Intimidating and challenging closing holes help create both exciting and unpredictable finishes in pro golf tournaments. Which is one way of announcing that the Players Championship is coming up (March 12-15) on the PGA Tour at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
TV viewers can again expect plenty of thrilling moments watching everyone in the field, not just the contenders, play two of the Stadium Course’s scariest holes, the island green par-3 17th, and the par-4 18th with the left edge of its fairway guarded by water from tee to green. This diabolical duo bring out the best and the worst from the world’s top golfers, and have played a major role in determining the winners and losers for close on 40 years at Ponte Vedra Beach.
The late genius Pete Dye designed this devilish course from swampland – it is ranked No 49 in Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest in America – specifically with tournament golf in mind, to up the heart rates of the pros by creating as much suspense as possible in the latter stages of every round.
Its additional novelty when opened in 1980 was that natural arenas had been created where large groups of fans could gather to watch. The Players was first contested there in 1982, and has never left, although the course itself has undergone modifications.
Dye’s daring innovations, for that time, helped turn The Players into one of the game’s most popular events.
Tour pros don’t much care for Pete Dye designs, because they confound professional golfers. While the pros want conventional perfection, Dye wants them to sweat it out, hole after hole, shot after shot, putt after putt. And would you know it, later in the year a modern-day Dye design is again hosting the Ryder Cup!
The Players is one of only three full-field “elite championships” in men’s and women’s golf where the tournament returns to the same venue each year, the others being the Masters at Augusta National and the ANA Inspiration at Mission Hills, which kicks off the women’s season of majors a week before the Masters.
A YEAR OF PAR 4 FINISHES
A par-5 finishing hole with water usually serves up the best kind of 18th. Think of Leopard Creek in the Alfred Dunhill Championship, Wentworth in the British PGA, Shanghai’s Sheshan in the HSBC Champions, and Jumeirah in the Race to Dubai Finals.
Yet all the men’s major championships in 2020 will finish on a par 4 at Augusta, Harding Park, Winged Foot and Royal St George’s with not one water hazard between them.
This won’t mean there will be any lack of excitement, however. Winged Foot – an exceptionally severe yet classic US Open layout in suburban New York, ranked No 11 in Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest in America – produced a dramatic conclusion when the US Open was last played there in 2006.
Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson could have won had they parred the 18th. But both made double-bogey on the hole and lost by one shot to Australian Geoff Ogilvy, who finished with a nervy up-and-down 4. Montgomerie never won a major championship, and Mickelson never won a US Open. Ogilvy was to never win another major.
Harding Park in San Francisco, the US PGA venue in May, is a first-time major venue. It did have the 2009 Presidents Cup, and 2015 WGC Matchplay won by Rory McIlroy. It marks the first time the PGA has returned to America’s west coast since the 1995 championship at Riviera in Los Angeles.
The last of the men’s majors, The Open, is normally played at St Andrews when the year ends in the number 0 or 5. It’s followed that rota since 1990. But this year is the 149th Open, and The R&A want to celebrate the 150th at the Home of Golf in 2021.
Instead the championship returns to the most southern venue in the UK, Royal St George’s in Kent, where 42-year-old Irishman Darren Clarke enjoyed an emotional triumph in bad weather in 2011.
This ancient links, founded in 1887 (this will be its 15th Open) has a reputation of producing surprise champions. Before Clarke the 2003 Open winner at St George’s was the American Ben Curtis, at the time No 396 in the World Ranking. It was his first tournament win.
Fluky results happen here because Royal St George’s is an unpredictable layout with some blind shots and unruly bounces. One writer described it as “having the topography of an unmade bed.”
Cross-bunkers are also a feature, and the links has a fierce finishing stretch of holes, starting at the famous par-5 14th, known as Suez Canal, where Dustin Johnson’s chances ended in 2011 with a shanked 2-iron out of bounds over the canal. The fairways on the two closing par 4s, 17 and 18, are crowned so that drives tend to run off on either side.
Then there’s the rough – Tiger Woods began the 2003 Open with a triple-bogey after losing his ball on the first hole – the weather and the course’s unpopularity with modern golfers. When Steve Elkington was asked where Royal St George’s ranks among the nine Open venues, his witty reply was: “I’d say 10th.”
