Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Ten Golf Courses

Once again on account of little professional golf action, here is another top ten list. This week’s edition features my top ten favorite finishing stretches on the PGA Tour’s annual rotation.

1. TPC Sawgrass – THE PLAYERS Championship

The final three holes at the TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida are the most exciting finishing holes on Tour. THE PLAYERS Championship is hosted here, and the field and purse are always top of the line. However, there is no argument that the golf course is what makes this tournament. The final round drama beings to build starting on the par-5 16th hole. At only 507 yards, this par-5 is certainly vulnerable to today’s pros. A birdie here is status quo. Eagles are what players charging up the leaderboard are searching for on this hole. Craig Perks had to chip-in for his eagle in route to victory in 2002. Stephen Ames holed an eagle putt on 16 during his victorious final round in 2006. Players can make up or lose ground on the risk-reward par-5.

Next up on Pete Dye’s diabolical track is possibly the most recognizable hole in golf: the par-3 17th with an island green. Even though this hole only stretches a mere 137 yards, it can serve as the most intimidating hole in golf. Countless players have dropped their tee shots in the drink surrounding this island green, and some have aced it. Once, Fred Couples hit his first shot into the lake, but holed out from the drop area for a very unlikely three. Seventeen has been the scene for many memorable moments from Tiger’s 60-foot double breaking putt in 2001 to Jeff Sluman’s heartbreaking miss in 1987 to Bob Tway’s 12 in 2005. Watching golfers step onto the 17th with the lead or chasing the lead makes for great golf theater.

The conclusion at Sawgrass leaves nothing to be desired. With such thrills preceding it, one may assume the 18th would be rather forgettable. However, this 447 yard par-4 annually ranks as one of the most difficult holes of the year. Water awaits any shot off the tee or on the approach that is drawing left. Many players hit a shorter drive to the right side of the fairway or thick right rough. The approach is no piece of cake even with an accurate tee shot. The left side of the green is tiered, but of course, the Sunday pin placement is typically back left. A bogey at 18 is definitely in the players’ minds when completing this challenging test of a course.

2. TPC Scottsdale – Phoenix Open

The action in Phoenix is focused on the par-3 16th, but the excitement begins its crescendo on the preceding hole. The par-5 15th at Scottsdale measures 558 yards, but its island green is reachable with a strong drive. Water is in play throughout the hole, but eagles are not uncommon for a pursuer of the lead on Sunday.

The Super Bowl of golf takes place every year at 16. Starting in 2009, the 162 yard par-3 is completely enclosed by grandstands. This is the loudest and rowdiest hole the players will face all season. 20,000 fans fill the bleachers surrounding the hole where a shot that misses the green is severely disapproved of with boos, but a player whose shot lands near the pin rides to the green on cheers for a hero. Alcohol flows in abundance at the concessions near 16, and the gallery demonstrates it. The approval of the stands could potentially lift a player’s morale for a hole or two. However, the 16th’s disapproval can be so harsh that it may tarnish a player’s entire week. The mounded green forfeits some birdies, but the pressure of the gallery more often yields pars.

The 17th at Scottsdale is a drivable par-4. This exciting risk-reward hole fits perfectly with the previous two. Sand is plentiful even for a lay-up off the tee, and water sits near the green. So anything from eagle to bogey is possible. Actually, even double eagle can be achieved here. Andrew Magee’s drive bounced off an inattentive Tom Byrum’s putter and went into the hole for an extremely rare ace on a par-4 in 2001.

The 18th is no slouch either. The 438 yard par-4 has water to the left and sand on the right to avoid off the tee. The green is guarded by a deep right bunker, and the usual Sunday pin is on the top tier in the back. The approach demands accuracy to have any chance at birdie on this difficult green.

3. Bay Hill Club – Arnold Palmer Invitational

The King holds his annual invitational in Orlando, Florida at a course he designed. The 485 yard par-4 16th served as a hole to make up ground before 2007, when it was converted from its original par-5 status. Now it is a bear to deal with. Players feel lucky escaping the back to front sloping green that is guarded by water in front.

The 17th also yields very few birdies. The 219 yard par-3 is extremely difficult. The green is narrow from front to back. Water can come into play front, right, or over the green. Sand is a threat to the left. Par, once again, is a good score.

The 441 yard par-4 slight dogleg right serves as the finisher. Birdie is not easy here either. The landing area off the tee is tight, and water comes into play on the right. Almost every approach shot must fly the lake to reach a green that slants forward with the pin to the right side on Sundays. The green’s slope causes balls that land short of the flag to often spin back into the water. Putting at 18 can also be a chore. Tiger has made it look easy each of the last two years, but very few shots are easy down the stretch at Arnie’s place.

