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Inside the brutal 18th hole that could decide the PGA Championship

CHARLOTTE — Golf fans like to say that a course can never truly be great unless it has an iconic closing hole.

Quail Hollow Club certainly fulfills that requirement.

The 18th at the Charlotte-area course is 494 yards of utter brutality. As my colleague Steve DiMeglio writes in USA TODAY, it’s the closing leg of a stretch dubbed the “Green Mile,” and don’t be surprised if that’s where the 2017 PGA Championship is decided on Sunday.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, it was Jason Day who succumbed to its power. Five strokes back of Kevin Kisner’s lead coming into the final hole of his third round, he blew a drive right then made a mess of his second shot en-route to a quadruple-bogey eight, which all but ends his chances of landing the trophy. He wasn’t the only one — the hole’s scoring average so far this tournament is higher than the course’s par fives — but he’s the most significant implosion so far.

So, what makes it so difficult?

First, some Golf Course Management 101. Professional golfers generally look for three things when plotting their journey from tee-to-green: Position “A,” the Bail-Out Zone, and the No-Go Zone. Highly skilled golfers aim for the Bail-Out Zone and curve the ball towards the No-Go Zone, which usually flanks Position A.

It may sound risky to curve your ball towards trouble, but it’s really not: If you follow that strategy, you can either hit exactly the shot you wanted, which means you’ll finish in Position A. You can miss your shot slightly and end up in the Bail-Out Zone, which usually leaves you with a good-but-not-ideal shot for you next. And even if you overcook your shot slightly, you can take solace in knowing the closest your ball will ever get to the No-Go Zone is at the very end of your shot, when it’s running out of speed and momentum.

So, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at the hole.

Here’s what pros see from the center of the tee box.

There’s a creek running down the left side and trees blocking out everything left of that. There’s the fairway, which curves slightly to the left, and to the right a fairway bunker, followed by some more trees.

Looking at the layout of the hole, the No-Go Zone is the creek on the left and the bunker area is the Bail-Out Zone, with the center of the fairway obviously being Position A. So, following the principle laid out above, most players aim at the bunker and curve their ball from right-to-left, stopping it short of the creek.

But that’s a problem, because unlike other holes, this Bail-Out Zone isn’t actually a Bail-Out Zone at all.

The bunker is steep, and if you hit any right of it, at best you’ll be in the rough and totally blocked out by trees. Left-to-right shots are more difficult to hit that right-to-left shots, too, because of the added topspin. Essentially, this hole demands you hit the perfect shot, or else you’ll be in either a terrible spot or a very bad spot.

Oh, and because it’s 494 yards, it’s long enough that pros have to hit a driver. We already mentioned that right-to-left shots are generally harder to control, too.

Then there’s a green, which is essentially divided into three sections. Each section runs off into a different area off the green — either the water, the fairway short, or the rough and bunker on its right side. You can see how close the pin and green are to the creek, too, so miss your approach even a little bit and you’ll end up in the water.

In all it’s a phenomenal hole, but an absolutely brutal one.

“It’s a great closing hole. You have to hit a good drive, and once you’re in the fairway, it’s not over. Same thing once you’re on the green,” Rickie Fowler said.

“You can go in three behind and you can still win it on that hole,” Ooshtuizen said.

What more could you ask from a major championship?