September 28, 2009

Crossover Appeal

Harding Park will test Presidents Cup competitors with a mix-and-match lineup of holes that should produce drama--and confuse regulars at the San Francisco muny

numbers game: The normal 18th hole, a classic 468-yard par 4, will be No. 15 for the Presidents Cup to ensure that more matches will experience it.

numbers game: The normal 18th hole, a classic 468-yard par 4, will be No. 15 for the Presidents Cup to ensure that more matches will experience it.

The Presidents Cup really isn't played on an 18-hole course.

That was the conclusion of the PGA Tour's Mike Bodney, senior VP of the Presidents Cup, after he studied the statistics of the seven previous competitions between the American and International teams. What Bodney found was the typical Presidents Cup match ended after 16.3 holes.

That posed a quandary for Bodney when he considered how to set up San Francisco's Harding Park GC for this year's event, which will be contested Oct. 8-11. Harding's 18th is an all-world par 4, a dogleg-left over a cove of Lake Merced, with the tee on one bluff, a fairway rolling up another bluff and the challenge of biting off all that you dare to have a shorter approach into a plateau green. Measuring 468 yards on the scorecard, Harding's 18th can play much shorter for those with the gumption to risk all. It's the stuff of posters and calendars and textbooks on golf architecture, the epitome of the classic "cape" style par 4.

What a pity that most Presidents Cup matches would probably never even reach the 18th tee.

What a pity, too, Bodney thought, that he couldn't sell big-ticket corporate hospitality tents along the entire right side of the dramatic, scenic 18th. Nobody shells out big bucks for a grandstand around the corner and a block away from the big parade.

So Bodney decided the PGA Tour had to figure out a way to get that fantastic finish into the Presidents Cup action. The simplest solution would have been to switch the front and back nines. Harding Park's opening nine spirals in counterclockwise fashion through the gently rolling center of the property, while its back nine marches clockwise around the perimeter of the site, with more changes in elevation. But that would have made Harding's 18th play as the ninth, way too early in the rotation to have a genuine impact on most matches and far too early to position skyboxes.

No, the 18th had to fit somewhere in the back nine, ideally as hole No. 16.3, so it could host the climax of most matches. Luckily for Bodney, Harding Park's routing—done by Scottish designer Willie Watson in 1924 and faithfully preserved during an expensive 2002 remodeling by then in-house PGA Tour designer Chris Gray and former USGA president Sandy Tatum—allowed several opportunities for "crossovers." Bodney realized if he started play on the back nine, he could switch after a few holes to some on the front nine, then back again. He could switch back and forth two or three times in order to come up with the perfect match-play course. Try that at your local layout. Or Augusta National.

Viola! Harding's 10th becomes the first hole—a 562-yard par 5 that makes for a good start in match play—the 11th becomes the second, the 12th the third and the 13th the fourth. But then comes the first crossover. Instead of heading to the 14th, Bodney made the 606-yard, par-5 fourth hole into the fifth hole for the Presidents Cup, the fifth into the sixth and the sixth into the seventh. But then he made the second hole into the eighth and the par-3 third into the ninth. (Sound confusing? It is only if you're a regular player at Harding Park trying to follow play in person or on television. You'll be lost without consulting a Presidents Cup map.)

"The only thing we're not really happy about with the rerouting is that we now have two long walks between holes," Bodney said recently. "We tried to avoid that, but we couldn't." It's about 150 yards from the ninth green (Harding's normal third) to the 10th tee (the usual 14th) and another 100 yards—uphill—from the 10th green (the 14th green) to the 11th tee (the par-3 eighth).

The result of all this flip-flopping, re-shuffling and gerrymandering is Harding's 18th will be the 15th hole for the Presidents Cup, perfectly positioned statistically, strategically and socially. It will be a definite crowd-pleaser. Depending upon wind conditions and tee location (the tee might be moved up for some matches), players may well try to drive within sand-wedge distance of the green. (Recall the efforts of Tiger Woods and John Daly in their battle at the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship when the 18th was indeed the 18th.) An added bonus is the recent removal of many Monterey pines and cypress trees that had grown along the rim of the lake bluff left of the fairway and obscured a view of the green from the tee. Many were taken down last spring and summer—part of a massive clean-up of trees by the San Francisco parks department following a Christmas Day storm last year. (The storm knocked tree branches through the roof of the temporary building housing the Presidents Cup headquarters.) The PGA Tour didn't request the tree removal, but Bodney isn't sorry they're gone. The entire 15th is now much more visible for spectators, and the enticement to players to cut the extreme corner is heightened.

Harding Park

The holes leading up to the 15th are pretty exciting, too.  The 13th (normally the 16th) is a 336-yard, drivable par 4 menaced by several bunkers, overhanging trees and Lake Merced far left. It's so attractive that some corporate hospitality tents were sold along its fairway. The 14th (nee 17th) is a short but tricky 164-yard par 3. Bodney thinks the trio of 13 through 15 could provide a flurry of birdies that might close out most matches.

So what are the final three holes at Harding Park this week? What did Bodney choose to play the role of lame ducks traditionally seeing little Presidents Cup traffic?  Actually, the final three holes could see plenty of birdies, too, if anybody reaches them.

In Bodney's re-numbering, the 393-yard first hole becomes the 16th. It has no fairway bunkers, just one greenside bunker and a docile putting surface, and is thus ripe for picking. The seventh will play as the 17th. Although slightly uphill, at 344 yards it will be another reachable par 4. And Harding's ninth hole, a par 5 of 525 yards from a newly installed tee, will play as the 18th. Bodney expects most to be able to reach the green with no more than a long iron.

So the last three holes potentially contain plenty of fireworks for those matches that reach them. But they are far less visually attractive than Harding's normal closing threesome, so there's no high-dollar hospitality tents along any of them. Just some bleachers for the most hopeful of fans.

There are concerns regarding Harding Park, from its compressed, landlocked location (rearrange the name Harding Park and you get Hard Parking) to the absence of a first-class practice range (they'll use a narrow fairway from Harding's short nine-hole Fleming Course as a warm-up range) to its less-than-flawless conditioning (they've cut back on the usual 250 daily rounds of public play leading up to the event, but some hackers will still be chopping it up right to the last week of September).

The biggest concern is Harding's greens. Last winter some PGA Tour players stopped by and pronounced the Poa annua surfaces mediocre, but, of course, it was winter. However, in July, a misapplication of fertilizer damaged five greens to such an extent that portions of them had to be resodded. They should be in fine shape by the matches, but such a mishap shouldn't happen in the first place.

All of that—the scrambled routing, the distant parking, the patched-up putting surfaces—will be secondary once the games begin. Because in match play, the venue is secondary. As the PGA Tour's Bodney figured out, they don't even need a full 18 holes to hold a Presidents Cup.