August 24, 2009

Extreme Makeover

Once a toxic waste dump, Liberty National now gets a chance to prove itself as a PGA Tour venue

The unique views at Liberty National were an immediate selling point to the PGA Tour.

The unique views at Liberty National were an immediate selling point to the PGA Tour.

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Draped by the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, it's actually not hard to see why Tom Kite and Bob Cupp fell in love with the idea of designing a golf course on a toxic waste dump formally known as "Craven Point".

After 17 years of headaches that ranged from old warehouses on the property, contamination from discarded oil tanks and toxic runoff from nearby refineries, the two designers were finally able to come up with a finished project in 2006.

The result is a breed of golf course that hasn't been seen before, and one that beginning Thursday will host The Barclays, the first event in the FedEx Cup playoffs. Unlike most of the courses in the Northeast that were built and designed around the beauty and topography of the land, Liberty National stands as a venue that could be the future of golf course designs.

"Whether you like it, don't like it, or are indifferent about it, everything out there's one hundred percent man-made. There's nothing out there that's natural," Kite, the Hall of Fame player who will turn 60 in December. "The big thing in today's golf course design is to find a great piece of property and touch it as little as possible. This is light years on the other side of the spectrum from that. Everything has been created, and those guys that are in to that type of design and working with pristine pieces of property, they would have run away from this site as quickly as [Usain] Bolt runs."

The hurdles the course had to clear over the past 17 years are especially remarkable when considering the finished product in many ways resembles a reproduction of western Scotland – albeit one that rests on a foundation of sand, plastic, and at its core, toxic waste.

But if there's one major hurdle the course still has to clear, it's getting a passing grade from the toughest critics of all: the PGA Tour, specifically the 124 (Paul Casey withdrew from the event) players teeing it up this week in The Barclays.

While the views of the Status of Liberty, Manhattan skyline and other major landmarks give the PGA Tour and television the perfect backdrop for the playoff opener, the course itself will ultimately decide whether Liberty National sinks or swims as a future tour stop.

A majority of the field is seeing the course for the first time this week, and the two remarks that keep coming up in conversations are the severely sloped greens and tight layout.

"The first time I saw was [Sunday], and I liked the golf course overall," said Dustin Johnson, currently ranked 19th on the FedEx Cup points list. "It's really tricky around the greens and the fairways are really, really narrow. You're not going to be able to fake it around the golf course. There's water on almost every hole."

"Faking" it around Liberty National won't be an option. The rain the course has received over the past month has considerably softened up the fairways and the greens on the 7,419-yard layout. But if the current weather conditions continue to dry up the course, the venue could end up playing the way Kite and Cupp envisioned it would as a hard and fast links-style layout.

Most tournament courses have at least five to 10 years to get their feet under them before hosting a major event. Liberty National, on the other hand, is being thrust into the spotlight just three years after the course was completed. And while things appear to look near completion at first glance, there are still a number of projects that have yet to be finished.

"The "pit," an area that sits some three-to-four stories below the clubhouse, is the future home of the club's underground parking garage and mid-rise apartments that will someday be built on top of the garage. For now the area is home this week to the media center and player parking. There were certain things that couldn't be completed before Tim Finchem gave the course the chance to join the FedEx Cup playoff rotation.

"I don't know what happened between the Tour, Barclays and Westchester (Country Club in Harrison, N.Y., the tournament's exclusive home from 1967-2007) to cause the tournament to move, but (Tim Finchem) actually came to me and said could Liberty host The Barclays in 2008," Kite said. "Well, we didn't have a clubhouse. It was still under construction, so that was not a consideration. So he said he'd love to move the tournament here in 2009, and everyone tried really hard to make it happen."

It's clear the tour is considering the idea of making Liberty National a regular part of a rotation in the New York metropolitan area. A press release by the PGA Tour on Monday announced that Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., and Plainfield Country Club in Edison, N.J., will host the event in 2010 and 2011 respectively, but the event's future is unclear after that. The tour also has a contract with Westchester to bring the event back there once before 2012, but there was no mention of Westchester in the release.

Regardless of how it plays out, Kite made it clear he'd love to be part of the rotation.

"Personally as far as Bob [Cupp] and I are concerned, we'd love to see Liberty included in that rotation," Kite said. "They haven't given us any commitments yet because this is a test run. So probably in the near future, probably after Sunday they'll be able to give us a grade and tell us if we passed."

Whatever happens this week at Liberty National, most know the venue will be graded more on the course layout itself than the million-dollar views and state-of-the-art facilities. And Kite understands that not everyone will walk away a fan of the site.

"Will there be some bitching and crying this week? Yeah," Kite said. "I'm part of that group. We're PGA professionals. That's part of our job description,that you've got to be able to bitch a little bit. If you can't do it, you can't get your tour card. We expect a little bit of that this week, but that's fine with me."