'It's a great championship golf course," Steve Stricker said this week of the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, where the Tour Championship that will end the FedEx Cup starts today. Stricker is second in FedEx points, behind Tiger Woods.
But is it? Is East Lake even a championship course, let alone a great one? Robert Trent Jones Jr., whose brother Rees worked on East Lake during the mid-1990s, said from his office in Palo Alto, Calif., that a course has to have held a championship to be so designated. Makes sense. Logical.
East Lake staged the 1959 U.S. Women's Amateur, and the 2001 U.S. Amateur. Those events are considered legitimate championships.
The U.S. Amateur is one of the most important national championships in the game. Woods won three in a row. Canadians Sandy Somerville and Gary Cowan won the U.S. Amateur. Cowan won two, in fact. Marlene Streit, Canada's only member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, has won the U.S. Women's Amateur.
East Lake, then, qualifies as a championship course. But great, as Stricker said?
The legendary amateur Bobby Jones, co-founder of the Augusta National Golf Club 250 kilometres to the east in Augusta, Ga., referred to it as "one of my favourite courses anywhere in the world" after architect Donald Ross designed a new 18 holes in 1913 on the original site. East Lake was Jones's home club.
But the course deteriorated over the years, and wasn't very popular even when it played host to the 1963 Ryder Cup. Architect George Cobb, a friend of Jones and a consultant to Augusta National during the 1950s and 1960s, had tried to update the course, but apparently his work wasn't impressive.
The course and club continued to fall apart, so much so that the clubhouse in 1980 appeared almost haunted. Not much golf was being played at East Lake in those days. Then, in 1993, Atlanta developer Tom Cousins, an avid golfer and Jones aficionado, bought the club.
Cousins soon brought in Rees Jones to do one of those revisions that try to both make a course relevant for long hitters in the modern game and to restore its classic dimensions. That was in the mid-1990s, by which time Jones was already establishing his reputation as the "Open doctor" for work on U.S. Open courses.
The club staged the Tour Championship for the first time in 1998, and in 2004 the PGA Tour named it the permanent home for the tournament. East Lake hardly has Augusta National's name recognition, but it's become associated with the Tour Championship in the same was the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont., was the Canadian Open's all-but-permanent home from 1977 through 2000.
The fifth and 10th holes have been shortened so that they can play as par-fours rather than par-fives. This is de rigueur for modern tournaments, and part of the picture is a par-four more than 500 yards. That's the fifth, which will play shorter because the fairway slopes downhill once the tee shot lands. But what really makes East Lake work are its elevation changes, especially on the back nine.
The last hole, a slightly uphill par-three of 232 yards, is memorable. It's unusual but not unheard of for a championship course to end with a par-three. The Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where Ernie Els won the 1997 U.S. Open, ended with a par-three that year. That's no longer the case.
Meanwhile, the Royal Lytham & St Annes Golf Club in England, the venue for 10 Open Championships, starts with a par-five. So starting or ending with such a hole, while so unusual as to be rare, doesn't disqualify a course from staging championships.
East Lake's finisher is very strong, and the course routing should never be changed so that it's not the last hole.
"I really think it's a great finishing hole," Stricker said. "It's a long iron, utility club for me probably. ... I think it provides a lot of drama."
Long irons or utility clubs to final greens are almost unheard of in today's world of tournament golf. Sure, the player gets to tee up his ball on a par-three, but a lot more can go wrong with a longer club than a shorter one.
The Tour Championship winner will get $1.35-million (all currency U.S.). The FedEx Cup champion, recognizing the winner of a season-long race, will win a bonus $10-million. Sure, the money is obscene, but there's the possibility of high drama should a player come to the last hole needing a par to win either, or both.
East Lake isn't Augusta National, but it's proven itself as a championship course before and will probably do so again this week.
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