By Mark Lamport-Stokes
JOHNS CREEK, Georgia (Reuters) - Players competing in this week's PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club will have to contend with a closing four-hole stretch that Tiger Woods rates as among the most punishing he has ever seen.
"It's a hell of a test coming in," four-times winner Woods told reporters after playing the back nine in practice on Wednesday with fellow American Hunter Mahan and India's Arjun Atwal.
"I don't think there's another stretch that I can remember that's this difficult coming in. You have two long par-fours going uphill, a par-three in which more guys will be hitting lumber (woods) and 18 being as tight as it is for as long as it is.
"If you play those four holes per day, those 16 holes even par, you'll be picking up a ton of shots on the guys."
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, the tournament favorite, agreed.
"You can make a few birdies around the turn and then you've sort of just got to hang on for dear life coming in," the 22-year-old said on the eve of the 93rd PGA Championship.
The par-three 15th is a daunting 260 yards off the back tee into a relatively small green guarded on the right by a pond while the 16th is an uphill par-four measuring 476 yards with a tight landing area for the longer hitters.
Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder at the par-three 17th, the course's signature hole where the green is protected at the front by a huge lake and at the back by bunkers. Any mis-hit tee shot here is likely to end up in the water.
The par-four 18th is one of the most brutal finishing holes around, a dog-leg left which requires precision off the tee and a long approach to avoid trouble with water lurking to the front and right of the green and bunkers to the left.
"Eighteen is a really tough finishing hole," said world number four McIlroy who won his first major title by a staggering eight shots in the U.S. Open at Congressional in June.
"You can be brave with your tee shot, take it a little further up the left side and maybe leave yourself with a shorter shot in or play conservatively up the right and leave yourself a longer iron into the green.
"The green is very small for a long par four. It is designed as a par-five, so it's a very challenging hole to hit a long iron into."
However, it is the par-three 15th that has been the biggest talking point among all the holes for the players this week.
"It's just a beast of a hole," said Masters champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa. "It's long and it's actually quite a small green from that sort of distance.
"I don't think you're going to be too disappointed if you walk off with a four. It's one of those holes where there's no bail-out. You've just got to get down and commit to it."
British world number one Luke Donald is no fan of the 15th, mainly because of its length.
"Some of the world's greatest par-threes are very short," the Englishman said. "The seventh at Pebble, 12th at Augusta, the Postage Stamp ... quite a few that are short and at the same time quite tricky.
"It just seems like you take a little bit of the skill out of it when it's that long a hole. But it is the same for everyone, and I'm going to have to learn to try and love it (the 15th) for this week."
The par-70 Atlanta Athletic Club layout measures 7,467 yards off the back tees and has been lengthened by 254 yards since the PGA Championship was last held here in 2001.
(Editing by Simon Evans)