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The Practice Round
MAPLEWOOD, NJ—There are few things more idyllic than the practice rounds that precede a major. The one encounter everyone should have at least once in his or her lifetime is to experience spending a day at the golf course during a practice round.
There are many reasons why- starting with the pristine condition of the course. The grounds are so manicured and breathtakingly lush that you wince when the pros take a divot because you do not want anything to disturb the beauty of this picture perfect portrait. The 87th PGA Championship being contested at Baltusrol is no exception.
The Tuesday practice round had many light moments starting with golfers hitting extra shots off the tee and taking extra strokes on the green, all the time looking and testing the course. Putts that did not fall were not met with grimaces; rather another attempt was made as golfers, coaches and friends dissected the terrain.
It is refreshing to hear kids call out the names of the golfers hoping for a moment with the pros as he signs caps, shirts and who knows what else is thrust before him. And, while on the subject, kudos to Vijay and Phil, among others, for taking the time to sign time and again as they finished each hole. The marshals were exceptionally friendly and quick with quips to spectators waiting to maneuver fairway crossings.
In one case, a marshal informed an impatient spectator that some people have more clout and therefore the right of way, obviously referring to the professionals.
The caddies of the group of David Duval and Fred Couples had their own light moments when they took the golf balls of the following group (Phil and Billy Mayfair) from their landing spots on the green and placed them in the cup. When they arrived Phil scanned the green looking all over with a bewildered look on his face. “What happened” he appeared to be asking himself.
Prodded by the fans, Phil looked into the cup and upon discovering the balls, lifted out the two balls and raised them high over his head in a fist pump salute to the applause of the crowd. With the exception of a stoic Tiger, the majority of the golfers were enjoying the lighter moments with on course banter that perhaps belie their nervousness.
It was nice to see golfers like Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand seemingly enjoying himself while wearing all black that contrasted nicely against his dark brown skin as he was cheered on his fellow countryman.
He was side by side with Arjun Atwal of India, launching shots onto the green on the fourth hole. It was also nice to see Vijay help a fellow competitor with his swing after pulling several drives into the rough on the 18th hole.
Understandably, all of this will change come Thursday and several of those you see roaming the course of the practice will not be seen the weekend which is a little disheartening. As for the course, one word sums it up and that word is “long.” The course is long and at 7392 yards and par at 70, it will make for an interesting contest.
Most talk about the monster, the 650-yard par 5 17th hole. John Daly, wanting to test the 17th and perhaps at the urging of the public, attempted to replicate his feat of getting on in two by hitting driver, and driver again, but failed as his shot went to the left rough about 20 yards short.
Opening up with a 478 par 4 on the 1st hole, 379 par 4 on the 2nd hole, followed by the 503 par 4 on the 3rd , you quickly get a sense of what the golfers face. If it rains then the course plays longer because the ball will not roll as much. The advantage is that it is softer so you can select and land the ball in key spots.
The height of the rough is always a concern, and on the surface, does not appear to be too bad; that is until you see someone’s’ foot and ankle disappear. That is when you get a true sense of how penal it can be. The undulations of the greens are something else to look for as the greens slope severely at different points.
There are actually points of undulation on the fairways, notably the 6th hole where it slopes harshly from the left side of the fairway to the right. As for the closing two par 5’s, the 18th hole can actually become eagle heaven because the opportunity is there to get on in two and be putting for eagle.
I certainly expect to see several eagles, especially from the longer hitters. It will be really interesting to see how the hole is played on Sunday. Picking a favorite is getting as old as my favorite pair of shoes. If I had to pick based on what I saw during the practice round, there is no question that the edge goes to Tiger.
If Vijay corrects his putting woes that have hampered him in past tournaments as well as the practice round, he may contend. Otherwise…