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Tough 18th might make or break PGA winner come Sunday

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Apparently, club pro Bob Sowards started a trend from which there was no escape, sort of like when the lead sled dog falls off a cliff, pulling the others along behind.

All week, players have dreaded the walk down the 18th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club, a 507-yard par 4 that has produced two terrific dramas in a past U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

Amend that to terrific traumas.

Once Sowards opened the door, the last hole in a stretch that Phil Mickelson described as "calamity," became outright chaotic, setting the stage for what could be one memorable, massive pileup on the weekend at the 93rd PGA Championship.

Soward was the lowest club pro in the field as he played the 18th in the second round on Friday, but he plopped a ball in the water on the last and made a triple bogey to miss the cut by a stroke. Denied a hefty paycheck, he was spotted seated on the curb outside the AAC clubhouse with his head in his hands for several minutes.

Headaches for the game's best players followed in short order.

First came Gary Woodland, a promising American who had clawed his way within two strokes of the lead, then hit two balls in the water on the 18th to make a triple-bogey, dropping all the way back to level par, five behind the leaders.

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Woodland, who won this year in Tampa, predicted that come Sunday night, there could very well be a scenario wherein somebody loses the PGA title, rather than wins it with anything heroic.

"I think that's a very big possibility," he said.

He was just the warmup act. Playing in the next threesome, teenage sensation Matteo Manassero was 1 under overall as he played the 18th and he pumped a ball in the lake, too, and made a matching triple-bogey.

From then on, the stars truly came out to drown.

In the span of the next hour, Adam Scott, Mickelson, Tiger Woods and first-round leader Steve Stricker all dumped balls in the water on the last, even though the tee was moved forward about 15 yards on Friday.

Of them all, Scott's hurt perhaps the most. After winning last week at the Bridgestone Invitational, he'd crept within one of the lead when he fanned his drive into the trees. He laced a punch shot through the pines, but it rolled through the dried-out fairway and into the greenside pond. He made a double-bogey and fell back to 2 under, three off the pace.

"It's a hard hole," he said, "and you can't escape that."

Over the years, the hole has been pivotal at two famous majors. Jerry Pate laced a 5-iron from the rough to within a few feet of the flag to win the 1976 U.S. Open at AAC. A decade ago, David Toms laid up to escape the water hazard, pitched onto the green and made a testy par putt to beat Mickelson by a stroke.

It plays as a three-shot par-5 for members, mind you.

Mickelson hit a 4-iron into the water Friday from 244 yards and noted that even when the tee is moved up, it doesn’t change the hole. Players still have to put the ball in the same spot in the fairway regardless of where the markers are located. The same white-knuckle approach shot awaits no matter what club is hit off the tee.

"The landing area stays the same," said Mickelson, who hit a 5-iron off the tee. "It's a good, hard [approach] shot over water from 230 yards or so."

Gulp.

"For 17 holes, I played well," said Mickelson, who is 1 over and six off the pace.

Nobody's been more savaged than Jason Day, one of the pre-tournament favorites, who has double-bogeyed the hole both days and missed the cut by a stroke.

Just for the final indignity of his week, Woods dunked a ball on his last hole -- perhaps of the PGA Tour season, in fact -- to finish with a bogey and a 10-over total that left him tied for 116th.

Asked about the possibility of a tournament-defining car crash on Sunday night, Scott went so far as to say that if he needed a par to win, he might not go for the green.

"Yesterday, I stood there in the middle of the fairway, and didn't feel great about hitting a 3 iron at that green," he said. "There's a lot of things that can go wrong doing that. In all likelihood, if I needed 4 to win, I don't know whether I would be going for the green with a 3 iron on Sunday.

"I would probably lay up, even if I was in the fairway, because I could lose it by hitting a 3 iron."

It might be smart, though not particularly heroic. On the punitive last hole at AAC, that's sometimes the only survivable tack. Just ask Toms.

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