Author: Sam Gemini
MADISON– In a season that has been utterly bizarre for sports worldwide, the PGA Tour’s season-long race for the FedEx Cup has reached its climax. This Thursday, the Tour’s top thirty will step up to the tee at the beautiful East Lake Golf Club to compete for the “Ultimate Prize.”
Located on the outskirts of Atlanta, the original Tom Bendelow layout for East Lake opened in 1904 only to be briskly redesigned by the Obi-Wan Kenobi of golf course design, Donald Ross, in 1913. The Rees Jones restoration of 1994 was the final stepping stone to the immaculately groomed track we see today.
East Lake encompasses everything that gets traditionalists like myself going: It is over 100 years old, and it has been the permanent home of the Tour Championship since 2005. The deep white-sand bunkers, narrow fairways, and rolling hills that define East Lake mark the classic style of the early twentieth century.
As someone who enjoys criticizing the foolish tackiness of many a modern golf course, I take great displeasure in proclaiming that there is very little to complain about this week; East Lake is a masterpiece. The scenery alone is enchanting: Tall Georgia pines frame the holes not hugging the sparkling lake for which the club is named, and dramatic elevation changes provide outstanding views. However, a golf course must do more than bat its eyelashes if it wants to be judged alongside the Augustas and the Oakmonts.
The greatest designs are grueling, even torturous layouts. While East Lake is not as likely to drive you to hurl your clubs into the lake and jump in after them as, say, Pinehurst No. 2, it is still good for multiple angry attempts at stabbing the flagstick back into the hole (occasionally missing and putting an obnoxious gouge in the pristine putting surface). The slightest miss to the left or right of the small fairways and greens are likely to find the bottom of a cavernous sand trap; those that are “lucky” enough to evade these traps won’t find much relief in the gnarly, spongy Cacuya rough. And the course isn’t exactly short; you’d think that the peninsula green at the par-three sixth wouldn’t need a tee box situated 240 yards away.
My only gripe is not with the golf course itself, but with the PGA’s setup. In an effort to create a more exciting finish, the PGA flipped the nines so that the tournament will finish on the par-five ninth instead of the par-three eighteenth. This change in routing may seem insignificant, but one must consider that when a great layout is designed, the designer creates a specific and deliberate sequence from hole one to hole eighteen. The round is supposed to begin, progress, and finish a certain way. Think of a golf course like a Broadway musical: No theatre would ever perform the second half of a musical first and the first half second because they feel that the first half has more exciting songs.
The true routing begins with 4 mysterious holes, not allowing the golfers even a glimpse of the lake until they reach the top of a hill on the par-five fifth (played as a long par-four for the tournament). Once the lake is revealed, however, the golfers soon grow resentful toward it as they attempt to hit the difficult peninsula green at the sixth. The layout’s unorthodox finish includes two good, difficult par-fours in the sixteenth and seventeenth (many will remember the clutch third shot Bill Haas played out of the lake itself on the seventeenth en route to the 2011 FedEx Cup title) and a brawny 232-yard par-three eighteenth.
This highly unique finishing hole, played over the glittering lake and up a steep hill, has defined East Lake Golf Club for decades. I understand the PGA’s desire to have the Championship conclude with a dramatic par-five, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that the beloved quirky finish to the venerable track has been forgotten. The two easy par-fours and the par-five that now represent the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth make for an extremely generic and, in my opinion, cheesy finish.
This aside, the Tour Championship is a well-run tournament, and East Lake never fails to test the world’s top golfers. I give the course a strong eight out of ten for all three categories: beauty, difficulty, and design quality.