Risky Business

PGA Championship 2021: In praise of the Scottie Pippen of par 3s at Kiawah Island

The 14th hole, the less glamorous of two punishing par 3s on the back nine, deserves your attention this weekend.


Gary Kellner

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — It’s not the par 3 that Wright Thompson lent his gravelly voice to for a video essay during the ESPN broadcast. It’s not the par 3 that nearly every player paraded to a press conference had to opine on and cower in fear of prior to the PGA Championship. It’s not the par 3 that makes all the highlight (or lowlight) retrospectives of arguably the greatest Ryder Cup of all time. It’s not the par 3 coming at a penultimate spotlight moment on the course.

It’s the Scottie Pippen of these back-nine par 3s at the Ocean Course, and it’s the 14th hole. The hole can be tipped out at almost 240 yards. The benevolent (so far) souls at the PGA of America set it up at 206 yards and 198 yards for the first two rounds. It’s 238 yards officially on the scorecard, and that led Justin Thomas on Tuesday to almost dare the PGA to tip it out in a hurting wind.

“They can't play 14, that par 3, back if you have this wind today,” Thomas said. “Guys are going to be literally hitting driver on that hole.”

Unless you’re the masochistic type looking only for pain or hopelessness, the varied yardage is beside the point. Great holes aren’t made great simply by being long or short.

The 14th is great because of its elevation, its green, and its place on the course and in the round. It’s the critical moment where you make those fourth-quarter adjustments to either hold on or comeback for a win. Fittingly, the tee box is not just the highest point on the course but also the closest to the Kiawah Island Beach Club and its bar, which has to be a tempting counter-proposal to turning left and playing the last five holes.

The 14th is where you start to come home, changing directions with a wind that had just been your adversary or friend. Sean McDonough called it a “shock to the system,” and David Duval referred to it as a “slap.” This shock and slap of turning into or with a new wind do not begin with some easy everything-in-your-bag shot. You don’t get the luxury of pulling driver and just taking a full cut to put it out there. It would have been too merciful for Pete Dye to allow some imprecise driver in what suddenly feels like a new atmosphere.

It’s a 200- to-240-yard shot from an elevated tee to an elevated green accompanied by an entirely new wind direction than what you’ve enjoyed for the last couple hours. Just pulling the club is daunting. Executing the shot is daunting. And then getting up-and-down when you miss the green—and you will over four days—is daunting.

That up-and-down is what makes me partial to this Pippen over the sexier 17th. Missing the elevated 14th green means your ball is tumbling some 10 feet below the perched-up putting surface. The wedge shot back up the mountain demands creativity and skill to get anywhere close, and that’s whether the pin is front or back.

At 17, the green is not elevated but down in the dune. The recovery shot might be another wedge from the drop zone (an ominous marker of how frequent that’s the recovery play is that the PGA lists the DZ yardage in their setup notes) or a more conventional chip shot or bunker play. The splashes at the 17th make for good television, but the recovery shots at 14 are more interesting to watch.


Gary Woodland plays his shot from the 14th tee during the first round of the 2021 PGA Championship.

Sam Greenwood

Landing safely on the green at the 14th is enough to earn commendations from your playing partners. On Thursday, playing into the wind, Steve Stricker threw his tee shot up in the air and had it stick on that perched-up green. His playing partner, Billy Horschel, watched it stay and was so impressed he had to turn around as he walked off the tee and shout back his compliments to Stricker. The ball was 57 feet from the hole.

Moments later, Shane Lowry hit it to 10 feet to the back pin. Had it gone another yard, the ball would have tumbled down that perched green to the basins behind that gobbled up most of the shots that missed the green in the first round.

With the pin up front in the second round, the misses will likely tumble down the front or off to the left. It’s that precise—a yard or so between a 10-foot birdie putt and rolling down to an all-you-can-handle up-and-down is further illustrative of the drama at this hole. It’s great theater watching the ball once it touches down, with this sort of Roman emperor pollice verso moment of tension on whether it stays up or tumbles away. It’s hard but not impossible, as Lowry and others proved by hitting into that wind and getting the ball to 10 feet. Stewart Cink and Rickie Fowler put their shots inside six feet and made birdies. The slightest imprecisions are punished and the great shot can get close enough to the hole. This is what you want.

The 14th has the elevated green and the greater challenge of having to nail your shot with an entirely new wind that may be better calibrated by the time you get to that 17th tee. The 17th will get the build-up all weekend. It comes at a more dramatic moment in the round and with menacing alligators swimming around in a pond that swallows up meek tee shots. It’s a great hole and the championship may be won or lost there. But like Pippen checking Magic or bottling up Mark Jackson, that 14th is just as fun to watch.