By Larry Fine
(Reuters) – The hectic major golf season comes to a close with the PGA Championship at venerable Baltusrol Golf Club starting on Thursday, a classic course where accuracy with the driver could be the key to victory.
World number one Jason Day defends his PGA title on a 7,428-yard course that plays to a par of 70 with two finishing par-five holes that may provide some dramatics in determining the last major champion of 2016.
Baltusrol, designed by famed architect A.W. Tillinghast, has hosted seven U.S. Opens, two of which were won by Jack Nicklaus, and the 2005 PGA Championship, claimed by Phil Mickelson.
“It will be important to drive the ball well, and I actually am looking forward to that challenge,” Mickelson told reporters on Tuesday.
The big-hitting American often used 2-iron off the tee in finishing runner-up at the British Open at Royal Troon less than two weeks ago in a season where the majors have been squeezed into a tight period to allow for the Olympic golf tournament.
“I feel good. I feel good with the way I drove the ball at the stretch (at Troon), hitting drivers and being able to put it in play there on a difficult golf course in tough conditions,” said Mickelson.
“But that will be a key club this week. You’ve got to drive the ball straight for sure. It doesn’t have to be long. If you notice, the great thing about Baltusrol is how the front of the greens are always open. You have an opportunity to run shots up.”
World number four Rory McIlroy, one of golf’s best drivers, said the course suits his game as he sets out to win a third PGA Championship.
“It’s a fair golf course. I feel like everything is straight out in front of you. There’s no real hidden secrets to it. And I feel that’s what really let’s me excel,” the Northern Irishman said.
“I feel like I can play my game in PGA Championships. I can hit driver off the tee the most time, and from there, if I drive it well, I feel like I have a big advantage.”
Jordan Spieth, who won the first two majors last season in taking the Masters and U.S. Open titles, has come up empty so far this season but is encouraged about playing Baltusrol.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said the American world number three. “It’s a big golf course.
“Fantastic finish with the last three,” he said, including the 230-yard par-three 16th.
“You’ve got to hit the ball long and straight, and then from there, if you keep it in or right near the fairway, you’re going to be able to take advantage of quite a few of these holes with eight, nine (irons) or wedge into the green.
“I consider it one of the top American golf courses that there is.”
Padraig Harrington, a three-times major winner including the 2008 PGA, issued a caution.
“There is fear on the greens,” Harrington, who shot 13-over-par for two rounds at Baltusrol in 2005, told Reuters.
“Take any sort of run at a putt downhill, even a three or four-footer going downhill, you go three or four feet by. The difference will be all around the greens.”
Although the players have not been back to Baltusrol competitively for 11 years, the Irish veteran said it would likely prove to be a level playing field for young and veterans alike.
“It’s not a golf course that you have to play a lot. If you play well, it’s all there in front of you. You could play this course with your yardage book. Play your shots well and keep yourself below the hole when you’re putting.
“A big, strong golf course.”
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by ……)