The dominant theme here at the 93rd PGA Championship has been the pristine course conditions at the Atlanta Athletic Club. The course was closed down for two weeks prior to the start of the event. In the final three weeks that AAC members were allowed to play, they were issued small mats that they placed underneath their golf ball so as to avoid taking divots in the fairways and on the tees. This is unprecedented in major championship history and it shows the commitment that AAC members have made in making this a great championship.
The Atlanta Athletic Club is laced with rich golf history. Founded in 1898, the club began picking up national exposure when it hired John Heisman (Georgia Tech coach and namesake of the Heisman Trophy) as its athletic director. Bobby Jones was a fixture at the Atlanta Athletic Club. It was his home club. He served as President of the AAC and was active in the club until his death in 1972.
The club moved to its present location in 1967 and it features 36 holes. This week’s PGA Championship will be played on the Highlands Course. The clubhouse is a massive 42,000 square feet and the property is so spacious that the television compounds for CBS Sports, Turner Sports and the Golf Channel are virtually small cities. In total, there will be over 2,000 media representatives here this week covering golf’s final major of the season.
Over the years, the AAC has built an impressive resume. It hosted the 1963 Ryder Cup. The 1976 U.S. Open was won here by Jerry Pate, who received a special exemption from the PGA of America into this year’s field. 2011 is the third PGA Championship at the AAC. Local native, Larry Nelson, won here in 1981 and David Toms captured the Wanamaker Trophy in 2001. In addition, Betsy King won the U.S. Women’s Open here in 1976. The Atlanta Athletic Club will host the 2014 U.S. Amateur championship.
“This is the best venue that I have played on all year long,” said Steve Stricker on Tuesday. “Everything is absolutely perfect.”
“I don’t think I have ever played on better fairways,” commented Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open Champion. “The greens are unbelievably fast, almost too fast.”
Toms’ victory in 2001 was highlighted by a hole-in-one on the 15th during the third round. The Louisiana native says this year’s version of the AAC is totally different than a decade ago. “Let’s put it this way, there is a plaque on the 15th tee where I got my hole-in-one in 2001. Today, the tees are half a lob wedge further back! The hole played 265 yards in my practice rounds.”
The course measures 7,450 yards, which is monstrous for a par 70 golf course. Besides the previously mentioned 15th hole, the 507 yard, par 4, 18th hole will generate some discussion among players. The finishing hole at AAC requires the second shot to carry over water. In 2001, Toms elected to layup short of the water, getting it up and down with a wedge to save par and beat Phil Mickelson by a shot.
Much of the attention this week has been on the comments made by Steve Williams after he caddied for Adam Scott last week, who won the WGC event at the Firestone CC in Akron, OH. Williams attempted to steal the show with some strong talk in an interview with CBS’ David Feherty.
“In my 30 plus years of being a caddy, this was the best week of my life. This was my biggest win ever,” said Williams. That is an interesting statement considering Williams was on the bag when Woods won 13 major championships.
I was in the Media Center earlier this week when Lee Westwood was asked if he would have addressed his caddy, if similar remarks had been made.
“Yeah, I probably would. There was no relevance to the interview other than to have a shot at Tiger Woods in the ribs. Obviously, he does a good job as a caddy. Obviously, there is some friction there. But, what was the point of those remarks?” said Westwood who is ranked #2 in the world.
When asked about the importance of a caddy, Westwood had this to say, “It’s probably more what they don’t say than what they do say. Golf is such a psychological thing. Sometimes the smallest things can be a huge distraction.”
Westwood is the premier stud in the celebrated Chubby Chandler stable. Chandler is the agent who represents Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke, Charl Shwartzel and Graeme McDowell- all winners of major championships in the past year or so. Westwood has the label of being golf’s best player not to win a major.
I find this Englishman to be engaging, funny, competitive and way overdue for the big win. He is in top shape heading into the PGA Championship. He lost nine pounds in the past three weeks, anticipating the Atlanta heat.
“I felt I was getting a bit heavy. I just cut out all of the stuff that tastes good,” said a smiling Westwood. “Putting would be at the top of my list in terms of improving my game. “ As a result he started working with Dave Stockton, the top putting guru in the world.
Westwood’s next step was hiring a sports psychologist. His buddy, Clarke used two at the British Open and saw the dividends pay off. “Darren would be a good one to consult in terms of sports psychologists, since he has been through them all,” jabbed Westwood.
The entire Chandler portfolio is staying at the same hotel I am. Clarke was enjoying a libation at the bar when I checked in Sunday afternoon. McIlroy roams the lobby with his IPod. Westwood will stop and talk anytime of the day. McDowell is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. These players hang out together. They needle each other. They feed off of each other. They relax each other. They celebrate their accomplishments together.
These guys are winning and they seem to have it figured out. Earlier in the week, I said that picking the winner in a PGA Tour event this year is an exercise in futility. So, here is my latest attempt at futility. I am betting on Westwood to be holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday night and I am looking forward to that party! Cheers!