4. PGA National – Honda Classic

In Palm Beach Gardens, Florida the Bear Trap proves quite frightful for any golfer teeing it up at Jack’s Champion Course. The Bear Trap starts at the 179 yard par-3 15th hole. Often, players are hitting straight into the wind on this hole, and they must play over water the entire way. The lake also curls around the right side. Bunkers guard the bailout left. Sunday’s pin will be found on the front right.

The wind always seems to be blowing here, and it never helps players attempting to play the most difficult par-4 on the course. The 434 yard 16th has a fairway that slopes into the water on the right, but the dogleg right hole does not favor a tee shot left either. The second shot is typically into the wind over the water. Have fun!

Seventeen is another challenging par-3. At 190 yards, the tee shot travels over the water onto a small putting surface. Birdies are not plentiful, and bogey is commonplace for those who miss the green.

The 18th is quite the closing hole too even though it is not officially considered part of the Bear Trap. The 605 yard double dogleg par-5 brings more excitement. Sand is a problem off the tee, and water again comes into play on both the second and third shots. Water borders the green that hosts a tough right pin placement most Sundays.

5. Pebble Beach – AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am

Only the final two holes make the cut at this gem. The 17th hole at Pebble Beach has been the site of some extraordinary moments in major championship history. The 178 yard par-3 is a beauty from the tee looking out onto the Pacific. The green is long and appears extremely narrow from the tee. Bunkers guard short and left while ferocious rough during the majors snarls shots over the green. Naturally, the pin placement on Sunday is back and left. In the 1972 U.S. Open, Jack Nicklaus came to 17 with a three stroke lead over a charging Bruce Crampton. Playing into the wind he played a magnificent 1-iron that hit the pin and ended up less than a foot from the cup to seal his victory. Then again in the 1982 U.S. Open, the Golden Bear was tied for the lead in the clubhouse with Tom Watson, who was still on the course. Watson stepped onto to 17, and his 2-iron sailed long and left into the thick rough with little green to work with. Bogey appeared to be unavoidable. However with one of the most memorable shots at Pebble, Watson’s pitch with a sand wedge lobbed into the air, landed softly short of the hole, and rolled in for a birdie and a one shot advantage that would carry him to victory.

The 18th does not have the history of drama that the 17th hole owns. However, the scenery itself on 18 is worth making this list. The 543 yard par-5 is not a cakewalk by any means. Eagles are very rare. The wind comes off the Ocean to the left of the entire fairway. From the tee, players must be accurate. Any shots left of the fairway bounce around on the rocks protruding from the water. And an annoying tree pinches the landing area on the right side of the fairway. The demand on accuracy usually leaves too long of a second shot to get within a reasonable range for eagle on the enormous green. A large and deep bunker short of the green on the right hand side also discourages many players from going for it in two. The green is big, and Sunday’s pin is cut on the front right, near the bunker. Many victory walks up the 18th have been made all the sweeter by the majesty of the Pacific roaring in the background.

6. Augusta National – The Masters Tournament

The only major championship that does not move from course to course is the Masters in April. They have played every edition of the Masters on Bobby Jones’s hallowed grounds in Augusta, Georgia. Amen Corner precedes the exciting finish. Beginning with the par-5 15th, the excitement builds to a climax almost every year. The 15th measures 530 yards downhill. The landing area for the drives is narrowed by a clump of trees that stretches into the fairway from the left. The hole doglegs slightly to the left. So these tall, gangly pines do interfere with errant tee shots. Many players go for this wide green in two shots. The green is pretty thin from front to back and slightly sloped to the front. Protecting the green is a small pond running the entire width of the front of the green. The fringe surrounding the green is shaved and much more severely angled into this water. Players such as Seve Ballesteros know this fact all too well. That is why some champions, like Iowa’s Zach Johnson, choose to play three shots to this green. The pin for the final round is placed near the back center of the green. Eagles are certainly plausible here, and a birdie is typically expected. Any player charging ahead on the leaderboard will hear the roars of a good score at 15, especially if they are right next to the grandstands on the 16th tee box.

The 170 yard par-3 16th hole at Augusta is the signature hole of the finishing stretch. A pond lurks to the left of the undulating green. Sunday’s hole is cut on the back left hand side on a slope that feeds to the front of the green. Players try to land their tee shots well right of the cup and allow the ball to drain down the slope towards the front of the green and the water, leaving an uphill putt that breaks to the left. Others go right at the pin. The second shots at 16 are the ones that usually cause the most ruckus amongst the galleries behind the green and across the pond. In 2005, Tiger’s tee shot went long and left, over the water. He faced a challenging chip shot that he was forced to play well above and left of the hole. In dramatic Tiger fashion, his ball dropped into the cup on a last second rotation to take a larger lead over Chris DiMarco. In 1986, Jack Nicklaus birdied the 16th to continue his attempt to catch Seve, Tom Kite, and Greg Norman. His 2 on 16 helped him shoot a back nine of 30 in route to his record 18th major championship.

