SPRINGFIELD, NJ. Eleven years have passed since Baltusrol Lower hosted the ’05 PGA Championship. Getting off to a good start is essential. Four of the first seven holes are long par-4’s – each possesses specific attributes and challenges. Beginning a round in fine form can help propel any competitor to be in a much stronger position as the round proceeds.
Baltusrol Golf Club has two 18-hole layouts and the famed Lower Course will once again serve as the host site for this week’s PGA. In all of championship golf — only the Lower ends with two par-5 holes. No lead — whatever the margin — is ever safe. The famed long par-5 17th was reached for the first time in two shots by John Daly in the ’93 US Open but likely will be a three-shot hole for nearly all the field. The closing 18th is also full of risks and rewards and exciting swing changes — eagles can be made — so can double-bogeys.
More than anything else — Baltusrol Lower requires patience – knowing when to be aggressive and when to demonstrate caution. The classic design of A.W. Tillinghast — with recent upgrades by noted architect Rees Jones – have taken a clear gem and brightened its luster. For those competing and those watching I offer the following “secrets” of the key holes in playing one of America’s great courses.
1st Hole — 478 Yards / Par-4
Nerves always play a part of any competition — particularly at a major championship. Since the ’05 PGA Championship fairways bunkers have been re-positioned — at 275-320 yards and closer to the line of play – in line with what modern club and ball technology. A collection area was added to the left rear area of the hole — so any player missing the green left will see his ball roll further away from the hole.
The Secret? If there’s any doubt — players should opt for a fairway metal and avoid the bunkers flanking both sides of the fairway. At the 320-yard mark the fairways narrows to just 25 yards. The approach is fairly straightforward with a clear opening permitting shots to roll onto the putting surface. Keeping one’s ball in front of any pin placement can provide a player with a solid start to the round.
3rd Hole — 504 Yards / Par-4
The downhill hole moves gently from right-to-left so fitting a ball flight to the contour of the land pays big dividends. The main issue is keeping one’s drive to the right because the rough line slides more and more into the fairway as you head further down the hole. The canopy of the trees can be a pesky intrusion for balls ending up too far to either side. The summer wind pattern is generally favorable but the green is often drier — getting the ball to stop quickly — especially when the pin is cut towards the front areas – is a supreme test.
The Secret? Like so many holes on the Lower being in the fairway is a real plus. Players able to play a swinging draw off the tee will gain a huge advantage and have a real opportunity for a possible birdie. Of all the greens the 3rd is easily among the most vexing. Failure to play one’s approach the correct distance can likely result in three-putts. One final thing — a pesky stream cuts roughly 65 yards in front of the green — hit the rough off the tee and one has to make sure you can carry it.
4th Hole — 195 and 167 Yards / Par-3
Rightly cited as one of America’s most challenging par-3 holes — the 4th is formidable because of its elasticity. There is also the devilish twist and turns one eventually gets when reaching the green. Fronted by water — so much depends on the wind. When standing on the tee — the prevailing often comes down the fairway from the adjoining 18th hole. However, the green is sheltered by trees and with a large grandstand on its rear perimeter the wind pattern can be quite different.
The Secret? Club selection is pivotal. A mishit will find water. What many may not fully appreciate is that the rock wall that guards the green actually extends itself even more to the right side of the hole — about 5 yards longer. Being on the right part of the putting surface is no less important. Careless approaches will encounter a daunting two-putt challenge.
6th Hole — 482 Yards / Par-4
The 6th provides the most demanding tee shot for the players. The fairway is akin to a turtle’s back — both right and left sides falling away to demanding rough – especially on the left. As a general rule — the 6th is also into the prevailing wind so even the longest of hitters will need to marry accuracy with sufficient distance in order to walk off the green with a par. The green is one of the largest on the course stretching nearly 50 yards from front to back — so proper selection is critical.
The Secret? The fairway tilts slightly from left-to-right so a draw tee shot can propel the ball all the way to a flat approach area leaving the player anywhere from 160-200 yards out. Players need to be mindful the green slopes from back to front and moves from right-to-left so any shot that misses right will be tested thoroughly.
7th Hole — 505 Yards / Par-4
Unlike the ’05 event — the split tee on the right side will not be used. The ideal play on the 7th is for a controlled fade as the drive zone turns ever so slightly to the right. The bunkering on the right has been re-positioned – likely no player in all probability will cut the corner – as the length needed is in excess of 320 yards. Out-of-bounds can also pose an issue as it slides closer to the drive zone on the left hand side.
The Secret? The 7th is a very shallow target as the green stretches 52 yards from one side to the other. Pin placements will be tucked on the far corners — with the right side the more challenging. There is a fairway bunker roughly 50 yards from the green and it needs to be avoided for players missing the fairway. Keep the approach in front of the hole — from that position par is doable. Securing a par here for all four days will be a major advantage.
17th Hole — 650 Yards / Par-5
Only the longest of the long hitters can contemplate going for the green in two shots — and that entails hitting the fairway and getting a bit of a boost from the prevailing southwest summer wind. The 17th is the consummate “chain reaction” hole. Hit the fairway and the path for birdie escalates dramatically in favor of the player.
Conversely, failing to hit the fairway means having to deal with a series of cross bunkers called “Sahara.” Given the sheer density of the rough — being able to extricate a golf ball from the rough over these bunkers is not an easy chore and should a player lay-up the distance to reach the green from immediately behind them will be in the 250-260 yards range.
The Secret? The 17th will play as a “short par-3 hole” since most approaches will be from roughly 90-130 yards out. The putting surface is set above the fairway and gauging the exact feel for that shot is essential. The green is also perplexing in a range of subtle ways. Interestingly, the tee shot needs to come through a narrow chute and it would not surprise me if a few players catch either the solitary pine on the left or the cluster of trees on the right.
18th Hole — 553 Yards / Par-5
The most striking difference for the closing hole versus the one played in the ’05 PGA Championship is that the ditch along the left side has been expanded into a large pond which impacts play roughly at 270 yards. This new element will make players think carefully before opting to go full bore with driver. Like the preceding hole — the closer is often played with a helping southwest wind, but unlike the 17th – the 18th is well within range of most of the field to reach in two shots provided the fairway is reached. There will be players capable in hitting less than driver and still able to get home in two shots.
The Secret? The putting surface is set above the fairway and getting a second shot to sit quietly is no small feat. The green slopes away from the nearby clubhouse and players will need to be sure to judge the contours carefully. The closing hole can provide an eagle opportunity or double-bogey – the range of scores makes for a dramatic close to this year’s final major.
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