Commentary

Kiawah's conditions to play key role

Updated: August 7, 2012, 8:57 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

The gaffe will be with him forever, so give Dustin Johnson credit for a good sense of humor and friendly disposition.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
Allan Henry/US PresswireThere will be no repeat this year of Dustin Johnson's debacle from the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits. There will be a "through the green" rule in which competitors can remove debris or loose impediments and ground their clubs in sandy areas.

When Johnson learned that this week's venue for the PGA Championship, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, will not treat bunkers as hazards, he could only chuckle.

"I said, 'You're welcome,'" Johnson answered, feigning to take credit for the PGA of America's decision to treat all sand this week as "waste areas'' and not hazards, perhaps to avoid the kind of controversy Johnson faced two years ago at Whistling Straits.

It was there during the final round of the 2010 PGA Championship, on the final hole, that Johnson found his errant tee shot in an area trampled down by spectators that he didn't realize was a bunker. Neither Johnson nor his caddie realized it was a hazard. He grounded his club behind the ball, meaning his bogey-5 turned into a triple-bogey 7 due to a 2-shot penalty.

That caused Johnson to miss a playoff won by Martin Kaymer over Bubba Watson.

This year, that won't be a concern. All sandy areas -- except those that are part of water hazards -- are considered "through the green,'' meaning players can remove debris or loose impediments and ground their clubs.

What happened to Johnson has nothing to do with the decision -- other events at the Ocean Course have also been played in this manner, including the 1991 Ryder Cup. And yet, the PGA of America went out of its way to make the announcement some 10 days ago.

"I laughed,'' Johnson said. "It doesn't bother me. I think it's good, especially a place like [Kiawah], where there is so much sand everywhere. People are going to be walking in it, so I think it's good. If not, it would slow down play tremendously.''

That might be the case anyway. The venue for the year's final major championship is a brute, ranked by Golf Digest as the toughest course in America. Designed by noted architect Pete Dye, it has a slope rating of 153 (the average for a golf course is 113) and has a course rating of 79.7. For comparison, Oakmont in Pennsylvania, site of eight U.S. Opens and three PGA Championships, has a slope rating of 147 and a course rating of 77.5.

The Ocean Course will play just under 7,700 yards and to a par of 72, although the PGA of America is expected to move the tees around to various lengths.

"It's two different nine holes,'' said Adam Scott, who visited Kiawah last week. "The front nine is a really nice, playable golf course, and then the back nine is not.

"The back nine is very severe, and it's going to be interesting. It rained a lot while I was there, and it's playing very soft and long. It's going to be very weather dependent. There's good scores out there in good weather, but if the wind blows, it's just going to be very difficult, even if they move tees forward.

"Green complexes are very severe on some holes and there's just an extreme penalty for a miss. There's water one side and big waste bunkers the other. You're certainly going to need some ball-striking.''

That is what Tiger Woods would prefer to see. He visited the course last Tuesday to chart the greens and get his first look at the place and was disappointed that it was a rather calm day. It had also rained extensively the day prior, so it was soft. He was also on site early Monday morning to begin tournament week preparation.

"It's going to be long, close to 7,700 yards,'' Woods said. "And that's a big ballpark. A lot of the holes are crosswind holes. Having paspalum greens is different. I've only played on paspalum greens one time. But they drain great. They are going to be firm.

"It's going to be a great test. I don't know how the spectators are going to get around this place. First of all, I don't know how they're going to get to it. But once they're there, it's going to be a great environment.''

Kiawah Island, which is near Charleston, does present some logistical issues. But the players undoubtedly will face more problems once on the course.

Graeme McDowell, who has played in the last group at each of the past two major championships, also got an early peek.

"I really enjoyed it," he said. "The back nine has some teeth. It's well set up, fair. Nothing overly tricky, just a strong test of golf. It has fairly wide-open targets off the tee but enough rough to keep us all honest. Big undulating areas, lots of run-off areas, elevated greens.

"The run-off areas are not like links, though. You have no options, really. The ball goes off these steep banks and I can't see any other play than putter or hybrid to get them running. But it's a good course and I enjoyed it.''

McDowell has no issues with the decision to not play the bunkers as hazards. Nor did Woods.

"It will be different taking practice swings [in the sand]," Woods said. "But all the bunkers are different anyway so you have to get a feel for all of them.

"They all have different amounts of sand. Some were washed out, some weren't. Some were fluffy, some were hard pan. So it's nice to get that little rehearsal.''

Although the ruling was not made for that reason, Woods said it is good that bunkers will not be treated as hazards after what happened to Johnson two years ago.

"That was kind of … I felt bad for Dustin and I know what the rule is, but under those circumstances it was kind of hard to tell," Woods said.

For his part, Johnson is philosophical. He knows the same rules have been in place at previous tournaments at Kiawah, and figures this is for the best.

"You still have to hit the shot; there's no advantage, really,'' he said. "It's actually a little strange. When you're in a greenside bunker, you're not used to grounding your club. I'm not going to. You're not used to doing it. So I don't think it's going to be a big advantage.''

Best advice? Stay out of the sand. That might make traversing what appears to be a very difficult course at least somewhat easier.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com