The leaderboard at Oak Hill reflected a one-dimensional skill set: driving distance. I take issue with anyone who characterized this PGA Championship as a driving test; Oak Hill was a distance test, not a driving test. The distinction matters. At a proper driving test, like the Masters, wide misses lead to pars and bogeys while accurate drives present scoring opportunities. At Oak Hill, wide misses were not penalized, and accurate drives were seldom rewarded.
In a sense, Oak Hill presented the golf equivalent of a field goal contest. Each fairway offered narrow goalposts on a wide open field with no partial credit for accuracy. You either make the field goal or you miss it. At Oak Hill, whether a player missed the goalposts by 30 yards or by a foot didn’t have much of an effect on their scoring expectations. As competitor Andrew Putnam pointed out, crowds trampled the grass where wide misses ended up, so a narrow miss often found a worse lie than a wide miss found. Oak Hill gave similar scores to drives of all dispersion widths.
On dogleg holes like 4, 17, and 18, the goalposts were angled diagonally, making it nearly impossible to find the fairway during the firmest conditions on Thursday and Friday. For the first two rounds players were nearly guaranteed to miss most fairways. Facing that setup, why not smash driver? Maybe a fortuitous bounce ends up in the fairway. If not, you will be in the rough with everyone else, sure, but you’ll also have a shorter approach, providing a significant advantage into firm greens.
Through two rounds, some were quick to point out that Bryson DeChambeau led the field in fairway percentage. A surface-level glance would suggest Bryson was just hitting the ball accurately and being rewarded for it. That argument misses the point. Golfers can feel their dispersion patterns while swinging the club. When a golf course fails to penalize wide misses, inaccurate drivers like Bryson swing with freedom. On the contrary, when a golf course assesses steep penalties to wide misses, Bryson drives the ball less accurately to guard against blocking or pulling a tee shot into the penalty area. That’s a large part of why Bryson thrives on golf courses like Caves Valley, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, and Oak Hill. He can kick the field goal without worrying about what happens when he misses. It’s a safety net.
Long, inaccurate drivers like Bryson DeChambeau, Rory McIlroy, Kurt Kitayama, and Cam Davis all finished within the top 10 of the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill. Pay attention to how that group of golfers fares at Los Angeles Country Club in June, a course with width off the tee and stiff penalties associated with wide misses on many holes. LACC will not be a bomber’s paradise.
This PGA offered yet another example that a setup with narrow, bouncy fairways and few penalty hazards is not the solution to testing driving accuracy.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.