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The drop zone

PGA Championship 2021: Players bring new meaning to 'grandstanding' at the 18th hole

May 20, 2021

Players hitting into the hospitality decks to the left of the tee at 18 (at right in photo) get a drop with no penalty.

Darren Carroll/PGA of America

Imagine for a moment the Sunday leader of the PGA Championship clinging to a one-shot lead on the final hole of Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. Off the tee, the fairway on the par-4 closer snakes left-to-right around a series of bunkers hard against grassy dunes, sand and scrub before working back the other way. An ideal tee shot would skirt the right side of the fairway to leave a straight line to the middle of the green.

Or, better yet, land in the hospitality grandstands well left of the fairway.

The wind sweeping across the Ocean Course will rightfully generate plenty of buzz. So will the diabolical 17th hole. But it is a grandstand on the final hole that could ultimately prove pivotal.

It already did on Thursday.

Keegan Bradley, sitting atop the leader board at three under and trying to hang on as he came home in the morning wave, badly pulled his tee shot, yelling, “Fore left!” before his ball bounced through the large hospitality area. “Oh boy,” ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt chimed in on the broadcast. “Outta here.”

Not exactly—the grandstand is considered a temporary immovable obstruction and thus grants a player free relief.

Better yet was where Bradley got to drop his ball. The matted-down rough is as clean a lie as one could find anywhere on the Ocean Course. The angle to the green is nearly as good as being in the fairway, too.

“It's definitely comforting that it's there,” Bradley sheepishly said of the grandstand. “The right side of the hole, the bunkers are so dead over there.

"I wasn't trying to hit it in there by any means, but definitely from that up tee, it's in play. I feel bad for all those people up there. They'd better have their hard hats on today. They're going to be firing them in there all day.”

He wasn’t wrong.

Though Bradley missed the green on his approach after taking his drop, he easily got up and down to save par. Brooks Koepka’s tee shot on 18 also found the grandstand. He went on to make par, too. So did Sebastian Munoz, the only thing preventing his ball from careening into the stands being a garbage bag. Other players went left as well, and why not?

With the hole playing into the wind, the tee on the 505-yarder was moved up to 474 yards on Thursday. Being so far wide left wasn't a penal play but a prudent one.

This isn’t the first time an obstruction could end up being a story in a major championship.

At last year's LPGA ANA Inspiration, with no fans allowed to attend, an infamous blue wall replaced the small grandstand that usually sits behind the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club. Rather than leaving the back of the green open and bringing into play the risk of balls going long and into the water, the wall served as a backstop for players who decided to go for the green in two on the par 5. If the ball settled too close to the wall to prevent a swing, free relief was likewise provided.

Now imagine what could happen come the final round at the Ocean Course.

One solution to grandstanding would be doing what the Open Championship did two years ago at Royal Portrush. The 474-yard 18th there features a narrow fairway, ample gorse and out of bounds long. But playing into the grandstand ringing the back and sides of the green proved penal, with a designated free drop zone consisting of thick, gnarly rough.

That, of course, isn’t an option this week at Kiawah, where players will undoubtedly continue to pepper the stands on the left at 18 and get a free drop in a near-perfect lie.

“I don't think from the back tee it's in play at all,” Bradley said. “But from that up tee—the PGA of America does a great job of setting up the courses, and they did that today.”

Whoever wins might be saying the same thing on Sunday.