August 26, 2009

Surface Beauty

Liberty National's appeal begins with its views. As some players tell John Hawkins, though, that may be the extent of it

Liberty National is going to look great on TV. Whether that's enough to bring the PGA Tour back is another story.

Liberty National is going to look great on TV. Whether that's enough to bring the PGA Tour back is another story.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Last year's FedEx Cup playoff opener, known commercially as The Barclays, was played at Ridgewood CC, an old-school gem of a layout about 15 miles northwest of New York City. The venue was a big hit among the hard-to-please tour pros who rarely form a consensus opinion on any competitive matter. "It might have been the best course we played all year," said veteran Tom Pernice Jr., a man whose sharp perspective can be overshadowed by a tendency to deliver those thoughts bluntly.

Pernice didn't qualify for the 2009 playoffs, and Ridgewood, for all the acclaim it received, isn't on the postseason schedule. Instead, the PGA Tour has gathered this week at Liberty National, an optical opus spread across a mile of precious real estate at the mouth of the Hudson River, a place where the views are no less staggering than the dollar signs.

The club, which opened in 2006, cost $250 million to complete, with $60 million of that spent on the clubhouse. If there is any way to justify a $500,000 initiation fee, those numbers would probably suffice, and if golf courses were ranked by unique location and the scenery those settings offer, Liberty National would have leapt into the top 10 the day it unlocked its doors.

Fifteen holes serve up an unobstructed visuals of the Statue of Liberty, which stands less than a mile away. The Manhattan skyline provides another glorious backdrop, and the property itself, with its sprawling fescue and linksy disposition, would exceed anyone's physical description of urban New Jersey. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you'd have to try pretty hard not to see the beauty here.

Even those who consider Liberty National unfit for a tour event, much less a tournament of this magnitude, are blown away by the aesthetics. "It's like this beautiful birthday cake you bring into the room and slice into pieces, everyone takes a bite and realizes there's [bleep] inside," is how one player put it, a quote that earned the award for creative criticism of the day among the two dozen or so tour pros and caddies I spoke with Wednesday.

"If it was a fish, I'd throw it back," picked up second place, and though neither player is likely to have made those statements on the record about any course, the tour's sensitivities are particularly high this week. So high that Camp Ponte Vedra has asked those in the field not to make any negative public statements about the design, a Bob Cupp-Tom Kite collaboration with small, very severe greens.

In tourspeak, a finger on the mute button basically amounts to an admission of a mistake. Padraig Harrington and Phil Mickelson are among those who like the layout -- Mickelson joined Liberty National (as a paying member) not long after it opened. Asked what he thought of the Cupp-Kite product Wednesday, Tiger Woods replied, "it's interesting."

In a good way? "It's interesting," he repeated, at which point it became rather clear that Tiger was honoring the tour's speak-no-evil request. What's interesting is that Camp Ponte Vedra would issue such a directive on a venue it is scheduled to play just once. The Barclays will return to Ridgewood next summer, then move to Plainfield CC, which is generally regarded as the second best course in New Jersey, behind Pine Valley. The 2012 event is still supposed to be played at Westchester CC, the original host to this tournament and a regular tour stop from 1967 until the relationship ended acrimoniously in early 2008.

It's hard to imagine the Barclays returning to Westchester, much easier to see the tour or title sponsor throwing a wad of cash at the club and telling it to go away. A lot can happen between now and then. Heck, a lot could happen this week.

The primary concern among players who don't like Liberty National is how a persistent breeze will affect the putting surfaces, which would be difficult in calm conditions. It could get silly, several cautioned, not only in terms of the inability to hold those greens with approach shots, but seeing putts trickle a few inches past the hole, then tumble down a contour and end up 20 yards away.

"Some of the most severe greens are on the longest holes on the course," Woods said. "The holes that are 480 [yards and longer], it's going to be hard to get the ball close."

All first-time sites require a certain amount of guesswork in regard to finding a happy medium between difficult and fair. This week, the tour's guess might be as good as yours.

"I wouldn't say we'll be cautious, but our staff is mindful of the challenges this course presents," said PGA Tour vice president of player relations Sid Wilson, sounding as diplomatic as possible.

Beyond all that, however, is the issue of why the tour is playing here. The Liberty National deal was agreed upon before the Westchester fallout, the idea being that this FedEx Cup playoff event would move around the New York area. The course couldn't have been open even for a year at that point, which suggests this deal was built on something other than the best interests of the competitive standard.

That doesn't mean this week will be a bust, or that a golf course is lousy just because a bunch of tour pros don't like it. Liberty National will play out wonderfully on television, which obviously counts for something, and though the narrow spectator corridors could pose a potential problem -- several players remarked that the galleries are too close to the fairways -- the fact of the matter is, this tournament hasn't drawn well over the years, anyway.

"All the great golf courses in this area, and we're playing this one?" a veteran wondered aloud Wednesday. It's a fair point, but the reality is that very few, if any, of those premier clubs are interested in hosting a tour event, especially in late August. The sacrifice is significant, the payback basically meaningless to memberships that don't need the financial relief and don't want the attention.

Liberty National obviously does. It may be a rich man's playground, but there are bills to pay and members to lure, although it's doubtful many tour pros will follow Mickelson's footsteps. "I had a couple of people tell me I was going to love the course, that it was perfect for me," said one of the game's most successful short hitters. "Now I'm here and I'm wondering what the hell they were talking about."