SAN FRANCISCO — It’s California in August. Sunshine and warmth! Sunglasses and sunscreen!
Is there a word stronger than wrong?
On Tuesday at Harding Park, it was sweater-vests and gloves. Beanies and hand warmers. The sun didn’t even consider showing itself. Temperatures hovered in the mid-50s. The ocean breeze made it feel 10 degrees colder. The ground was wet to the touch. The infamous marine layer, present and accounted for.
And the ball went nowhere.
“I was anywhere from 10 to 13 yards shorter with a very similar swing and ball speed with the irons,” Jordan Spieth said. “And the driver is up to 20 yards shorter in carry, and that’s normalized on the TrackMan. Yeah, it’s very different.”
Such will be the case virtually all week at TPC Harding Park, which measures only 7,200-odd yards on the scorecard but will play closer to 8,000. It’s not just that the ball goes less far in the thick air—the body moves slower. Last week in Memphis, where he won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational to become world No. 1, Justin Thomas could crank his clubhead speed up to 123-124 mph. This week, he’s topping out at 116.5, and the ball is going up to 30 yards less far. Without heat and humidity to lubricate motion, every movement requires more effort.
“I know I won’t have the same range of motion as I would back home in Florida where it’s 95 every day,” Tiger Woods said. “That’s just the way it is.”
Making matters more difficult is the unpredictability. When these guys play in altitude, there’s a standard equation for calculating yardages. You had X percent to the raw number, and voila. This week will be much more of a guessing game. And that can make it very, very hard to trust.
“There’s not a science,” Thomas said. “It’s not like you’re in Mexico where, hey, I’m playing 12 percent here. It’s like, hey, it’s pretty cold here and we’re into a little bit of a mist, like this is probably something like 15-, 20-yard difference.
“Sometimes if you’re in the first cut, the ball spins a little bit more and that’s going to make it go even shorter. If the rough is wet, if it’s dry. It’s little things like that to where all of us have experienced enough out here, and we know just kind of when we’re in the scenario what that shot is going to hold. But yeah, the ball goes very, very short here.”
Once (if?) you figure out the numbers, the next challenge lies in the actual golf course. TPC Harding Park is the opposite of tricky. Everything is right in front of you. What you see is what you get. And what you get is, to an extent, a typical PGA Championship—narrow fairways bordered by juicy rough … in spots. More on that in just a bit. The soft fairways and lack of roll will force every player in the field to hit plenty of drivers. There won’t be much in the way of playing for position.
It’s a “big boy golf course,” as two-time defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka put it. There are only two par 5s, one of which is over 600 yards. The ninth (515 yards) and 12th (494 yards) holes play as par 5s during normal play but have been converted to par 4s for this week. In total, there are seven par 4s that are more than 460 yards and a par 3 (the eighth) that’s north of 250. Woods needed a 5-wood to reach it on Monday.
“It was pretty meaty there,” Spieth said of his Tuesday morning stroll around the back nine. “Eleven, 12, 13, 14 are tough, and then on the front nine you kind of get a mixture of a couple holes where you feel like you can get at them, and then you get two or three or four in a five-hole stretch where you’ve just got to kind of hold on.
The rough will giveth and it will taketh. As detailed by Ian Poulter in a social media video, there’s an aspect of luck when it comes to how a ball is lying in the poa annua rough. If a ball is sitting into the grain—meaning the grass is growing and thus pointing in the opposite direction of the target—it’s almost impossible to control, let alone put any spin on the ball. Down grain, however, is a different, much friendlier story.
“Down grain, you can spin it pretty easily,” Woods said. “And you can spin it either way.”
As always, scoring will depend heavily on the weather. If it warms up and dries out, and tee shots start rolling, the winner will almost assuredly be double digits under par. But this is August in San Francisco. Smart money says it will stay overcast and cool and damp, and that the course will play forever. Quite the contrast from Columbus and Memphis.
“It is quite a difference,” Thomas said. “But at the same time, it’s not only happening to me. At least I’m telling myself that to make myself feel better.”