CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Green Mile is one of golf’s worst nicknames. The last three holes at Quail Hollow Club are ferocious and memorably dangerous holes, all right, but their combined distance is 1,223 yards, 537 yards short of a mile. Even a Green Three-Quarter Mile would be 1,320 yards.
The Green Mile is a big lie, in other words. But never mind that. The media already have driven home this fake news (let’s not get started on that, please!) because it’s compelling.
If we learned one thing Saturday at the 99th PGA Championship, it’s that the Fake Green Mile will decide the winner. It’s not a mile, but it is one mean stretch.
The Fake Green Mile already has shaped the outcome by sucker-punching some contenders late in the third round.
Kevin Kisner will take a one-shot lead over Chris Stroud and Hideki Matsuyama into today’s finale (scores: http://bit.ly/1j3khNH); tee times: http://bit.ly/1yf8r8M). Justin Thomas and Louis Oosthuizen are two shots back. What of erstwhile contenders such as Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey and D.A. Points? Gone, zapped by the Fake Green Mile during Saturday’s sweltering, slow-moving marathon.
Day, last year’s PGA runner-up and the 2015 champion, is the new poster boy for what can go wrong at the 18th, a lengthy, uphill par 4 with water up the left and trees up the right. He’d already bounced back from a double bogey at the 12th and a bogey at the 13th with three straight birdies. A bogey at 17 hurt, but then No. 18 delivered the knockout blow.
Day blew his drive right, close to a tree. He tried to get tricky and play it up the right side instead of chipping it back toward the fairway. He wound up in hedges, instead, and things went to hell in a fast shrimp boat after that. Day took a quadruple-bogey 8 and fell back to seven strokes behind Kisner.
Day’s disaster revived nightmares of when David Toms took a six-shot lead to the 18th in the 2003 Wachovia Championship (forerunner to today’s Wells Fargo event) and also made an embarrassing 8 but held on to win.
Day hasn’t written his own ending yet. He still could pull out a terrific finish, but his back is against the wall because of his disaster, which is surely showing on Golf Channel highlights or YouTube videos this morning.
“You can’t limp in,” Fowler said of the last three holes. “You’ve got to finish it off.”
The Fake Green Mile tried to finish off Fowler, too. He was within three of the lead until he bogeyed the 16th, then shockingly dumped his 8-iron into the lake at the par-3 17th, right about the same time Kisner, the leader, rinsed his approach into a pond at 16. Both made double bogeys. Fowler added a three-putt bogey at 18 and plummeted to 12th, six strokes back.
These are the world’s best golfers, and the men at the tail end of the pairings are the guys playing the best golf of any of them. Yet the final four threesomes played the Fake Green Mile in 23 over par Saturday. Fowler and Paul Casey, paired with Thomas, combined to rack up eight shots over par on the closing trio.
It may be worth noting that only four players in the final five groups played the last three holes without a bogey or worse: Matsuyama, Thomas, Francesco Molinari and Ryan Fox posted three pars.
Oosthuizen was asked how aggressive he could be if the PGA comes down to the three finishing holes late today.
“Hah!” he said with a curt laugh that indicated he’d rather not think about it. But he did say the key to the finish is to be patient during the entire round.
“Everyone is going to make a few mistakes out there,” he said. “It’s that type of course. Just be patient, play yourself into position with four or five holes to go and take it from there.”
He also pointed out what we already know from Saturday’s wreckage.
“You can go into those holes three shots behind and you can still win it,” Oosthuizen said.
The PGA champion may be the last man standing who best dodges the final holes. Think Toms. Think Jean van de Velde at Carnoustie. Think Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot. Think Chernobyl.
The Green Mile isn’t a mile, but it’s as long and tough and dangerous as any finish in major-championship golf. This PGA Championship may not be pretty at the end.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle