The last time the world’s greatest golfers came to Chaska, European Ryder Cup star Justin Rose complained that nary a speck of rough or a tucked pin left Hazeltine National Golf Club indefensible.
“I don’t think anybody will be saying that come Sunday,” nine-time LPGA Tour champion Brooke Henderson said.
At 2016’s Ryder Cup, American captain Davis Love III authorized a course setup that let his players bomb drives with impunity and emphasized his team’s strength, its collective wedge game. The KPMG Women’s PGA Championship that begins Thursday brings back Hazeltine National’s traditional hole routing and once again rewards accuracy on a course that can stretch to 6,800 yards.
“That’s long, but I’m OK with that,” said Stacy Lewis, a two-time major champion. “You want a course that tests every aspect of your game. The longer, the better.”
Lewis is playing the major championship for the 11th time, long enough to have played it when it was known as the Wegmans LPGA Championship played near Rochester, N.Y. In 2015, the PGA of America and professional services firm KPMG forged a new Women’s PGA Championship that now travels across the country from venue to venue, stopping every year now to play a better class of courses in prestige and difficulty.
Henderson won the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA near Seattle at Sahalee Country Club, site of the 1998 men’s PGA Championship. Danielle Kang won her first LPGA event and her first major in 2017 — six years after she turned pro — near Chicago at Olympia Fields, site of the 2003 men’s U.S. Open.
The championship heads in coming years to men’s major championship venues such as Baltusrol in New Jersey in 2023 and Congressional near Washington, D.C., in 2027. Those courses are, to borrow a phrase, on par with or better than the ones chosen for the U.S. Women’s Open by the USGA, which has upped its game by adding the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 2021 and Pebble Beach in 2023.
“It’s where we belong,” 34-year touring veteran Laura Davies said.
It’s at Hazeltine National this week as part of a deal with the PGA of America that will bring the Ryder Cup back to Minnesota in 2028. Opened in 1962, Hazeltine, too, has held the U.S. Open men’s and women’s twice each, the PGA Championship twice as well as national senior and amateur championships, among many national competitions.
“You see all the Ryder Cup posters everywhere,” LPGA Tour player Nelly Korda said.
Korda relived part of that 2016 Ryder Cup with her caddie this week during a practice round, when they walked the 17th green and recounted pressure putts Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed made during their unforgettable Sunday singles match.
“The golf course amplifies the magnitude of the event,” Kang said. “It’s a special major championship now because we get to play at Hazeltine, we get to play Baltusrol, we get to play Olympia Fields.”
It also looks and feels like one because of big, brawny courses, an expanse of grandstands and corporate tenting erected across Hazeltine National’s rolling countryside and such touches as player courtesy cars.
“And they’re Cadillac this year, which is sweet,” Lewis said.
Lewis said she appreciates everything about this week’s championship, from what she calls “the builds” around the adjacent ninth and 18th greens to drinks and snacks set out for players around the golf course.
“You drive in here and it feels big, from the clubhouse to the range to the practice areas,” Lewis said. “With 9 and 18 right beside each other, it looks so big when you’re on either the ninth or 18th tee. It’s big. It’s intimidating. It’s awesome. That’s what a major championship should be.”
The greens are firm and getting firmer, although the extended forecast calls for greens-softening thunderstorms. The rough isn’t particularly long, but it’s what Korda called “pretty thick and pretty uneven, too.” That’s especially true around greens, which will make it important to hit and hold them.
“It’s not going to be too difficult to make my shots,” last year’s KPMG champion and world fourth-ranked Sung Hyun Park said through an interpreter about the patchy rough. “But it will definitely affect the spin.”
Bringing back No. 16
The course this week will play significantly shorter than the maximum 7,628 yards it played for the Ryder Cup, but the fairways will vary from similar 22- to 34-yard widths that it played for men’s majors. The rough is longer and thicker, too, than the Ryder Cup, where it was practically nonexistent.
The course also will play in its original configuration rather than the Ryder Cup layout that swapped the last five holes from each nine for logistical and crowd-management purposes.
That means the lakeside No. 16 — Hazeltine National’s “signature” hole — became No. 7, which ensured every match would reach it. The par-5 seventh hole, with its amphitheater green, became the dramatic 16th hole around which thousands and thousands gathered.
Now the 16th is 16 again, a dangerous hole that wraps to the right alongside Hazeltine Lake. It’s listed at 380 yards, but for one round is expected to play at a tantalizing, drivable 255 yards.
“From the back tee, it’s one of the hardest holes I’ve ever played,” Davies said. “And from the front tee, it’s one of the most fun holes I’ve ever played.”
Land of 10,000 water hazards
The lake stretches along the right side and there’s a creek running along part of the left side, all of it played to a peninsula green on a course where the wind almost always blows. To get from tee to green, contestants will walk over the Payne Stewart bridge, named for the late two-time U.S. Open champion who won his first at Hazeltine in 1991.
“It all depends on the conditions. I feel like it could get pretty windy around here,” said Henderson, who at age 21 is ranked fifth in the world. “The wind is swirling, 16 could be difficult. If you hit good shots, you can be rewarded. You’re going to have to play smart.”
A proponent of difficult courses, Kang calls Hazeltine National “definitely” a major championship test that PGA of America chief championships officer Kerry Haigh surely will set up long and tough.
“We shall see,” Haigh said when asked if anyone will complain Hazeltine National is too easy this time around.
Bring it on, Kang said.
“I like it when there aren’t a lot of birdie opportunities,” Kang said. “I like when it’s challenging every aspect of the game. I like it if you miss, you go off the fairways. You should be penalized. If you miss the green, you should be penalized. It’s a major championship.”