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Making golf special in four different ways

29 June, 2016

East Lake, Atlanta Athletic Club, Cypress Point and Olympic Club - four different ways to make golf very special

by Javier PIntos

During the last two months I had the chance during two trips to the USA to experience four private and very exclusive golf courses. All four are steeped in golf history and have hosted major events in the past.

On April 1st, my friend Gastón Morgan and I had the chance to play both Atlanta Athletic Club (Highlands) and East Lake in one day after a 10-hour flight from Buenos Aires. It was one of the most special golf days I have ever had, playing two venues that are very special and also very different from each other.

On May 19th, after two long flights from Buenos Aires to San Francisco, I drove directly to the first tee at Cypress Point to play it for the second time (first in 2011) with my friend Lucas Raznoznik and on May 20th we played the Olympic Club (Lake) which was a true test with an added bonus of playing the Cliffs course after lunch, which made for another very special golf day.

The purpose of this article is not to review of each course, which I have done separately here at Top 100 Golf Courses (click the links above if you'd like to read my reviews), but to mark the differences between these venues and how each manages to make a visit unique in four very different ways. Of course there are aspects which are shared, but the experiences are all different.

The Golf Courses

The two features that mark the biggest difference between golf courses around the world come from the designer and the piece of land used to construct the golf course. Then you can put the grasses used to cover the surfaces, the landscaping and the climate in the region. Finally, but no less important, the maintenance, the type of sand, bunkers shaping and attention to detail where you will see the difference between very good venues and those you know are different from the rest.

During these two trips I was able to see four very different courses and all of them have their own greatness. East Lake was the first I played in a 36-hole day during April. It is a true classic, a parkland with some great level chances and very challenging holes for an amateur. Greens are not big but they are firm and very fast, with the grain of the grass marking a huge difference... when it is in your direction (very fast putts) or against you (super slow ones). I had some situations where it was really impossible to leave it close to the hole... on the par five 15th I three putted from 8 feet without hitting a bad stroke. There are many tee shots which require power but there are also many where skill is much more important as you will need to fade or draw the ball to get a good angle to the pin. Missing greens often makes it very tough to have a chance of an up and down due to speed and slopes. But the course is fair and true, nothing is hidden and on a good day you can match your handicap. What's great about East Lake is that it's very playable for bogey golfers; the only forced carry is on the par three 6th, but it's a short iron even from the tips. As it's a regular PGA Tour venue (The Tour Championship) you visit familiar places and even try to replicate some shots. Unfortunately I could not try the Bill Haas recovery at the 17th because when they played the water level was 6 feet lower due to the dry summer that season. What is great about Bill's shot is that from where he was he could not see the higher part of the flag.

After lunch we drove 20 miles to arrive just before our tee time at Atlanta Athletic Club and play the Highlands Course (host of the 2011 PGA Championship won by Keegan Bradley). So close to East Lake and yet so different. The Club has two courses, Riverside and Highlands, which despite being laid out over similar ground they are very different from each other. Even the front and back nines are very different on the Highlands course. The first nine is flatter and straighter with fewer doglegged tee shots and where almost always you see the green from the tee. But in my case I found it harder to score on the front side, finding holes 1, 8 and 9 the tougher holes. In my opinion, the back nine is better and more enjoyable to play, starting with two great par fours, with 11 a downhill dogleg left where the more you risk with the simpler the approach. Despite being tired on the back nine, I played really well hitting all nine GIRs but couldn’t score lower than even par as the greens were fast and with deep slopes, which sometimes made it very tough to get close with the first putt. We played the 6,900-yard tees and it was wet with drives only rolling a couple of yards. It was a monster. The pros played it from 7,600 yards in 2011, they play a totally different game. The par three 15th was where Dufner found the water and tripled, I managed to hit a 210-yard 4 iron to 25 feet but had a very hard job to get down in two putts. It is one of the toughest par threes I have ever played, but the forced carry needed on the 17th is also hard as a mishit shot will always end wet. We played the 18th as a 520-yard par five... from the same tee the pros played it as a par four.

If I have to compare these first two courses, I have to say that for a scratch golfer they are both resistant to scoring, but for a bogey golfer East Lake is much more playable and enjoyable. At AAC a bad round for a bogey golfer can turn into really high numbers and common to both is that you need to be really good with the short game around the green. It's maybe the biggest challenge.

Cypress Point… evokes the Wow! It was my second visit here and my only regret was not being able to enjoy more pre-game time as I arrived just in time to tee off after only hitting a couple of putts. This 6,700-yard classic course is a design jewel, as it has been untouched since it was created and remains just as it was. There are many aspects that make it unique: the quality and challenge of the greens, the variety in the design of the holes, the challenge and risk/reward situations (5, 8, 9, 16 being the more remarkable ones). It's true that if you look back down the hole from the greens, you won't see a single bunker (this camouflage technique was learned by MacKenzie during the war). I don’t wish to describe every single hole but I'll just mention some shots that are worthy. The second shot at the par five 5th hole is maybe one of the most engaging, but if you don't have a good lie you can’t go for it. The tee shot on 8th is where you can attempt to cut the dogleg - it's one of the most clear risk/reward situations I have played. Then on the 9th tee you feel that you have to go for it but a miss can be a disaster. Finally the 16th needs a carry of 220 yards to remain dry. Some people, including Tom Doak, think the 18th is a bad hole. In my opinion it's one of the greatest closing holes where you need two solid shots and a hot putter not to card a bogey. It is true that if they decide to change it and play it close to the 16th it could be a better hole, but as it is I love it! The course will never change, it is the playground of its members, it is a place where you play fast and where walking is one of the most enjoyable parts of the round. But if you can’t putt you will not score because the greens are the toughest challenge on this course. Not only that, holes 15, 16 and 17 are maybe the best trio of consecutive golf holes in the world. For bogey golfers it's another course that they will enjoy (the member who hosted us couldn't drive it further than 200 yards and his only lay up was at the 16th where he couldn’t carry the water and he made a very easy bogey!).