The 440 yard par-4 17th hole is not of very noteworthy design. However, it has served as home to more major drama over the years. Jack showed the crowds in 1986 that he knew victory was within reach as he raised his putter into the air while licking his chops as his birdie putt disappeared into the hole.

The 465 yard par-4 18th seems much longer because it is all uphill. This finishing hole is lined by Georgia Pines on the right hand side, and a large bunker sits to the left of the landing area. Players hitting their approach shots must rely on the galleries surrounding the green for feedback on the quality of their second strokes. The green is fairly large with another white bunker short left. The hole is cut on the front left hand side on Sunday. Many memorable putts have been holed on this green. Some of those putts are the most meaningful in those players’ careers. Phil Mickelson’s unforgettable leap into the air after making his birdie putt in 2004 is one of my favorites.

7. Harbour Town Golf Links – Verizon Heritage

This seaside golf course is a beauty on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The 16th hole is a par-4 of only 395 yards. It doglegs left around an enormous bunker stretching the entire length of the fairway. Tall pine trees have been placed in the right-center of the fairway to demand accuracy off the tee. It is a neat and unique hole.

The 185 yard par-3 17th is also a neat one. The raised green must be hit for a birdie 2, unless you are Boo Weekley. A lagoon borders most of the green with another long bunker as the only hope of a badly struck tee ball.

The 18th is also unique. The red and white stripped lighthouse leads golfers to the invisible green from the tee. Playing along Calibogue Sound to the left with plenty of boats watching, the drive needs to land on the wide fairway. At 452 yards, though, and another lagoon protecting the hole from long tee shots, the approach is difficult. Bailing right of the green is not a terrible idea even though few seconds actually go in the drink. The Sound and lighthouse make this hole very recognizable.

8. Riviera Country Club – Northern Trust Open

The 17th hole near Los Angeles, California is a lengthy par-5 at 590 yards. Bunkers and trees are to the left. About half the players reach the large slanted green in two big shots. However, going for it in three may be the wiser strategy. Any shot past the hole leaves a slippery and quick downhill putt for 3. Eagle is possible here, but birdie is much more likely.

The 475 yard par-4 18th at Riviera is stunning, but it is also a beast to play with or chasing the lead on Sunday. The drive is way uphill to a fairway the slopes to the trees on the right. The hole doglegs slightly to the right. The kidney-shaped green is surrounded by an amphitheater of fans. Putting on the sloped green is not easy though.

9. TPC Deere Run – John Deere Classic

Watching the 2001 duel between Briny Baird and David Gossett should convince any fan that this golf course deserves to host a PGA Tour event annually. The 361 yard par-4 is a great risk-reward hole. The tee box is well above the green, meaning that most long hitters can reach in one. It is a very tempting proposition for many young guns looking for a strong finish or their first victory in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. Drives left leave completely blind approach shots over or from a large bunker that drops about 60 feet to the well-contoured green. Shots to the right of the green are left on a fringe-like lie with many options, though few are appetizing. Eagles are rare even though many players think they can.

The most difficult hole at Deere Run is the par-4 15th. The drive must be accurate. Left is dead, and right is in the trees. The green is also one of the more challenging to putt on the course.

The signature par-3 16th runs a total of 158 yards with the best views of the bordering Rock River on the back nine. Mature trees surround the other three sides of the hole for a gorgeous sight in Fall. A common misstep is hitting into the bunker short and right. The Sunday pin sits about front and center.

The 17th hole is a 557 yard par-5. Once again, many players are tempted to go for this green in two. However, the smarter play may be to hit three onto the green. Bunkers guard the green well in front of the hole and right. The green is kind of kidney-shaped and fairly narrow. Eagle is more of a possibility here than at 14, and birdies are plentiful.

The 18th is a great finishing hole. The drive demands accuracy with a bunker and severe slope to the left and trees pinching the landing area to the right. A small pond borders the green to the left while a large collar surrounds the green right and long. Another natural amphitheater serves the fans on the right hand side of the green.

10. Firestone Country Club – WGC Bridgestone Invitational

The 221 yard par-3 15th hole in Akron, Ohio is a tough one. The putting surface is challenging. Par is a good score here.

The Monster is the nickname Arnold Palmer gave the signature 667 yard par-5 16th hole at Firestone. As one of or the longest par-5 the professionals will see all year, no one dares to carry the water guarding the green in the front on his second shot. Birdie is a definite possibility with two well played shots, but as Padraig Harrington demonstrated this year, double bogey or worse is not out of the question on this par-5.

The 17th hole is a 400 yard par-4. The hole is well bunkered. However, the 17th does not prove too difficult for most touring pros.

The 18th presents another demanding tee shot as most of the finishers on this list do. The landing area is tight on this 464 yard par-4, and the placement of one’s drive must take the next shot into consideration. A large tree hangs out over the left side of the green about twenty yards before. It can snarl approaches coming in from the left side of the fairway. The snowman-shaped green sees a back pin placement on Sunday for a difficult par.

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