A veteran caddie of 32 LPGA Tour seasons, Jeff Steffler kind of shook his head from the 255-yard temptress of a forward tee box at Hazeltine National Golf Club’s signature par-4 16th hole.
“There’s a lot of risk on this hole … a lot,” he said, knowing the PGA of America will shorten the 380-yard hole by 125 yards for one yet-to-be-announced round during this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
In no other major round at Hazeltine has 16 played that short with that many heroic eagles, safer birdies and ugly “others” swirling around every tee ball decision. Go ahead and thank the inaugural Aon Risk Reward Challenge, the season-long, equal-pay contests that will award $1 million to the winners on the PGA and LPGA tours.
“It’s definitely something to think about,” said Elizabeth Szokol, the LPGA Tour rookie who’s seven tournaments into a new partnership with Steffler. “Hey, it’s a million dollars.”
Then again, there’s Charley Hull, who played the back nine with Szokol on Wednesday. She ranks third among LPGA Tour players but shrugged and said she is focused only on winning tournaments.
Strategies will vary as well.
Hull said she will try to run her tee shot onto the tricky peninsula green when the hole plays 255 yards. Meanwhile, Szokol and Steffler have decided the best play is a 3-hybrid to 24 yards and a safe pitch to a birdie putt on a relatively flat green.
Szokol said there’s a trusting bond developing between her and Steffler. Steffler jokes when asked how many players he’s caddied for, saying it’s easier to name the players for whom he hasn’t.
“I get fired a lot,” he says with a laugh. “But we’re like baseball managers. Someone else is always going to hire us to help them out.”
Szokol is a powerful 6-footer from Winnetka, Ill. She’s 124th on the money list ($23,737) and has finished no higher than 47th in 15 tournaments. But she does rank sixth in driving distance (277.21 yards), making her rewards intriguing to Steffler, albeit extra risky with a driving accuracy ranking 144th (60.95%).
Aon, a global professional services firm with 500 employees in Minnesota, chose its challenge format because it compares the relationship between player and caddie to how it advises companies when it comes to risk, retirement and health.
Each week during the season, one hole is chosen as the Aon challenge hole. A player’s best two scores on that hole is counted. A player must have at least 40 rounds to qualify.
Lee-Anne Pace leads the LPGA Tour with an average score of minus-0.929 in relation to par. Szokol ranks 78th at minus-0.389.
When Szokol and Steffler reached the 16th Wednesday, they allowed an inside-the-ropes peek at how a player and caddie work through a game plan on a tricky hole that features Hazeltine Lake, rough and a bad angle to the right, a creek to the left, and a second shot into a peninsula green that has a narrow front opening.
From the back tee, Szokol first hit driver into the right rough. She then drew a 3-wood short of the creek and had 119 yards to the front, 123 to the pin.
“I didn’t hit the driver well because I’m worried about going too far and rolling into the creek,” said Szokol, who is making her major debut this week. “The 3-wood, I can draw it and keep it short of the creek. We like 3-wood here.”
Neither Steffler nor Szokol wanted anything to do with forcing the ball onto the well-fortressed green from the forward tee. The play, they agreed, was short and left of the green.
“If you flare it right and end up in the water, now you’re dropping in rough,” Steffler said. “And now you’re looking at way more than a 4.”
Szokol’s best Aon Risk Reward Challenge hole came last month on a par 5 at Lake Merced near San Francisco.
“We just smoked two shots up there and made the eagle putt inside 12 feet,” Steffler said. “The first two rounds, you want to make sure you make the cut. After that, being more aggressive is always in your head on these holes. You don’t want to lay back all the time. You want to go for it. It’s a nice contest.”
As for No. 16 at Hazeltine, well …
“It’s a beautiful hole,” Steffler said. “But this is high risk. Not only is it the water, the wind and the weather, it’s also a major. Everything is more stressful in a major.”
Mark Craig is a reporter for the Star Tribune. E-mail: mcraig @statribune.com