The Olympic Club Lake Course is markedly different from the first three. From the opening hole to the last it shows it's a US Open venue. The rough wasn't as long as for the Open, but it was tough enough and the greens were running at 12 feet on the stimpmeter. A round of golf here is a true scoring challenge and every missed shot will be punished. But with no water and no forced carries, it is another course where a bogey player who can putt will have a very enjoyable day. It was not the best of the four courses, but there are some elements that are really charming. From the elevated tee on the par three 3rd hole you can see the Golden Gate in the distance, then there's the uphill par three 8th hole which heads to the clubhouse... it's one of the loveliest spots on the course. The par five 16th is a monster and the tee shot on the 18th is maybe the nicest shot you will hit on the course. The greens are big, very tough to read, fast and sloping, but they are true. Some tee shots require skill to draw or fade the ball to flight it to the correct spot. I scored very similarly on the four courses, but some weeks later I feel that it was the Olympic Lake course that really tested me; every missed shot punished me - I missed 6 GIR and could not get up and down. I even doubled holes 1 and 12 from beside the green.

If I was asked to select one of these four courses to play tomorrow there are two possible answers: If I want a nice enjoyable walk, I'd choose Cypress Point, but if I want to test my game the choice will always be the Olympic. There are reasons that would make me choose East Lake (the clubhouse and staff hospitality) or Atlanta (the back nine for match play is really great). But ultimately I'd always choose the No.1 course in the World!

The Pro Shops

The pro shop is the place where visitors get their souvenirs and memories from their visit to these venues. There's a very big difference between Cypress Point and the other three pro shops. Cypress has a very nice but small shop where you can buy the typical stuff (shirts, sweaters, hats, club covers, pitch markers, cap pins, etc.) but where the two things I like most (pin flags and bag tags) are not available.

The other three courses have much larger shops, with a wider variety of souvenirs and memories you be purchased. It is not that Cypress has no stuff, the shop is smaller because the course sees less rounds played than the other three. However, one interesting thing I brought from Cypress was the book “The Match”, which is a mandatory read after you have played the course. The two courses, Atlanta and Olympic, used to have a lot of corporate play and outings, which is why I think they are bigger and offer wider variety. Naturally I bought many things from every one!

The Clubhouse

Again Cypress is different to the other three. The first thing is that if you're not with a member, you cannot use the bar, grill and clubhouse, just the locker room (in 2011 I had an unaccompanied foursome, we left immediately after the game and pro shop purchases). The member who hosted us this time had to leave quickly, so we had just a short opportunity to walk around the clubhouse. I have to say the terrace facing the 16th hole is the best I've seen, no argument. Olympic’s clubhouse is immense, maybe necessary to host its 1000+ members. There are lots of spots where you see memories, pictures, scorecards and more from past US Opens. Atlanta Athletic is like a mix between a resort course and private clubhouse, big and with places where memorabilia from past tournaments is kept.

The clubhouse at East Lake is something really special where you will find the memories of Bobby Jones everywhere. One of the most special things I found is the scorecard of the final golf round of his life. As a guest of a member you are allowed everywhere and the club staff proudly tell stories about the history of the club.

It is a tough choice, but my favourite is between the simplicity of Cypress Point and the museum style of East Lake, both are very enjoyable to visit after the round of golf.

The Locker Rooms

All four were nice but I would say the only one not reaching "special" was Atlanta Athletic. I will say that East Lake, where I used Rory McIlroy’s locker, was my favourite. Cypress is small but the pictures shown there are pure history and display how extraordinary the course is, whereas Olympic is huge, with memories of past events everywhere.

My small suggestion is that if you are invited to any private club you always take a look at the locker room..

History and Past Events

Cypress Point has hosted the AT&T National ProAm in the past, but unfortunately for those who don’t know the course it is not likely to return here. It is the member’s playground and they just like to share it with their friends and guests. Of course pros will be allowed during the week of the ProAm. Caddies here are excellent and always have a story, Andy Bean being -7 at the 11th tee and scoring 80 is my favourite! If you are lucky enough to play here, you simply have to buy and read “The Match”. It's one of the best golf books I've ever read.

For the Olympic Club you have to study their US Open stories and you'll learn much. My caddie showed me a lot of spots where historic shots were played, but the bush that buried Jim Furyk’s chances in 2012 is the most notorious as the tee shot was akin to a 24 handicap golfer rather than a pro!

East Lake will always be special and holds a deep history related to Bobby Jones, but hosting The Tour Championship for a number of years has provided a lot of background on the current Tour Players and being able to use their lockers is the nicest touch. When playing the course you have to go to the 17th where Bill Haas played that dramatic hazard shot. From where he was you won’t be able to see the top of the flag!

Atlanta Athletic hosted a wonderful 2011 PGA Championship and there is a lot of information about it and also about Bobby Jones, along with other past events. There are rooms specially dedicated to history and I always like to spend some time finding out what happened there. But remember that this course plays really tough and from the very back tees it's a monster.

By Javier Pintos
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