Strategy at Oakland HillsAugust 19, 2016

The alternative way to play Oakland Hills' 18th could impact the outcome of the U.S. Amateur

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Strategy and course management are always key elements of competing in match play. During the 116th U.S. Amateur, however, they take on a new dimension for those locked in close contests at Oakland Hills Country Club.

In matches that reach the South Course’s 18th hole, competitors face a stout par 4 (convert from a par 5 for members) playing 496 yards from the back tee with a fairway narrowed by multiple bunkers on the left and right sides.

The tight drive is tricky enough that some golfers might choose an alternative route, turning right on the tee box and playing instead down the adjacent 10th fairway, back toward the 10th tee box.

The 18th (left) and 10th fairways are separate by a small grove of trees, allowing golfers to hit their drives down either hole when playing the 18th from the back tee.

A handful of players, including quarterfinalist Sahith Theegala, have given this a shot during the first three rounds of match play, feeling that there is a better chance of hitting that fairway as well as believing that the angle for the approach shot is better, particularly when the hole is on the left side of the green.

Ben Kimball, U.S. Amateur Championship director, knew that this was a possibility as he began formulating a plan for setting up the venerable Donald Ross course. However, it wasn’t enough of a concern for him to keep players from trying it.

“Perhaps some Oakland Hills members might not like it,” Kimball said, “but we’re not going to do anything. If they want to give it a shot, so be it.”

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In other words, there will be no Hinkle Tree, a la the 1979 U.S. Open when USGA officials planted a tree in the middle of the championship to prevent Lon Hinkle and other competitors from playing their tee shot on the eighth hole at Inverness Club down the 17th to shorten the hole.

In Kimball’s mind, for many players the risk doesn’t outweigh the reward on Oakland Hills’ 18th. Realistically, he says, it’s an option that only the longest hitters would take advantage of since even if they successfully hit the fairway, they face an approach shot between 160 and 190 yards that must carry a set of tall trees to get to the green. Miss the 10th fairway left, and the ball lands in rough that hasn’t been cut all week, making pars or birdies extremely difficult.

Kimball said the issue also exists on Oakland Hills’ North Course, where the USGA did decide in one instance to create an internal out of bounds to prevent players from taking an alternative route on another hole. According to Kimball, this was due to player-safety issues since the course was being used for stroke-play qualifying.

If the Kimball and the USGA did want to put a stop to this on the South Course’s 18th, they could do so by moving the tee to a more forward location, where trees to the right of the tee prevent a drive down the 10th hole (see below).

By using this more forward tee on the 18th, trees to the right cut off the ability to play down the 10th fairway.

Kimball said he wouldn’t rule out using that forward tee for the next few days (it was used during stroke-play qualifying), but said that the decision would be made to balance the overall length of the course or due to potential weather issues, rather than being direct response to players hitting down the 10th hole.

For Friday afternoons quarterfinals, the back tee is being used, creating a potentially interesting decision for those to step to No. 18 with their matches on the line.

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