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​More questions than answers surround 2019's biggest golf events

15 January, 2019

More questions than answers surround 2019’s biggest golf events

by M. James Ward

A new year is already underway and key design and course issues will certainly merit attention – especially when the game's biggest events are contested later this year. Not only will eyeballs be gazing intently to see how courses are prepared, but events in 2019 will also be impacted by the dates they are staged on the calendar. For players, the wherewithal to adjust will clearly be called upon.

Architectural changes will be closely studied to see if the desired result actually works in concert with the original design. Much of the situation will rest with Mother Nature – either facilitating the optimum or conversely limiting the options available.

Clearly, a series of questions – some similar and others different – will be at the forefront to be answered and how they are handled could well determine the success of the respective events.

What conditions and turf will players face when contesting The Players Championship in March?

The Players Championship is often tagged as "Golf's 5th major" and there's little question TPC Sawgrass has clearly played a starring role as host with its strong stretch of finishing holes highlighted by the devilish par-3 17th and its island green.

For the first time since 2006, the flagship event for the PGA Tour will now head back to the time frame when the original event was played. That will mean a number of interesting dimensions, mainly from Mother Nature. Wind speeds in March in the greater Jacksonville area can be especially breezy and the turf will be at a different point in the growing season so early in the spring versus the warmer days in May.

Pete Dye, the brainchild behind the design, has tweaked the course numerous times over the years and his stated aim (at the behest of then Commissioner Deane Beman) was to have a stern layout that would provide opportunities for all types of players and not be so easily categorized.

This year's event will certainly showcase an architectural puzzle of the highest order. One can only wonder if high winds do blow what the total number of balls will be that find the water at the always-dangerous 17th?

What "improvements" will Augusta National unveil this April?

Former Masters majordomo Clifford Roberts was famous for rebuking a golf writer who asked him about "changes" to Augusta National. Roberts abruptly cut him off in going further and curtly replied, "we don't change Augusta – we improve it."

Although the course is still touted as a Bobby Jones / Alister MacKenzie creation the reality is a bit more complicated than that. Augusta National has always been updated, modified, altered – call it what you will – over the years since it first opened.

In recent years the course has added significant yardage, included a "second cut" of grass just off the fairway and inserted a plethora of trees to taper in the previously much wider landing areas. Much of that has been done to keep the course competitive, as players have become longer and stronger over the years.

The fundamental vision of Jones and MacKenzie was to create a parkland layout reminiscent of The Old Course at St. Andrews. That vision has been seriously altered and some may argue, quite pervasively, that the existing course bears far little to what Jones and MacKenzie envisioned.

Now under the stewardship of a new chairman – Fred Ridley – the desire to keep the course competitive has continued forward, and with the 2019 Masters we may see new versions of both the 5th and 13th holes, to name just two situations.

Extending the length of the aforementioned holes is just another indicator that Augusta will not surrender to whatever improvements come forward via club and ball technology. One might have wondered instead of going down this never ending road why the powers that be at Augusta had not simply opted to mandate a "Masters golf ball" which all competitors would be obligated to play for the event. Does anyone seriously believe that if a "Masters golf ball" were pursued any golfer would not conform and use it in order to snare a green jacket?

Will Bethpage Black be sufficiently prepared to host the first PGA Championship in May?

When the PGA Championship is played this May it will mark a major change by the PGA of America to move from the back of the line (as it had for many years when the event was played in August) to the second position following The Masters.

The belief that moving the event to May would garner more visibility and add luster to a major still viewed as being a good step behind the other three.

Going to May does open doors for other locations of America to now possibly host the event. This is especially so for locations in the southeast and most particularly Texas. But, the PGA of America had previously signed contracts for certain venues in the northeast to stage the event before the switch in the calendar came to pass. The first comes with Bethpage State Park and its illustrious Black Course.

The A.W. Tillinghast layout looks to hold its 3rd major championship along with its first PGA Championship this spring.

The question is a simple one. Can the Black Course be ready turf-wise given the mid-May time frame? In the previous two other majors (US Opens in 2002 and 2009) the Black endured a deluge of rain, which nearly upstaged the actual event. No one doubts the pedigree of the course but Mother Nature may play a leading role in how matters are decided for possession of the Wannamaker Trophy.

One last thought. The northeast will also host the PGA Championship in 2023 at storied Oak Hill. If a Long Island location is questionable for the timing, then be prepared for an even higher hurdle to climb when the event heads to Rochester a few years hence.

How will Pebble Beach, marking its milestone 100th anniversary, be set-up for the US Open?

The United States Golf Association (USGA) has endured plenty of vitriol for the manner in which it has prepared recent US Open venues. The crowning achievement came at last year's event at Shinnecock Hills with the 3rd round meltdown when several pin positions were placed too near to the edges of the greens.

This year's event returns for the 6th time to the much celebrated Pebble Beach Golf Links on the Monterey Peninsula. The facility will be hosting its 100th anniversary since its founding and the pressure will be on the USGA to create a challenge that tests the best players to the max but does not cross lines in which the host site is compromised or called into question.

A trial run was held last year when Pebble played host to the US Amateur. But, the Open is another matter, and getting the course sufficiently firm and fast will be just one of several aspects to watch.

Since the last Open in 2010 the course has been upgraded in several meaningful ways. The putting surface at the par-5 14th was considerably improved to provide other pin locations, and the iconic par-3 17th has had its frontal bunker lowered so that approach shots are possible to hold when the pin is placed on the ultra-demanding left side.

Additional tees have been added at the par-4 9th which can stretch the hole beyond 500 yards. The challenging green at the par-4 13th was also altered by adding 400 square feet to the right side, opening up new pin positions. There's also a frontal tee pad at the par-4 10th which runs parallel to Carmel Bay – it's possible the USGA may opt to use the tee tempting players to drive the 349-yard hole.

Fairway re-positioning at the 6th, 9th and 10th holes (carried out for the 2010 US Open) will be crucial concerns for the competitors in the 2019 event. If Pebble does indeed play fast and firm and if any significant wind blows (as it did for the final round in 1992) then the USGA will need to be especially diligent in ensuring that past failures do not happen at one of golf's most revered courses.

Just recently Mike Davis, CEO for the USGA and point person in setting up Open venues, opted to step aside from his role in preparing the Open venue and that duty will now falls on the shoulders of his number two man John Bodenhamer. All eyes will certainly be watching to see if Pebble Beach is indeed showcased properly.

With Royal Portrush hosting The Open, what will be the reception from players and media on its 2nd Open and first since 1951?

No one specific event is anticipated more than The Open Championship this July at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. For just the second time, the game's oldest major will be played outside Scotland and England.

The famed H.S. Colt design has been slightly modified by architect Martin Ebert and the inclusion of two new holes among the storied layout’s other holes will bear close scrutiny.

Overall yardage was increased from 7,187 to 7,337 yards and the routing of the holes has been smartly modified by Ebert so that the overall integration works very well.

The event is already a sell-out. For a number of years key touring professionals from Ireland (notably Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy) lobbied the R&A to take the plunge and return to Portrush.

So much of any Open rests on the shoulders of Mother Nature. The Antrim Coast weather can quickly turn and the wherewithal to drive the ball will be of prime importance. The Colt design will be displayed to a world that knows little of the layout, but if all goes well, it's very likely this links gem will attain an even higher level of acclaim and become a permanent fixture on The Open rotation.

The stakes are indeed high this coming July.


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