The 18th tee box at the PGA Championship was moved up 30 yards before the start of the tournament.
The move brought the grandstands that line the fairway into play and has spectacularly backfired.
Players have realized that the easiest way to attack the hole is to hit the ball right at the fans.
The 18th tee box at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course presents a spectacular challenge.
At the 2021 PGA Championship, the hole is set to serve as the finish line to golf’s second major of the year. However, a change made just before the start of the tournament has created a new problem: players are hitting their balls straight at fans.
Ahead of the tournament, the 18th hole was playing extremely difficult, with headwinds making the already long Par 4 play even longer.
During practice rounds, players hit woods and hybrids off the fairway to reach the green in two shots. Even then, it was a struggle.
The PGA moved the tee box for the 18th hole closer to the hole by roughly 30 yards, giving players iron shots into the green if they struck a solid drive. While the 18th still played as the most difficult hole on the course, it was at least reachable.
But then things got weird.
Some players realized the new setup offered a new line of attack – firing a drive right at the grandstand.
Out of the box, most of the trouble is on the right side of the fairway, with treacherous bunkers. Later, the ocean looms for shots that squirreled away off the tee.
The left side of the fairway is buttressed by a grandstand where fans can watch the players come in to finish their round. Thanks to the tee boxes being moved up, the grandstand was now in play.
Balls that wound up in the grandstand were rewarded with a free drop rather than a penalty stroke. While the drop zone was in the rough, it offered an angle at the flag that was good enough.
Suddenly, wailing the ball into the crowd was a desirable option, and many players opted to swing away and yell “FORE!” rather than risk a miss to the right side of the fairway.
According to Golf.com, top players including Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele, Rory McIlroy, and Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama all played their second shots from a free drop after sending a drive into the crowd of fans.
While it’s impossible to say just how many of their drives were intentionally wide left, it’s safe to say that they weren’t displeased with the result.
“I feel bad for all those people up there,” Keegan Bradley said after his round. “They’d better have their hard hats on today. They’re going to be firing them in there all day.”
Colombian Sebastian Munoz had the most entertaining shot of the day, sending his drive directly into a trash bin in the grandstand that sent fans gathered in the area into a frenzy.
Hitting the ball into the grandstand did not make the hole an easy par – the 18th still played as the most difficult hole on the course through Thursday. If players missed the green on their second shot from the drop zone, getting up-and-down for par was tough.
But compared to the dangers presented by the bunkers on the other side, taking a shot into the crowd was the preferred strategy by day’s end.
In the first round, the trend was something of a fun quirk of the course, but making the matter a bit more serious is that the 18th hole will eventually play as the 72nd. Having players jack their ball into the stands for strategic purposes with a major on the line is not exactly the challenge that the PGA likely wishes to present down the homestretch.
There’s a chance that action is taken to prevent players from shooting at the grandstand through the weekend, either by moving the tee boxes back a bit to make them more difficult to reach or by penalizing players whose ball makes its way into the crowd. But for the first two rounds, the optimal play has been to aim for the fans and shoot.
If the rules don’t change heading into the weekend, fans might want to follow Bradley’s advice and opt for a hardhat come Sunday.
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