AAC beautiful but deadly say players

Most players have raved about the new, upgraded Atlanta Athletic Club’s championship course – with reservations.

Most players teeing off in Thursday’s first round of the 93rd US PGA Championship have raved about the beauty and condition of the new, up-graded Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands championship course in Georgia – but with reservations.

Their practice rounds have left many of them somewhat fearful of the last four holes, generally reckoned to be the toughest four holes in the game.

As the PGA.com reported this week, there are no Pebble Beach cliffs or Whistling Straits lakeside vistas at the Atlanta Athletic Club, but the AAC’s Highlands course with its new and unique mix of grasses is one of the most attractive and pristinely manicured golfing tracks in the world.

It’s lush zoyisia-turfed fairways and lightning fast greens have especially impressed the players teeing off on Thursday, most of whom are raving about the course.

“This golf course is in phenomenal condition,” said US Open champion and one of the bookies’ favourites Rory McIlroy.

“The fairways are probably the best I’ve ever seen. Greens are fast. You can’t really get the ball above the hole. I like the way they set the course up here.”

Tiger Woods, a four time PGA champion, said, “It’s in perfect shape.”.

“The fairways are as good as some of the greens we play on,” opined reigning Masters champion Charl Schwartzel. “It’s just so much fun to play a golf course when it’s in such good condition, and the greens are just phenomenal.”

Last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational winner Adam Scott said of it, “Magnificent condition”, Lee Westwood, “Immaculate!”, Luke Donald: “One of the best conditioned courses I’ve ever seen”, defending PGA Champion, Martin Kaymer, “Pure. The golf course is in great shape, so there are no excuses for bad scores,” and Steve Stricker: “The best fairways I’ve ever seen.”

The excitement and high praise tails off, though, when the subject of the last four holes comes up.

Nobody is saying they are not as pristine and immaculate as all the others, but they are saying that starting at the monster par-3 dog-leg 15th that can be stretched to just beyond 260 yards over water and ending with the 507-yard par-4 18th where water guards the left and the front of the green, great danger lies in wait for the unwary and unfocused, notably on the final day when the pressure could have reached boiling point.

McIlroy, who is so long off the tee that he doesn’t see a par 70 golf course measuring 7,467 yards as being especially as long as so many others might, has said of the closing stretch, “You can make a few birdies around the turn but then you’ve sort of just got to hang on for dear life coming in.”

You won’t find too many golfers as expert on tough finishes as Woods so when he says, “I don’t think there’s another stretch that I can remember that’s this difficult coming in,” you have to sit up a take notice.

“You have two long par 4s going uphill; you’ve got a par 3 where guys will be hitting lumber. Obviously 18 being as tight as it is for as long as it is, makes it a hell of a test. If you par those four holes every day, play those 16 holes even par, you’ll be picking up a ton of shots on the guys,” Woods added.

Stricker said of the last four holes: “They are very extreme. They are very long. Any little miss is magnified, especially like at 15 with the water. Eighteen too.”

If there has been any real criticisms of the course it has been directed at the par-3 15th, which is not the same 15th hole that David Toms aced in 2001 on his way to his one-shot victory when the PGA was last played here.

The green is firmer and faster than it was 10 years ago and the bunkers are deeper and positioned to trap more shots, but the real problem here is the extra length (25 yards) that was added to the hole prior to this event.

Stricker said that Mike Small, one of the qualifiers from the PGA National Professional Championship had put it best when he said: “It’s a dogleg par 3. You play to the left if you can hit it in the bunker and then you play onto the green to the right.’ That’s pretty good. But it’s too long. It doesn’t need to be that long. It’s over the top.”

Luke Donald, the reigning World No 1 agreed.

“I’m never a big fan of long par 3s,” the Englishman said “I think some of the world’s greatest par 3s are very short. The seventh at Pebble (Beach), the 12th at Augusta, the Postage Stamp (at Royal Troon), you can keep naming them.

“It just seems like you take a little bit of skill out of it when a hole is that long. But it’s the same for everyone, and I’m going to have to learn to try to love it this week.”

Ten years ago Phil Mickelson birdied the 15th in the final round to grasp a share of the lead, but he then drove his tee shot at the 16th into the deep rough and made a bogey that dropped him back a shot.

Toms played it safe at 18, laid up from the rough and then got up-and-down for a par Mickelson couldn’t better.

Expect more of this see-saw drama this week – and especially on Sunday.