All Grown Up

August 04, 2009

No. 16 The 402-yard par 4 is the rare championship hole that needs no bunkers to make it challenging.

It's time to focus on the future of Hazeltine National Golf Club, time to forget about its imperfect, impetuous early days.

Sure, Hazeltine, which hosts its fourth men's major with the PGA Championship Aug. 13-16, was not ready for its first major. Club founder Totton Heffelfinger (a former United States Golf Association president) strong-armed the USGA into holding the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine when it was just eight years old, a curious Robert Trent Jones design with a bunch of blind tee shots, 90-degree doglegs and saplings still wet beneath their boughs.

The present Hazeltine National no longer resembles the course that prompted diatribes from runner-up Dave Hill and others (see "Growing pains"). Every hole has been rebuilt at least once, and a handful were replaced entirely by Trent Jones in 1979. Heck, for this year's field, even Payne Stewart's victory at the remodeled-but-still-maturing Hazeltine in the 1991 U.S. Open, in a rather putrid playoff over Scott Simpson (75-77), is just a vague memory, something that happened when some of today's players were in grade school.

There's talk of Hazeltine installing a plaque to commemorate Tiger's shot in 2002, even though he didn't win.'

Today's players know Hazeltine National only as a mature, fair-in-fair-weather, fickle-in-foul-weather championship test. A couple in the field might have played it as recently as the 2006 U.S. Amateur, when the wind blew from every direction. A few more remember it as a brute from the 1999 NCAA championship, particularly Luke Donald, who took medalist honors, and Ryuji Imada, whose final-round 67 led his Georgia team to the title over the likes of Oklahoma State (Charles Howell III), Arizona State (Paul Casey) and UNLV (Adam Scott).

Most will know Hazeltine from the 2002 PGA Championship, won by Rich Beem over Tiger Woods, who birdied the final four holes but fell one stroke short. Beem won at 10 under par, but only eight others broke par 288 that week, including third-round leader Justin Leonard, sixth-place finisher Rocco Mediate and former PGA champ Vijay Singh.

"You can't be that aggressive on this golf course," Tiger said. "You still have to play conservative and play smart."

"A ball-striker's dream," said Ernie Els.

"Really a wonderful setup, testing all the elements of a player's game," said Phil Mickelson, who, like Els, finished six over.

The Hazeltine National of today is even better than it was in 2002. Ranked No. 91 on Golf Digest's list of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, it has been refined in recent years by architect Rees Jones, younger son of Trent Jones. It's now a heavyweight golf course, says Hazeltine's club professional, Mike Schultz. "It's brawny and keeps coming at you," he says. "That's not to say that to beat it you don't need some finesse."

It's brawny mainly because of additional length. New back tees stretch Hazeltine to a boggling 7,674 yards, par 72, but it will probably play at about 7,400 yards during the PGA. Jones added sufficient flexibility to the tee boxes so that officials will have the ability to adjust markers to prevailing wind conditions -- something we're seeing more and more in major championships -- moving the markers up a bit on the 475-yard 18th, for instance, if it's into a stiff breeze.

Jones says several new tees are intended to bring ground features back into play. "Sideslopes," he calls the natural folds in the land utilized by his father in the original design. Those slopes were easily carried back in 2002, but they won't be this year. One example: The crest in the landing area on the 18th conceals a sideslope that will slide booming tee shots down into the right-hand rough.

Jones has re-bunkered most of the course, shifting fairway bunkers to place more demands on tee shots and moving many greenside bunkers closer to collars. (The greens remain untouched from 2002. They're good-size targets with subtle rolls and some puzzling contours. The back-left corner of the seventh green, for instance, seems to break uphill. All greens are scheduled to be rebuilt from the roots up this fall, in preparation for Hazeltine's next big event, the 2016 Ryder Cup.)

Jones has made very few changes to Hazeltine's closing holes, none on the 16th, a pivotal par 4 in the '91 Open and '02 PGA, where the tee shot is pinched by Lake Hazeltine on the right and a stream on the left, and the green sits on a peninsula in the lake. There have been no changes at all on the 182-yard 17th, converted in '79 from a terrible par 4 with a humpbacked fairway to a pretty but bland par 3.

He did remove a fairway bunker on the long, uphill 18th, and reshape other bunkers on what has evolved into a very strong closing hole. But Jones was not allowed to remodel the far-left lobe of one left-hand bunker on the 18th, or cut down a tree that sits between it and the green, for that matter. That's because it's the bunker from which Tiger Woods, in an early-Saturday-morning conclusion of a rain-delayed second round in 2002, with the ball hanging below his feet, his heels against the face of the bunker, played a stunning 202-yard 3-iron that cleared the lip and trees and faded through heavy wind within 12 feet of the pin. He made the putt for his birdie, then called it "one of the best shots I've ever hit."

There's talk at Hazeltine of installing a plaque near that bunker to commemorate that shot, even though Tiger didn't win the championship in 2002. There is a precedent for such hero worship. A plaque on the 18th at Pecan Valley in San Antonio commemorates similar theatrics by Arnold Palmer in the last round of the 1968 PGA Championship, despite the fact that Arnie finished second to Julius Boros.

If Tiger wins the PGA this time, the plaque will undoubtedly be installed. There are some parts of its history Hazeltine National doesn't want to forget.


Hazeltine National Golf Club opened in 1962 in Chaska, Minn., about 25 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis, and gained notoriety during the 1970 U.S. Open.

Tony Jacklin finished at seven under to win by seven, but the young course was widely criticized. The wind blew 40 miles per hour for most of the first round, when only 81 players in the field of 150 broke 80. Frank Hannigan, then a USGA official, remembers Sam Snead trying to get disqualified after his 79 by not signing his scorecard before Lee Trevino called him back. "If I've gotta come back here tomorrow," Trevino said, "he's coming back, too."

Dave Hill was the runner-up, but after a second-round 69 he had lunch and "a couple of vodkas" before going to the interview room and making the following comments: "Just because you cut the grass and put up flags doesn't mean you have a golf course. . . . What it lacks is 80 acres and a few cows. . . . They ruined a good farm."

Years later, Hill told Golf Digest his comments were "tongue in cheek . . . [The writers] were laughing their tails off in the pressroom. They were rolling on the floor. It was fun. But man, when they wrote it . . . "