RBC Heritage

Harbour Town Golf Links

The Loop

Sand awaits at Atlanta Athletic Club

August 12, 2011

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- A series of bunkers guard the right side of the 18th fairway on the Highlands course at Atlanta Athletic Club. If a player over-protects from going into the water flanking the left side of the 507-yard par 4, the sand awaits.


Dustin Johnson hits his second shot from a fairway bunker on the 18th hole. (Photo by Getty Images)

Friday, for the second round in a row at the 93rd PGA Championship, Jason Day's tee shot finished in one of those bunkers. In contrast to the opening round, when he went for the green and found the water short of the green en route to a double-bogey 6, Day attempted to wedge out of the sand but his ball carried too far and went into the pond on the left side of the fairway. The result: another double bogey.

When the talk hasn't been about Steve Stricker, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlory or how good the fairway grass and greens are at Atlanta AC, the fairway bunkers have been a pretty good conversation piece at the PGA. As Day and many other players have discovered, the bunkers are playing more like the hazards they are than the easy escapes many tour bunkers turn out to be.

Woods, was in 14 bunkers while shooting a first-round 77, one of them to the right of the fairway on the 512-yard second hole. He appeared to have one of those lies that Furyk was talking about - the ball sitting down just a bit. "Get down now!" Woods said as soon as his approach took flight toward another bunker left of the green. From that greenside position, he barely exploded out of the trap and had to  get up-and-down from the fringe for a bogey.

In his first-round 69, Stewart Cink discovered a variety of fates in the fairway bunkers. On the 10th hole he hit an 8-iron to six feet and made birdie. On the par-5 12th, his driver finished in a fried-egg lie from which he had to blast back to the fairway (he still made a birdie).

"You almost never get a good lie in a fairway bunker," Cink said. "It's fair, because it's not supposed to be easy. They're not as tough as [the bunkers] at St. Andrews. At St. Andrews, you get great lies, but you've got a lip about six feet high in front of you. So, they're not as hard as those. [Here] you'd still proably rather be in a bunker rather than in a deep lie in the rough, but you'd probably rather be in the rough if you don't have a bad lie."

In Furyk's estimation, "the fairway bunkers are sometimes maybe a little worse [penalty] than the rough, to be honest with you."

Unlike Muirfield Village GC, which experimented with rakes featuring wider-spaced tines in 2006 for the Memorial tournament - a trial which produced unhappy reviews from the golfers - Atlanta AC's bunkers are groomed normally, which is to say, smooth, but the sand's texture is causing the headaches.

"The greenside bunkers and the fairway bunkers match, there's a firm base but [they have] a really soft top and the ball never really sits very pretty," observed Jim Furyk. "You can hit a pretty good shot from the greenside bunkers because of that base, but in the fairway bunkers the ball is sitting down a little bit. Either [because] of the type of sand or the way the sand is manicured, there's a fluffy top and the ball sinks down into it."

If Jack Nicklaus, the founder of the Memorial is watching any of this week's PGA, he might be pleased. When he tried to put the bite back into Muirfield Village's bunkers for his tournament with a modest furrowing effect, he wanted to create some anxiety and uncertainty for players who had grown accustomed to perfect lies and few consequences.

"I just want them to say, 'I'm not really sure I want to be in there,' " Nicklaus said in 2007.

Without a doubt, golfers are mouthing those words - or muttering worse - this week about the sands of Atlanta AC.

Fairway bunkers might often be a "good miss" for tour pros, but not necessarily this week. Just ask Jason Day.

--Bill Fields