With 36 holes of championship golf, as well as a par three course, the Atlanta Athletic Club has plenty of holes to keep the golf club members happy and, as implied in the name, the club also has one of the best athletic facilities in the country. Naturally at such a fit and healthy club, golfers are encouraged to walk the courses rather than take a cart.
Founded way back in 1898, Atlanta Athletic Club was originally a pure athletics club and golf did not appear on the agenda until Tom Bendelow was commissioned to design a golf course in Atlanta’s suburbs as a golfing accompaniment for the athletic club members. The new course was called East Lake and it opened for play in 1908. Amongst the crowd, which was gathered for the opening ceremony, was a six-year-old boy called Bobby Jones.
The Atlanta Athletic Club may be best known as the home club of Robert Tyre Jones but his home course was East Lake which the AAC sold shortly after the 1963 Ryder Cup had been staged there. The Atlanta Athletic Club subsequently commissioned another Robert T Jones to design twenty-seven holes on a new site at Johns Creek, which was large enough for athletics as well as golf.
In 1964, three new Robert Trent Jones-designed 9-hole loops opened for play and they were later named Highlands and Riverside after Joe Finger fashioned a fourth 9-hole course in 1971. The Highlands course comprises of nine RTJ holes and nine from Joe Finger and it's this course that's invariably considered to be the premier layout at Atlanta Athletic Club, which staged the 1976 US Open.
“Until 1976, the Open had never been played in the southeastern quadrant of the country – east of the Mississippi and south of the Potomac – but that year it went to the heart of the Confederacy, to the Atlanta Athletic Club.” Wrote Robert Sommers in The US Open - Golf’s Ultimate Challenge. “ It was there because Bobby Jones had written to the USGA asking for it to be played at his home club (this was, however, a different golf course; he grew up playing the old East Lake course). His letter was dated November 16, 1971; he died thirty-one days later. There was never any doubt he would have his wish. Unfortunately, the golf course, which was only a few years old, was nothing special, and if not for a stunning 5-iron shot on the last hole, it would rank among the least memorable of all U.S. Open championships.”Jerry Pate’s 5-iron shot was “Heard Round the World” as he struck his ball to three feet on the final hole to win the 1976 U.S. Open. The 1981 and 2001 PGA Championships were held at Atlanta Athletic Club – Larry Nelson and David Toms won respectively.
The 93rd PGA Championship returned to Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011. Germany’s Martin Kaymer was the defending PGA champion following his maiden Major victory at Whistling Straits, but he failed to make the cut. The American rookie, Keegan Bradley, who beat countryman Jason Dufner in a play-off, won the event.
Atlanta Athletic Club Highlands course is the proverbial horse designed by committee, hence the final result is a camel. As the population of Atlanta starting migrating towards the northeast, The East Lake membership became desirous of a club closer to where they lived. Hence, the Atlanta Athletic Club came into being, although it was originally called Riverbend Country Club. The original 27 holes were designed by Robert Trent Jones. The members requested a more playable 9 and in 1971 Joe Fingers obliged. These holes now make up the front nine of the Highlands Course. Later that year Bobby Jones wrote his infamous letter to the USGA requesting AAC host the US Open. Sadly, Jones passed away shortly thereafter and thus never saw AAC host a major. The Fazios where brought in to bring the layout “up to US Open standards”. Today’s 17th and 18th were “borrowed” from the original Riverbend 27 to create the track we know today.
The first hole is a welcoming par 4 dogleg left. Don’t be too aggressive of the tee or you may be blocked out, but be aware of the bunkers on the outside of the elbow. This is a well protected green with a left to right tilit. The par 5 2nd is reachable in two. Another well protected green and long right is death. The long par 4 3rd is a tough hole. To have a shot at par favor the left side of the fairway to avoid the fairway bunkers right. This green is sloped back to front, you do not want to be above the hole. The par 3 4th can range anywhere from 165 yards to 230. Water hazard creates a peninsular green with death left. Don’t be stupid, go for the middle of the green. The long par 5 5th is a three shotter. Another well protected green, but it should not be the number one handicap hole. The 6th is a good birdie oppty. Favor the left off the tees to avoid the fairway bunkers right. This is a very narrow fairway but a straight away hole with a pond front left of the green. The 7th is another long par 3 with a carry over water. While somewhat intimidating the big challenge is the BAB in front of a long narrow green. The long par 4 8th is a beast. Dogleg left with the entire left side protected by a lake and the right elbow has a cluster of fairway bunkers. A challenging uphill approach shot requires an extra club to a green protected by bunkers left and right. Long is dead. Pat yourself on the back if you escape with a par. The front ends with a very birdieable par 4. Fairway bunkers left and right with a downhill approach.