RYDER CUP AND OLYMPIC GAMES
This is both a Ryder Cup and Olympic Games year, which means extra entertainment for golf fans from the end of July to end of September.
The Americans get to host the Ryder Cup, and the PGA of America have chosen Whistling Straits as their latest home venue. This was a deal done together with the Wisconsin resort having 3 PGA Championships, in 2004, 2010 and 2015. Interestingly the winners were Vijay Singh (Fiji), Martin Kaymer (Germany) and Jason Day (Australia). That suggests it is more of a neutral venue than one that suits the United States team.
Whistling Straits is only the second Pete Dye design to host a Ryder Cup. The first was the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 1991, then a brand new course which gave the players from both teams palpitations over the three days of a match known as “The War on the Shore.”
Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten describes the Straits Course at Whistling Straits as “one of the most outrageous and unconventional designs Pete Dye has ever conjured up. Fairways twist and turn and bob and weave around knobs and bowls and a mini-mountain range. Some greens cling precariously to windy hilltops and others lounge on a beach beside splashing waves.”
And there are nearly a thousand bunkers scattered about the 18 holes. Dustin Johnson lost the 2010 PGA on the 72nd hole, leading by one shot, when his ball landed in one of them. Except he didn’t know it was a bunker and grounded his club. He was assessed a two-shot penalty after completing the hole, resulting in a triple-bogey 7 on the closing par 4.
The five women’s majors in 2020 visit three courses which have previously hosted one of the men’s major championships.
Gary Player won the 1962 US PGA at Aronimink in Pennsylvania, where the women will contest their own PGA Championship in June. This used to be known as the LPGA Championship, until the PGA of America became a partner of the LPGA for this event in 2015.
The US Women’s Open goes to Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, which not only was once the site of the PGA Tour Championship on several occasions, but produced the unlikeliest men’s US Open outcome in 1969, a Tin Cup moment. A 35-year-old Army veteran, Orville Moody, came through local and sectional qualifying to win by one shot from a trio of lesser names.
It was Moody’s one and only victory on the PGA Tour, yet 20 years later he emerged again, winning the US Senior Open using a broomhandle putter, at the time a rarity. He went from being one of the worst putters on the Senior Tour to one of the best. The USGA and R&A debated whether to ban the long putter, but decided against it. In 2016 the two governing bodies introduced the “Anchoring rule.”
The last of the women’s majors for the year, the British Open, goes back to a links venue, Royal Troon, where Henrik Stenson overcame Phil Mickelson in their remarkable 2016 Open duel. The Scottish club has never previously hosted the women’s version.
HOW THE 2020 COURSES RANK
- Augusta National, No 2 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Winged Foot (West), No 11 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Whistling Straits (Straits), No 21 in America’s 100 Greatest
- TPC Sawgrass (Stadium), No 49 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Aronimink, No 85 in America’s 100 Greatest
- Royal St George’s, No 28 in Golf Digest World 100
- Royal Troon, No 49 in Golf Digest’s World 100
GOLF’S 13 SPECIAL EVENTS IN 2020
(WITH DEFENDING CHAMPIONS)
Players Championship, TPC Sawgrass, Florida, March 12-15.
ANA Inspiration, Mission Hills, California, April 2-5. Ko Jin-young
Masters, Augusta National, Georgia, April 9-12. Tiger Woods
US PGA Championship, TPC Harding Park, California, May 14-17. Brooks Koepka
US Women’s Open, Champions GC, Texas, June 4-7.
US Open, Winged Foot, New York, June 18-21. Gary Woodland
Women’s PGA, Aronimink, Pennsylvania, June 25-28.
The Open, Royal St George’s, England, July 16-19. Shane Lowry
Evian Championship, Evian Resort, France, July 23-26.
Men’s Olympics, Kasumigaseki, Japan, July 30-August 2.
Women’s Olympics, Kasumigaseki, Japan, August 5-8.
Women’s British Open, Royal Troon, Scotland, August 20-23.
Ryder Cup, Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, September 25-27. Europe