Why 1 PGA Championship hole will get way more attention than others

Valhalla 13th hole collin morikawa

Collin Morikawa plays from the edge of the island green on Valhalla's 13th hole.

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The question was really simple: What’s the most interesting hole out here?

I was walking alongside Tony Finau’s caddie, Mark Urbanek, on Tuesday morning, and wanted to hear from a looper what they thought of Valhalla Golf Club, host of this week’s PGA Championship. Did it stir the senses, like Los Angeles Country Club did last summer? Is it a thinking-man’s course, demanding precision? Which of these holes stand out? 

Urbanek was silent. One step, two steps, three steps, four. At least 10 seconds of silence before a heavy exhale. He didn’t have an answer, and you can’t blame him. He’s not enthralled by the property. Few competitors out here are. The problem is Mother Nature. 

Recent rainfall has neutered what this golf course could really be. When these rolling hills get baked out like a Scottish links, the bones are there for a rollicking good time. But that’s not the case this week. The course will receive more than an inch of rain, on top of the heavy rainfall in past weeks. To the golf course aficionados, that’s a problem, but what we are left with is something completely sufficient, even if it’s slightly disappointing. A big, long golf course that’s calling for driver just about everywhere. Where approach shots are likely to stay put. The ball on the ground will be mostly obedient. 

So to the question that left Urbanek speechless, we’ll answer with the golf hole that could cause havoc through intimidation. One that could send players on a direct route to Peak Frustration. Valhalla’s most interesting hole is the one you’ve already seen a bunch, with its unnatural island green perched up on massive boulders and water pouring over exposed limestone in the background. That’s literally its name: The Limestone Hole.

Valhalla’s par-4 13th will get plenty of TV coverage this week. After all, it’s in the background of all the ESPN SportsCenter studio shots you’ll see. It’s the most glorious looking hole, with features you’d find in a quarry. It looks lovely on a drone. It looks lovely on video games. It feels like it was crafted on a video game. Golden Tee course designers must love what they see. There’s risk and reward, except the risk isn’t worth the reward. Every player in the field will set out to play it the same way.

In most cases, the best holes offer options from the tee, but sometimes the most interesting holes are the ones that demand a specific path. Hit it here and you’ll be fine. Then hit it there, and you’re all good. Just follow directions. But golf is never that easy, even for the best players in the world. There are crowds watching. It’s a major championship. You may have just made birdie and are feeling cocky. You may have just made bogey and are feeling glum. You’re supposed to succeed.

Golf Channel’s Johnson Wagner spent eight minutes Tuesday night explaining the trickiness of the 13th in the event that players don’t succeed. He waited around into the evening, once the maintenance staff had cleared, to toss a couple of balls into the rough to emphasize how the location of your approach impacts everything. From the fairway, it’s Go Zone. From the rough, it’s nervy. Down in the rough, you might be laying up from 100 yards. And from one of its six extremely avoidable bunkers, you’ve got one of the scariest shots in the sport. 

All of which can be easily avoided, right? Probably. But 4-irons get tugged. Hybrids get fatted. Or wiped. Players are going to peer out from the elevated tee box and see what amounts to a dart board of a fairway, 34 yards wide. Just hit the dart board. It’s not hard. Hit the dart board and you’ll score some points. Miss the dart board and you might be screwed. 

Fans at home are bound to get tired of this hole because it will lull us to sleep. At 351 yards, pros will smooth long irons here all week. The lack of strategy will be apparent when Friday afternoon’s tee balls have to maneuver filled divots from the rest of the field. That doesn’t seem ideal! From there, it’s a smooth wedge and a birdie putt. Ho hum.

But the reason this hole may seem most maddening to those at home is because it’s exactly the kind of hole that professionals devour, and that you and I would shudder at. To have to play a 220-yard, downhill shot that goes exactly where we want it to go, and then nip a 120-yard wedge with proper spin control — that’s hard! For the pros, that’s second nature. Which is part of why Urbanek is uninspired by it. There should be some discomfort out there if we’re competing for a major championship.

Except what makes this course easy right now is also what will make 13 difficult. The rainfall has softened the green to the point that nothing is more important than spin control. Too little of it can send a ball soaring deep. Too much of it can rip it back off the green. Goldilocks spin is all these guys care about. Something that’s just right.

As players experimented with the 13th in practice rounds, that was one point of focus. A two-foot ring of turf surrounds the edge of the green as a last line of defense against shots diving into the penalty area. They hit chip shots from it. They putted from it. They imagined their balls rolling through it. If I hit it too good, will I get into trouble? Perhaps! Those at home can cling to that thought dearly. Pros worried about hitting it too good. Now that’s interesting.

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