- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2005

Baltusrol features the perfect finish for an unforgettable Slam-season finale.

Few courses on the planet boast a more distinctive trio of closing holes than the 7,392-yard, par-70 A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece set to play host to this week’s 87th PGA Championship.

In each of the four previous majors held on Baltusrol’s Lower Course (U.S. Opens in 1954, 1967, 1980 and 1993), the layout’s closing stretch of two brutes and an eagle opportunity has provided the event’s defining action.

“That closing stretch is one of the most intriguing in championship golf,” Jack Nicklaus said recently about the Springfield, N.J., course. “You have a long par-3 followed by the only par-5s on the course. To win at Baltusrol, you have to survive 16 and take advantage of Nos.17 and 18.”

Nicklaus did just that during two major triumphs at Baltusrol, playing the holes 5 under in 1967 en route to setting the Open scoring record (275) and nearly matching that stretch-run mastery (4 under) in 1980 while lowering the scoring standard (272).

Adding even more weight to Nicklaus’ assertion, consider that the average total score in relation to par of Lower Course winners has been 4.25 under and those winners played the pivotal closing trio in an average of 3.75 under during their victorious weeks.

Baltusrol’s furious finish begins at the strapping 16th, a 230-yard par-3 with a bowl-shaped green complex surrounded by a set of five bunkers. Defending PGA champion Vijay Singh hit a 3-iron from the elevated tee to the back fringe of the green during a recent loop around the course. But if the pin is positioned in the back third of the green, don’t be surprised to see shorter players select hybrid clubs or even fairway woods.

Lee Janzen authored his ultimate Open highlight on this hole in 1993 in golf’s last visit to Baltusrol, chipping in from 30 feet during his final-round duel with Payne Stewart to forge a two-stroke lead with two to play.

The middle leg of the layout’s three-step stretch is the famed Baltusrol Beast. At 650 yards, Baltusrol’s par-5 17th is the longest hole in major championship golf. Making the hole even more menacing, it plays uphill, over a set of cross bunkers at the 400-yard mark, doglegs slightly left and finishes at a green sloped cruelly from front left to back right. When the hole was playing 630 yards at the 1993 U.S. Open, John Daly became the first player to reach the green in two, following a solid drive with a 305-yard 0-iron (13 degrees) to earn a rare eagle bid.

With the addition of 20 more yards for this week’s PGA, don’t expect anyone to duplicate that feat.

Baltusrol’s closing hole, a 554-yard par-5, provides the best red-number opportunity on the layout. Singh hit a second-shot 3-iron pin high during his first practice round. And mammoth hitters like world No.1 Tiger Woods likely will need little more than a medium iron if they can find the fairway with a hard draw on this sharp dogleg left, bringing eagle and the opportunity for a dramatic final-hole swing of two or three strokes into play.

That said, the most memorable 72nd-hole dramatics at Baltusrol both came after errant drives. In 1954, journeyman Ed Furgol came to the hole needing a par to win and hooked his drive badly, narrowly escaping the creek that lines the left side of the hole. With the conventional route to the green blocked by trees, Furgol played hard left onto the 18th fairway of the adjacent Upper Course and hit his approach back over the trees for a two-putt par and a one-stroke victory over Gene Littler.

In 1967, Nicklaus led Arnold Palmer by four when he fanned a 1-iron off the tee and hit a weak 8-iron recovery before facing a 238-yard approach uphill into a slight breeze to the three-tiered green. With Arnie’s Army sensing a breakdown, Nicklaus proceeded to belt a 1-iron to within 20 feet of the flag, a shot he has often described as one of the five finest of his career.

“It was especially good considering I’d just duffed an 8-iron about 50 yards,” said Nicklaus, who, of course, holed the birdie putt to put an exclamation point on his victory.

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