BIRMINGHAM, AUG. 8 -- A word about golf. That is, after all, what they are here for, the PGA Championship. Amid much heated discussion, the last major title of the season finally will be contended beginning Thursday, on a Shoal Creek course more outrageous than Hall Thompson's tongue. It is long and arduous, 7,145 yards over hills and through thickets of trees, and designed by Jack Nicklaus, who can show just as much ruthlessness in his architecture as he does as a competitor. What few options Nicklaus originally built into the par-72 layout have been effectively removed by the PGA of America, which oversees this tournament and chose to border the fairways with the deepest, most tenacious rough players have encountered in years.
"You'll be lucky to find your ball much less play it," U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin said.
In any other week, the severity of the rough would have constituted a major issue. But the tournament was dwarfed by the crisis all of golf experienced in the last weeks, following Shoal Creek founder Thompson's remarks that the club did not accept black members. After threats of protest by black leaders and boycotts by television advertisers, a local black businessman was admitted as an honorary member, and golf authorities said they will reassess their site selection process for tournaments, seeking clubs that do not have exclusionary membership practices.
That outcry was replaced by gasps and whines in the field of 150 that arrived to find Shoal Creek as potentially penalizing as any major championship site in recent memory. Coupled with the rough are hardened greens so fast and sunbaked that players have remarked they sound almost hollow, balls landing with a curious thunk and spinning crazily. That means the players will have a hard time holding shots where they aim them, particularly out of the long grass.
The setup is somewhat reminiscent of the dreaded old U.S. Open conditions, before there was a shift toward making major championship courses more playable and inviting. There has been a trend toward scoring records in the last few majors: There were a tournament record 153 rounds under par in last year's PGA at Kemper Lakes near Chicago.
"This is very typical of what major championships used to be," said Tom Kite, the winner of last week's St. Jude Classic. "I think we are seeing some easing up in major championships recently. In my opinion, this is one of the toughest majors we have seen in many years."
The PGA of America would have you think that the rough is only 3 1/2 inches long. But Nicklaus called it more like five inches deep -- soft, grasping tendrils of Bermuda grass that curl around the ankles and totally obscure the ball. The only choice from it is to dig deep with a sand wedge and chunk the ball back to the fairway, a state of affairs that drew the most vocal protest from defending champion Payne Stewart.
"If you don't play the ball out of the fairway you can just pack your bags and go home," he said. "They should draw red lines down either sides of the fairways and call it a hazard. There's a one-shot penalty every time you miss the fairway, because you're not going to be able to get it to the green."
The most significant effect of the conditions is that the number of players who can contend here may be limited to a select few, and of a very specific type. The profile would seem to be as follows: an extremely straight hitter, a certain putter, and a thoughtful, strategic mind. Some names leaped immediately to the fore:
Irwin, the lethally straight 46-year-old who has made his career on the most difficult courses in the world, which he proved again by winning his third U.S. Open in June; two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, also an arrow off the tee; Kite and last year's PGA runner-up, Mike Reid, renowned for their accuracy; Lee Trevino, the 1984 champion here who is going on 51 but still hitting those low-ball clotheslines.
"I happen to like" the course, Irwin said. "It seems to eliminate those of us who are playing poorly and distance those who are playing well. You feel like par here is a good score."
But there was one player who seemed more perfectly suited for Shoal Creek than all of them, his name unanimous on everyone's lips: Nick Faldo of Britain. No one is more impervious to a trying course, or more relentlessly errorless. The reigning Masters and British Open champion is attempting to become the first player to win three majors in a season since Ben Hogan in 1953.
"I can only take it one week at a time," Faldo said. "It's something that would be great to achieve. But it's not that you expect to do these kinds of things. Your intentions are to come here to try to win. That's all I worry about, not what everybody else says. It's the last major of the year. It's time to give it everything again."
A side effect of the rough could be limited shot making and perhaps a less watchable tournament. Forget all those tricky little wedges you are used to seeing from the pros, because they can't use them here. "It's not chipping, it's more like chopping," Stewart said. On some holes the smarter strategy may be to play for a bunker than risk losing the ball in the weedy depths.
"I bet you if guys miss a shot you'll hear some of them saying: 'Get in the bunker! Get in the bunker!' " Stewart said. "At least you can play in a bunker. At least you know what the ball is going to do coming out of one."
But Nicklaus had little sympathy for those who moaned. Asked if a golf course wasn't supposed to offer some chance of playing out of the rough, he said harshly: "Supposed to? Where's it say that?"
So maybe Trevino's total of 15 under par to win here in 1984 is not likely to be duplicated. But just maybe the PGA will be a welcome change from the scoring frenzy of recent years.
"I personally feel in majors you're supposed to drive it in the fairway, hit the green, make the putts, and shoot as low as you can on a course that's as difficult as it can be," Nicklaus said. "I always felt that way. It's not to see who can shoot the most 62s."