The Tour Championship at East Lake is making wide-scale changes designed to add excitement for the players, spectators and sponsors.
Foremost, the front nine and back nine of the historic course will be exchanged for the tournament, the finale of the FedEx Cup playoffs. Instead of golfers finishing with a par 3 that has yielded just 153 birdies since 1998, the new closing hole will be a reachable par 5 that has yielded 16 eagles and 700 birdies in the same span of time.
“By flipping the nines at East Lake, we believe the final stretch of the FedEx Cup will become even more dramatic and exciting as our season-long competition comes to a close,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said.
The final four holes will now feature the famous peninsula par 3, a tough uphill par 4 that doglegs to the left with a green surrounded by deep bunkers, a short par 4 with a thin, dangerous green and the downhill par 5 that doglegs left.
The four new closing holes have given up almost twice as many birdies (1,651) as bogeys (854) since 1998. The previous final three holes featuring two long par-4s and the 235-yard finisher had given up more than twice as many bogeys (1,208) as birdies (575).
“I think it’s actually really, really cool,” 2015 Tour Championship and FedEx Cup champion Jordan Spieth said. “Having a par 3 as a finishing hole is unique. But nine (the new No. 18) makes for a fantastic finishing hole. I think it would make for a finish where you see a birdie or eagle more than you do pars like you do now.”
Architect Rees Jones has been working with the PGA Tour and East Lake on the changes, which will include alterations to several holes.
The new No. 18, a 600-yard par 5, will feature a larger tee box so that it may always be set up as a two-shot par 5, no matter the wind conditions. In the past 10 years, the hole has yielded the longest average driving distance (306 yards) on the course. The landing area will be re-contoured to try to prevent those drives from rolling down a hill and into a water hazard that intrudes into the right side of fairway.
A bunker will be added on the other side of the water, running parallel to it and perpendicular to the fairway. Should players decide to lay up short of the green, the bunker will force them to be more accurate. The chipping area to the left of the green will be increased. Lastly, a bunker will be added behind the green on the left side. Should a player go for the green in two, that bunker will have to be taken into consideration.
Jones said more variables have been added to every shot on the hole.
“There will be more things to think about with $11 million on the line,” Jones said.
On No. 17, the tee box will be moved back, stretching the hole from 405 yards to between 420-425. That change will bring the bunkers on the left into play. Jones said that professional golfers currently fly those bunkers with their tee shots.
The tee box will also be moved back on No. 16, stretching the hole from 434 yards to between 450-460 yards. Jones said that change should make for a longer approach shot and will make the chipping area to the right of the green more prominent.
And then there’s 15, a 209-yard par 3 that won’t be changed. It has given up 79 double-bogeys and 229 bogeys compared to 249 birdies since 1998.
“The new 15th hole will really be a gut-checking hole, as Justin Rose refers to some of the holes at East Lake,” Jones said. “They will have to fight through 14 and 15 and then push the pedal down on the last three holes.”
Jones believes the winning score will depend upon how the course is set up. If the rough is grown out, he predicts the champion will finish single-digits under par. If the rough is mowed down, he thinks the champion will finish in double-digits under par.
Either way, he is satisfied with the changes.
“I really think it’s going to be very good for the tournament and for East Lake,” he said.
There will be more changes coming to No. 15 that won’t affect the golfers, but will affect spectators and sponsors. A three-story corporate hospitality venue will be constructed facing the lake. The structure will hold approximately 1,800 people and from the venue, spectators will be able to view No. 14 green, No. 15 tee boxes and green and No. 17 tee box.
For the first time in several years there will bleachers behind the 15th green for the general public to use on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Flipping the nines will also provide spectators opportunities to see more action as the tournament concludes. The first seven holes on the old back nine run parallel to each other. Between the trees and the hospitality venues, it could be difficult to view much more than one green and two tees at most of the holes.
The layout of the new back nine is more elastic. A spectator standing near the 16th green will be able to see several greens and several tee boxes, for example. At some places. the number of views will be similar to Amen Corner at the Masters.
“The new spectator sight lines and experience will be much improved from previous years and generate a lot more excitement,” tournament director Martin Stephenson said.
East Lake has seen plenty of change since the first holes were started in 1904. It course was redesigned in 1913 by Donald Ross, rebuilt and modernized in 1963 by George Cobb for the Ryder Cup, and then restored and modernized by Jones in 1994. Several changes were made by Jones, including turning what is currently No. 4 into a par 4 from a par 5, No. 5 into a par 5 from a par 4, No. 10 into a par 5 from a par 4 and No. 16 into a par 4 from a par 5. The green on what is now No. 17 and will become No. 8 was moved downhill toward the water in 2008.
The course hosted its first Tour Championship in 1998 and became the tournament’s permanent home in 2005. This year’s event will be played Sept. 22-25.
“Many of the world’s historic courses go through transitions as the game of golf changes with time. I’m confident this transition will respect and highlight the rich tradition and history of East Lake Golf Club,” East Lake Chairman Tom Cousins said.