Heresy. It’s a strong word.
However, when you are about to intrude on the legend of Bobby Jones, you had better tread carefully.
The East Lake Golf Club, the home course of Jones since the Atlanta layout opened in 1908, will again host the Tour Championship this week. The finale of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs will be competed on the famed course with a dramatic alteration from the days when Jones roamed the grounds. The front and back nine holes will be reversed. The tournament will no longer end on a 207-yard par-3, but on a 551-yard par-5.
The notion of altering the front and back nines has been discussed for much of the previous 10 years the Tour Championship has been played on the historic course. Only now, has the change been made.
“It seemed to be heresy at the time to touch anything with Bob Jones,” said Rob Johnston, the Tour Championship General Chairman. “I remember talking to (East Lake Foundation founder) Tom Cousins and remembered that they switched the nines at Augusta (National) in the early 1930s, and it worked out pretty well. So we started thinking about what would be the advantages, and after a couple more years, we sheepishly agreed this was by far and away the best thing we could do for the tournament.”
There was plenty of drama on the former 18th hole, a difficult, long par-3, over the last nine tournaments that the FedEx Cup playoff has culminated on the final day of the Tour Championship.
In 2010, Jim Furyk bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes, but got up and down out of the greenside bunker on the 18th to win the tournament and playoff by one stroke. The final 2-1/2 foot putt fell in the rain as Furyk turned his cap backward.
In 2011, Bill Haas won both after hitting his tee shot on the 18th into the gallery on the right on the first playoff hole. Haas had to save par by hitting out of the lake on the 17th before winning with an up-and-down par on the 18th.
This year, the tournament will conclude on the former 9th hole, a downhill par-5 over water that finishes with the famed East Lake clubhouse in the background.
The switch was made for member play in mid-August and course executives are seeking feedback. The early returns have been positive, but a decision has not yet been made whether the reversed course will remain after the Tour Championship.
“It came down to two things,” Johnston said. “One, we wanted more hospitality venues and more friendly patron viewing experiences. We think it does this by reversing the nines. The second thing is, if you just look at raw scoring, there is very little volatility on the old Nos. 16, 17 and 18 versus what we think the new Nos. 15-18 will be. It’s the drama, the excitement and the fan experience.”
Finishing on a par-5 likely will bring more leaderboard movement with the tournament on the line. Since 1998, the former 18th hole had a scoring average of 3.169 (plus-.160) and yielded zero eagles and 153 birdies. The new 18th had a scoring average of 4.677 (minus-.323) and yielded 16 eagles and 700 birdies.
“Having a par-5 finish, a birdie finish or a heroic second shot, can make it equal,” Bubba Watson said. “Obviously, that can flip (the tournament) pretty good. It will be a little more excitement and more golf to finish instead of just one swing and one putt. You can watch multiple shots on that last hole for some drama.”
Over the past nine tournaments, nearly half the field has gone for the green in two shots. Players going for the green are a combined 332-under par, while those laying-up are 126-under par.
But it’s not just the new finishing hole.
Now included in the final five holes will be the new 14th, a 544-yard par-4 (a par-5 for members), followed by the new 15th, a 168-yard par-3 over water to the peninsula green. With a tee added several years ago, players will have to carry more water in a shot of more than 200 yards.
Defending champ Jordan Spieth said the new 14th is already challenging with its length and downhill approach lie. He said he was nervous over his Sunday tee shot on the new 15th when there was still a lot of tournament to play. Add the nerves he said he felt in the previous closing four holes to the difficulty of the new set up and the pressure mounts down the new home stretch.
The new 15th has a scoring average of 3.091 over the past 15 tournaments. Since 2003, 123 tee shots have been hit in the water and another 90 from the drop area have gotten wet. Since 1998, the hole has surrendered 249 birdies, but also 229 bogeys, 79 double bogeys and seven scores of triple or above. The lowest score has been a two and the highest score has been a seven.
“I remember when I won there in 2012, I ended up hitting one in the water (on the new 15th) on Sunday and ended up making double-bogey,” Brandt Snedeker said. “But I had 12 holes to make it up. Now you don’t have that opportunity. You only have three holes. … It will make it a lot more fun and more stressful on us.”
It may be a good thing that 2013 winner Henrik Stenson did not make the Tour Championship field this year due to a knee injury. The switch of the nines after all these years could get confusing.
“I better make sure I walk to the right tee box on Thursday,” he said.
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