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Sunday Strategy

PGA Championship 2021: How a different wind direction will affect the final round

May 23, 2021

Gregory Shamus

KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Seaside, links-style layouts—with holes stacking vertically in one direction, turning around, then heading back in the other—are really two golf courses in one. The wind dictates which holes are birdie holes and which ones are hold-on holes. When playing into the fan, you’re perfectly content to grind out pars. Down breeze, that’s your chance to bank some birdies.

Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course is one of those tracks. The first four holes head east, No. 5 turns south, 6-13 face west before 14-18 heads back east toward the clubhouse. The first three days of the PGA Championship—and, just as crucially, Monday through Wednesday of the practice rounds—have been accompanied by a stiff easterly wind. (This terminology can be somewhat confusing, so to clarify: that means the wind is coming from the east, not blowing toward the east.) As such, 1-5 have played into the wind, 6-13 downwind and 14-18 back into the teeth of it. As a result, the opening and closing stretches have played brutally difficult, with players doing the majority of their damage on the middle chunk.

On Sunday, that’s all going to change. For the first time since last Sunday, the wind is coming out of the west, which will flip the course on its head entirely.

“Your expectation on certain holes will certainly change,” Jordan Spieth said Saturday. “You go from just trying to hold on for dear life the last four to, hey, maybe I can grab a couple tomorrow and same on the early holes, and that whole middle stretch of the round you're in off the left and holes that were kind of shoe-in mid-irons into par 5s you have to really carve that hole out.

“I think it will feel like a different course.”

Knowing this could well happen, the PGA of America officials gave themselves ultimate flexibility as far as setup this week. Much was made of Kiawah’s scorecard yardage of 7,876 yards, the longest in major championship history, but the course was never going to play that long—that would be if setup chief Kerry Haigh and crew used the back tee on every hole, but that was never the plan. On into-the-wind holes, they frequently move the tee up, and vice versa. During the practice rounds, players were instructed to hit shots from up tees on 14 holes.

On Sunday, with the wind finally switching and fans craving down-the-stretch birdies, the PGA of America has opted to move the tees up on five holes and back on only one. Kiawah will measure 7,557 yards on Sunday, more than 300 yards shorter than its scorecard yardage and the shortest setup of any competition round this week.

The most noticeable difference might be on the par-4 third—the scorecard yardage is 390, and they used the back tee each of the first three days. On Sunday, it will play just 293 yards downwind, which will be make it drivable for virtually the entire field. The tee is also up on the par-4 sxith (445, up from 490 yards), the par-4 12th (450 yards, up from 484), the par-4 13th (464 yards, up from 497) and, crucially, the par-5 16th. That hole played 608 yards into the wind for the first two-plus days; no one got there in two until the wind semi-flipped on Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, it will play 583 yards with wind at the back—so that will be a very gettable hole that could help decide the tournament.

The only hole playing significantly longer than the first few days is the par-3 14th, which will play downwind for the first time all week.

Depending on how severe the westerly wind blows—it’s forecasted to gust past 20 mph in the afternoon—one would think the course could play easier than it has all week. There were certainly early birdies out there; Garrick Higgo birdied seven of his first 10 holes, and Abraham Ancer carded the lowest opening nine of the week (five under).

As a fan, you can’t ask much more than for the same golf course to play completely differently on Sunday of a major championship. That is precisely what the golf gods have gifted us.