The backside also starts off with a birdieable par 4. Heck, if I can do it, anybody can. Slight dogleg right with bunkers on the outside elbow. This is a very long green, choose your iron wisely. The dogleg left 11th is a tough hole, Bunkers on the inside and outside. It is an optical illusion that you can clear the left hand bunker. Don’t go there. The green is protected by bunkers left and a pond right. The green tilts towards the water. The downhill par 5 12th hole can be reached in two and is an excellent risk/reward hole. A draw down the leftside gives you the best oppty and will avoid the fairway bunkers on the left. A pond comes into play about 100 yards out and runs up the entire right side to the green. A BAB protects the left side of the green but there is decent opening in front of the green. The 13th is short and tight. A sharp dogleg right with tall pines lining both sides of the fairway. Bunkers on both sides of the elbow can create a challenge. Too far left and you will be blocked out. The 14th is a slight dogleg right with massive BABs on both sides of the elbow. Favor the left center of the fairway. Take an extra club on your approach to this elevated and treacherous green. Tough hole.
The downhill par 3 15th is intimidating. It is the longest of the par 3s and the water hazard is protecting 80% of the green. Our group splashed 4 balls and it is rated the number 16th handicap hole?!?! It isn’t even the toughest par 3. That is the 17th, another par 3 in excess of 200 yards. It is all carry over the water that kisses the green. No bailout, just got to hit a golf shot. The 18th is a super par 5 finishing hole. Don’t try to be a hero and go for it two. Fairway bunkers line the right side and there is a large water hazard left and then protecting the front of the green. I was about 110 yards out and figured a nice pitching wedge would do the trick. I hit it well, and was giving it a nice pose. Splash!! I was stunned. I looked over at the caddy and he said, “It almost always plays one club longer. You cannot feel the breeze as it is blocked out by the clubhouse.”
Good but not great
This was a very special day. I departed from Argentina the night before and went directly to play East Lake after landing. We had lunch there and then straight to AAC to play Highlands where Keegan defeated Dufner in that playoff. The afternoon was special from beginning to end despite being in a rush and finishing the round just before dusk. We got to the Club just 30mins before the tee time with almost no time for warming up although it was not needed as we played in the morning.
The Club House is all you can expect from a Major Championship venue, amazing. Memorabilia all over it, Trophies, Pictures, Scorecards and more nring you to great moments we have seen on TV.
The course is great from beginning to end, although the back 9 are better in creativity, design and challenge. I had a rough front 9 with too many mistakes but on back 9 I hit all 9 GIR to a great 36. We played blue tees (6900yds) but under very wet conditions and very hilly so they seemed to be like 7200yds, a brutal test for a second round of a day after 10hrs flight.
There are great holes but I have to place par 4 9th, par 4 11th, par 5 12th and 15-17-18 as the most remarkable places of the course. 12th is an amazing par 5 where the back tee is elevated like 20mts from landing area. 15th is the par 3 were Dufner sent the ball to the water: we played the third tee box and had 220yds to pin, a very difficult 4 iron. 17th is a great par 3 over the water and par 5 18th (which Pros played as par 4) is a great finishing hole where to get home in 2 you need a monster drive (which I didn't have!).
My only regrest is we played in a cloudy day and many of the flowers had not exploded yet so the potential beauty of the course was not at its highest. But a hell of an experience and a brutal challenge, playing one of these makes you see the difference with the Pros. Greens were rolling at least 12 in the stimp, some putters were just too tough for amateurs even low handicappers.