Quail Hollow has provided a stern championship test at this week’s PGA Championship. Its condition has been fantastic, but the course and its design has left me wanting more. It’s a shame – because with all the work they have done at Quail Hollow, it could really have been special.
The majority of Quail Hollow’s holes ask a player to take on a bunker or hazard, but the less risky line will yield a similar or better angle. Quail Hollow fails to reward players who pull off a riskier shot.
The 18th is a fine example. Yes, it’s a challenging finish that can provide drama from carnage as we saw with Jason Day’s 8 on Saturday. It measures 492 yards and its dominant feature is the small creek which runs down the entire left side of the hole.
The creek is a factor off the tee and on the approach shot. Off the tee, it encourages players to shy away and hug the right side. Not too far right though – a bunker lies 290 yards away penalizing shots that fade off the fairway. A bold play up the left side should yield an advantage, but it doesn’t. The angle of the green favors the player who plays to the right side of the fairway. Consequently, the risky left side approach doesn’t pay off. At best, it shaves a few yards off the hole. So it’s no surprise that only 9 of the 26 birdies thus far have come from the left side of the fairway. It’s a hole that was designed without a firm grasp of strategy.
The angles and options at Quail Hollow's 18th
The hole can be entertaining at the end of a tournament – but it’s not strategically interesting. A golf course where the only strategy is finding the middle of the fairway is like a kindergarten soccer game where everyone huddles around the ball. Soccer gets interesting with spacing and when play gets out to the edges. Angles and playing to edges of fairways makes golf interesting.
It is useful to consider Quail Hollow’s 18th against a truly great finishing hole: TPC Sawgrass’ revered 18th. Like Quail Hollow’s finisher, the 18th at Sawgrass is extremely difficult. But the 18th at Sawgrass is praised as one of the greatest finishes in golf for good reason.
The 18th at Sawgrass is slightly shorter, measuring 462 yards. Like Quail Hollow, it has trouble down the entire left side. The difference is that the 18th at Sawgrass grants a clear advantage to those who take on the risk of the water. A long drive over the water yields significantly shorter approach shot and the best angle to the green. Those who play it safe to the right side of the fairway have a longer shot and an approach to a green which runs away to the left from them. It’s a classic tradeoff: risk vs. reward. It leads to a greater variance in scoring and a more interesting hole. At The Players far fewer competitors opt to take the risky route. The proof is still in the pudding – at last year’s Championship 19 of the 37 birdies made on the 18th came from the left half of the fairway. Over 50% of the birdies came from the left despite a small percentage of players taking it on.
A player coming to the 18th hole needing to make birdie at Sawgrass should try to play towards the hazard. At Quail Hollow, the player should play away from the hazard to get a better chance.
Luckily there is a way for the 18th at Quail Hollow to get substantially better. Club President Johnny Harris has not been shy about making changes over the years. I would propose moving the 18th green to the left on the other side of the creek. This would give players the advantage of angle and distance if they play the riskier tee shot up the left side. Meanwhile, those who bail right will face a longer and poor angle over the water to approach the green.
The 18th is a microcosm of the majority of the golf course which lacks coherent strategy on most of its holes. Angles and strategy are why revered courses Augusta National and TPC Sawgrass deliver drama year in and year out and Quail Hollow leaves you wanting more.