Design integrity be damned. Hazeltine National has been re-routed for the Ryder Cup.
Golf architects often lay out designs in the manner of a symphonic composition, in varying movements, a gentle sonata to open, then a series of bold holes intermixed with quieter ones, intensity building on the back nine to achieve a crescendo on the final holes.
Officials who run golf championships are pretty much tone-deaf to such subtleties. They think nothing of reconfiguring an 18 for logistical reasons, with little regard to the ebb and flow of the original design.
The 7,628-yard Hazeltine National Golf Club is a perfect example. For the 2016 Ryder Cup, officials have set it up so competitors will play the first four holes, then skip over to the normal back nine for the next five holes (see map below). That means the 352-yard 14th, potentially drivable for some, will play as the fifth hole in the Ryder Cup, and the 642-yard 15th will be the sixth. It means the gorgeous par-4 16th, which runs along the shoreline of Lake Hazeltine and figured prominently in Payne Stewart's 1991 U.S. Open playoff victory over Scott Simpson, will be the seventh hole during the matches. And the uphill, 475-yard, par-4 18th, where Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang celebrated PGA Championship victories over Tiger Woods, is the ninth hole for the Ryder Cup.
The routing reverts to form on holes 10 through 13, and then there's another switch. Holes five through nine will play as 14 through 18.
It's still a dramatic finish, particularly for match play, with ponds guarding greens on the par-4 15th (normally No. 6), the par-5 16th (No. 7) and par-3 17th (No. 8). Plus, the uphill par-4 18th (previously No. 9), almost 50 yards shorter than the real 18th, could yield a victorious birdie, should any match make it that far.
Still, it seems baffling that an 18-hole routing that has hosted national championships since the 1960s suddenly needed reconfiguration. (Granted, original architect Robert Trent Jones did some major reconfiguration of his own in the 1970s.) Was this year's reshuffling done for match-play purposes?
No, says Jeffrey Hintz, director of the 2016 Ryder Cup. "The switch was made because holes 7 through 9 are closer to spectator exits and are more open for visibility late in the day," he says.
So they compromised the design integrity of Hazeltine so that spectators can get back to buses and parking lots before darkness? Don't believe it.
The business of second-guessing a golf architect dates as far back as the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club near Boston. Rejiggering holes has also been prevalent at Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago and TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, where changes for the 2009 Presidents Cup were made in part for corporate hospitality tents.
Therein lies the secret behind Hazeltine's gerrymandered layout. It's not about accommodating spectators. It's about money. The regular 16th is isolated down a hill on a ledge along the lake, with little room for a corporate tent near the fairway. The normal 17th is heavily treed. But there's oodles of room to place tents along the par-5 seventh (the Ryder Cup 16th) and par-3 eighth (the 17th). That's the driving force behind flip-flopping holes on a championship course.
Where golf architects hear an allegro and an adagio, championship officials hear cash registers.