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Golf in the Carolinas: Green Mile

It was never Tom Fazio's intention, the great golf course designer swears, to make the three finishing holes at the Quail Hollow Club meaner than a south Texas summer.

Inasmuch as Fazio keeps a decorated Christmas tree in his home year-round and has been known to throw a collection of holiday tunes into the CD player while most people are on summer vacation, there is good reason to believe his intentions were sincere.

"I've never looked at golf that you have to make it hard for tournament play," said Fazio, who did the re-design work at Quail Hollow in 1997 that transformed the original George Cobb layout into a superb test of all skill levels.

"If you make it hard for the professional, who else can play it? The goal is to make it strong for the (PGA Tour) level player and reasonable and playable for everyone else."

The 480-yard, par-4 16th hole, the watery and terrifying 217-yard, par-3 17th hole and the 478-yard, par-4 finishing hole provided, statistically, the second-most difficult finish on the PGA Tour in 2004. Only the three closing holes at East Lake in Atlanta, site of the Tour Championship, played tougher last year, and cold weather factored into those numbers.

Quail Hollow's finish has the same effect as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The view is spectacular, but the possibilities are terrifying. It's a place where a player can go from fourth to 40th in less than an hour.

"Nobody is ever safe," said Joey Sindelar, who rode birdies at Nos. 16 and 17 on Sunday last year to his surprising victory.

Just two years into the Wells Fargo Championship, the closing holes have borrowed a nickname from prison slang, "The Green Mile." If their combined distance of 1,175 yards is a long par-5 short of a true mile, there is, at least from a tournament player's perspective, a correlation to the last walk death-row inmates take.

"It's a hard finish," tour veteran John Cook said. "If there is any wind blowing, those holes are hard. If there's no wind blowing, those holes are hard.

"Take Nos. 16, 17 and 18 at the TPC Stadium Course (site of The Players Championship). With no wind, it's a reachable par-5, an 8- or 9-iron to a par-3, and a drive and 6-iron par-4.

"But not at Quail Hollow."

The secret to shooting a good score at Quail Hollow is having it by the time you step to the 16th tee. Stepping to that tee in itself requires a long walk back from the 15th green to a tee situated in its own secluded corner of the golf course.

The simple challenge at 16 is to rip a tee shot toward a big oak in the distance, while trying to keep the ball in a fairway that turns gently to the right, tilting ever so slightly toward a bunker in the corner of the landing area.

Miss the fairway, especially to the right, as Arron Oberholser did in his playoff with Sindelar last year, and you're caught in a riptide. That's because the green is long and shallow and reluctant to accept mid- and long-iron approach shots.

"Just a flat-out, tough, great par-4," Sindelar said. "You're not going to lose a ball there, but you can make a bogey or a double."

It only gets harder from there.

The par-3 17th is like watching the cliff divers in Acapulco. It's mesmerizing as long as you're not the one on the rocks looking down.

Twenty-eight of the best seats at Quail Hollow this year will be white rocking chairs along the edge of the Executive Club tent located behind the 17th green, where witnesses will gather to admire the lake and the drama.

"You don't hit perfect shots all the time," Cook said, "but you have to hit one there."

The hole was designed to be played from one of a series of tees located to the left of the 16th green (from which members play), but a Wells Fargo Championship tee was built to the right of No. 16. It dramatically changed the angle of approach to a green that is guarded front and left by the lake.

Not only must players hit mid-to-long irons into a green with virtually no bailout area on the right, they're going into a green that slopes away from the tee and toward the water in the back.

"The angle is all wrong," Nick Price said. "It's a better hole from the other side."

David Duval, Joel Kribel, Matt Kuchar and Brad Faxon have made quadruple-bogey sevens there.

Sindelar, on the other hand, striped the 4-iron of his life into the wind, over the water and to within six feet of the hole for the birdie that made his victory possible last year.

Then there's the 18th hole, which is just short of impossible.

Listen as Price, one of the game's best shotmakers, describes it:

"There's trouble left and right off the tee. Trouble all the way down the left side. You have to hit two terrific shots or you're going to make a bogey."

In a lost-in-translation moment two years ago, David Toms batted around eight times on the 18th hole, burning all but two strokes of the six-shot lead he held on the 72nd tee.

This is where Fazio's gentler side showed.

Had he been grumpy, he would have put the creek along the right side of the hole. (Fazio could do that because the creek is artificial, allowing him to do with it whatever he chose.) But 51 weeks a year, the members play Quail Hollow, and most of them hit slices, and they'd forever be fishing balls out of the stream if the creek were on the right.

"You have to remember, the pros are only there one week a year," Fazio said, "and some of them aren't there that long."


The Charlotte Observer (NC) - Copyright (c) 2005 The Charlotte Observer

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