It could have been a whole lot worse than that as things didn’t go the way I’d hoped they would at all on the front nine.
The round began well enough with a birdie at the second, but then I had a poor stretch from the fourth. I bogied that hole, made a ‘double’ at the following par-5 by going into the water guarding the green and dropped another shot at the seventh.
I managed to claw back a couple of shots before back-to-back bogies at the 11th and 12th. At times like that on a golf course, it’s important to suppress any frustration you’re inevitably feeling and just knuckle down.
As it was, I got my head down and birdied three of the next five holes to get home in 72 and remain at five-under.
The course played very tough on the Sunday with the increasing wind definitely a factor. There weren’t many easy pins out there, either. But I’ve no excuses for my 78. I didn’t play my best golf and the score reflects that. A birdie at the 1st hole was the high point, but despite two more birdies, after that it went downhill.
Later this week I’m at the WGC-NEC Invitational. I’ll let you have a preview of the tournament before we get started on Thursday.