As I prepare to cover the PGA Championship, which begins on Thursday at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, I spoke with several of the key people who help make it happen behind the scenes.
You cannot help but notice the many temporary structures, totaling more than 300,000 square feet, which will host more than 250,000 fans, players, media and staff. Ryan Cannon is the PGA Championship Director and one of the dedicated executives who has been making it all happen. I headed into the PGA trailer where preparations have been going on for the past two years.
Baltusrol was founded in 1895 and designed by World Golf Hall of Fame architect A.W. Tillinghast. If you can believe it, the club was named after a man who was murdered on the farmland in 1831, Baltus Roll. (They combined his names and removed the final “L” in his last name for unknown reasons.)
There are two championship courses, and this week’s major will be played on the lower course. It is one of only a few golf courses to be granted National Historic Landmark status.
Cannon told me this would be the 17th major championship hosted at Baltusrol, and he described the alterations that have been made to make the course more difficult for the best players in the game. For example, two of the par 5 holes will play as long par 4s.
He also spoke about how exciting it will be to see some of the younger golfers like Ricky Fowler, Jordan Spieth, and Dustin Johnson compete for the first time at Baltusrol. He agreed that 2005 PGA Champion Phil Mickelson, who just finished second at the British Open, may have a real advantage over the rest of the field.
Doug Steffen has been the PGA head professional at Baltustrol for 20 years and knows the course better than anyone. He also explained that Mickelson could have an advantage this week as a lefty because he hits the ball left to right.
Steffen and I took a look at what we agreed might be the most fun hole, the par 3 fourth over water, because of the unique two-tiered green and the grandstands that surround it. Players will putt in front of 2,500 fans there!
Roddy McRae, the greens chairman at Baltusrol, gave me a terrific tour of the facilities and course. He is responsible for the condition of the golf course, and he makes decisions about everything from the length of the grass to the major changes they have made since 2005, such as deepening the bunkers and enlarging the water hazard on the 18th hole. McRae described the most difficult holes and why it was important to make the course a bit longer and adapt to the new technology in golf as well as the continuously improving players.
I really enjoyed my tour of the 18th hole with McRae and learning more about the history behind it. We stood over a plaque in the fairway that commemorates Jack Nicklaus’ famous shot at the U.S. Open in 1967. It was the final round, and he had a chance to win the tournament and break Ben Hogan’s record low score in a U.S. Open. Nicklaus, then only 27 years old, hit his 1-iron 237 yards uphill, into the wind, and onto the green, setting him up to sink a putt for the win over Arnold Palmer.
Jack’s 1-iron shot came after his second shot had gone into the treacherous rough at Baltusrol. McRae explained that avoiding the rough here is very important. He and his team have set the rough up to be pretty high and thick in time for the PGA Championship.
“The key to winning is, the player who can keep the ball in the fairway and out of the heavier rough,” said McRae. He added that the rough is an iconic feature of the course and the tournament. As a former Baltusrol Club Champion who plays more than 30 rounds a year here, McRae should definitely know.
Finally, Rick Jenkins, the general chairman of the 98th PGA Championship, gave me a look inside the famous clubhouse. I got to check out the cases where they keep commissioned replicas of famous trophies, including the Wannamaker. These trophies cost up to $70,000 to create because they contain precious metals. The actual Wannamaker will go to this week’s winner, along with $1.8 million in prize money.
As I learned, that winner will have to work very hard over the four rounds to go home a champion. According to Jenkins and McRae, a player must get off to a good start in each round in order to score well at Baltusrol, as the first few holes are the most difficult. Jenkins believes that the first, third, sixth, and seventh holes are the toughest on the golf course. Those holes were the most difficult in 2005, and that will likely be the case this year as well.
Practice rounds officially began Monday, with the first round of play kicking off on Thursday. The Wannamaker Trophy will be presented on the 18th green immediately following the end of play on Sunday. You can watch it all live on CBS and TNT. And check out the Sports Illustrated Kids Instagram and Twitter feeds as I report live from the PGA Championship this week. Maybe I will catch a hole in one.
Photographs by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images (Mickelson); courtesy of Max Bonnstetter (2)