In its 14-year history coinciding with the inception of the FedEx Cup in 2007, the BMW Championship has visited eight different venues. This week will bring its ninth in Caves Valley Golf Club, sitting just outside Baltimore in Owings Mills, Md., and hosting its first PGA Tour event.
Caves Valley may be getting its first taste of the tour, but it is no stranger to championship golf. The relatively young club—it opened in 1991—has hosted multiple senior major championships, the LPGA’s inaugural International Crown team event, men’s and women’s NCAA championships, a USGA Mid-Am and several other high-level amateur events.
The most recent championship held at “Caves” (a common shorthand reference) was the 2017 Senior Players Championship, a PGA Tour Champions major where Scott McCarron won over Bernhard Langer and Brandt Jobe by a shot. It’s hard to envision that recent major as an analog for anything we’ll see this week given the differences in setup between the two tours and the explosion in swing speeds and optimization just in the intervening four years.
In that Senior Players, McCarron posted rounds of 67-68-69-66 on the way to an 18-under-par winning score. Since then and with the announcement that the PGA Tour would be coming to Caves, the club built several new tee boxes to add some 250 to 300 yards (this week’s yardage is listed as 7,542), built a few new bunkers, re-built the remaining ones, and strengthened the rough in spots to prepare for most of the best players in the world.
“We’ve lengthened a number of holes by adding new tees and repositioning fairway bunkers so that relative to the distances that everybody is hitting it now, the golf course plays the way it was designed to play,” said Bernie Najar, Caves Valley’s Director of Instruction. “That coupled with every bunker has been re-done … the new tee boxes and new bunkers all have the latest and greatest technology for drainage. We pretty much did a massive renovation in partnership with the PGA Tour to put together a phenomenal experience for the players and the fans.”
With its trove of shot data, the tour provided some insights for the renovation work in advance of the BMW Championship. “So it’s all been scaled accordingly,” Najar said. “They have GPS to really help with the renovations to show where the players hit it and where these bunkers need to go. And at the same time, it’s made our golf course more member-friendly from the standpoint that they are not driving it into certain bunkers that they used to.”
The par-4 ninth hole at Caves Valley will play as the 18th hole during the BMW Championship. Najar said he thought it could be the toughest driving hole, and even "the longest hitter in the world couldn’t cover the last bunker."
Caves was designed by Tom Fazio, an architect not unfamiliar to the tour and its talents. These players see Fazio’s work at majors and often on tour at places like Quail Hollow and when the BMW was played at Conway Farms, or in the most recent years at Shadow Creek and Congaree. The nines have been flipped for the tour event, with the BMW back nine coming on the more open and less tree-lined portion of the course where fans and grandstands will have vistas of multiple holes. Like some of those aforementioned Fazios, and with bunkers that have been re-done at a place with significant resources almost exclusively earmarked to golf, it will look impressive on television. It should not be a dramatic departure from what these tour players see most weeks and the television product that viewers get on tour.
The course is firmer and faster than it was for the 2017 Senior Players, but rainfall over the last 10 days in the area will make it challenging to dial that all the way up this week. Expect plenty of birdies, and right out of the gate with the nines flipped. “You’re going to see some drivable par 4s, which are always fun to watch,” Najar said. “The guys are actually starting on a potentially drivable par 4, our 10th hole [playing as No. 1 for the BMW]. I think you’ll see some quick starts because they play 10, which is drivable, 11 is a par 5, 13 is a par 5, and 14 is a drivable par 4. So I think you’re going to see some low scoring. You’re going to see a lot of fun shots hit because there is some risk-reward. And then you’re also going to see some classic design that makes the players play the quality of golf shots you need to on the long par 4s and a par 3s to be in contention. But there will definitely be a lot of birdies made.”
When it’s not hosting a tour event, golf is always the primary focus at this club. The membership is exclusive, to be sure, invite-only and reportedly capped at 600, many of whom are out-of-town folks with status, as they say. It’s welcoming once you’re on the grounds and everything is done to ensure you, the golfer, can enjoy a day in golf “fairytale land,” as Najar put it. Dennis Satyshur, a former Duke quarterback and something of a legend among the club pro ranks, has been the Director of Golf since the club opened in 1991 and established much of the golf culture there (Jim Nantz mentioned during Monday’s broadcast of The Northern Trust that Satyshur would be retiring in the fall).
Part of that culture is the “CV” landscape logo, which is often noted for its ubiquity both on the grounds and off. It’s a phenomenon you hear repeatedly about Caves, and it’s become a point of amusement and pride. Najar said every member “flies the flag” when on property and speaking anecdotally, the Caves logo is certainly among the most frequent you’ll see pop up at golf courses or randomly outside the ropes at events around the country.
Najar has been in the Director of Instruction role for a decade, working with elite talents from the junior level on up and counts Kyle Berkshire, the World Long Drive champ among his pupils. Najar recently went out with Berkshire and put him on the back of every tee box with a “normal” 45-inch driver, to get a frame of reference on where some of the biggest hitters on tour might be putting their tee shots. “Nobody hits it as far as Kyle but seeing where he was hitting it was helpful in that I know he’s 25 yards past Bryson,” he said. “So I could see where Bryson is going to be and certainly the bombers.
“It’s going to be a shootout so you’re going to have to take some risks out there,” Najar continued. “I think it’s going to be someone, in my opinion, that hits it plenty far. I think, overall, a righty who fades the ball has a slight advantage, just the way the golf course is. There are certain shots that are easier to fade. It’s going to be like every week out there, the guy who is controlling their distance has the best chance.”
The course may be new to the tour, but it’s not new to everyone in the field. Georgia won the 2005 men’s NCAA Championship here, and the roster included Kevin Kisner and Chris Kirk, 31st and 60th in the playoff standings, respectively. A college event 16 years ago probably does not yield any great advantage and given the familiarity with the architect and style of test, the top 70 should be able to scout and adjust even with the shortened prep week thanks to the weather-delayed finish at The Northern Trust.
Georgia won the 2005 NCAA mens' team title at Caves Valley with a line-up that included Chris Kirk (second from left), Brendon Todd (fourth from left) and Kevin Kisner (far right). Kirk and Kisner are competing at the BMW Championship. (Photo courtesy of the Georgia Athletics)
The BMW Championship’s roots lie in the old Western Open and the Western Golf Association still helps manage the event. The organization’s orbit is generally thought to be the Midwest, with the center being Chicago. The BMW has kept Chicago as a quasi-home base while rotating around the Midwest and going as far east as Philadelphia. But this is the start of a two-year run on the East Coast, with Baltimore hosting this year and a trip to Wilmington, Del. on the schedule next year. That hiatus from the Chicago area and Midwest does not quite approximate the intermission since Baltimore has hosted an event like this, and the locals will be ready.
“We haven’t had a professional golf [PGA Tour] event in Baltimore in 60 years so it’s pretty big for Charm City,” Najar said. “And I think we’re going to see some of the best in action play one of the most enjoyable golf courses you’ll play anywhere.”