Boring golf is rewarded no greater than at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta where the FedExCup champion lays claim to $10 million. But what was once an exercise in tee-to-cup proficiency has been injected with a literal and figurative plot reversal.
East Lake hosts the TOUR Championship for the 16th time, including in all 10 years as the finale of the FedExCup Playoffs. The par 70 has undergone typical upgrades throughout its tenure. The most influential modification preceded the 2008 edition when MiniVerde bermudagrass replaced bentgrass on the greens. That is, until now. And it has nothing to do with putting surfaces or aesthetics.
It was announced seven months ago that the nines would be reversed for the culmination of the 2015-16 season. So, instead of a par 3 to conclude the round – there has never been a hole-in-one in the tournament at what is now the par-3 ninth – the field will do battle with a 600-yard par 5 before posting a score. The objective is simple and clear, to generate excitement and the opportunity for a hero shot. Don’t rule it out. In each of the last three TOUR Championships, there has been exactly one eagle on the hole, each with a putt of some length.
The narrative will focus on the potential shift in momentum at the finish line, but there are visual and physical changes that are just as relevant. New back tees at the 16th and 17th holes – both par 4s – add 58 yards to the test. The yardage on six holes was altered, resulting in an aggregate increase of 78 yards to a tournament-high 7,385, second-longest among all par 70s in non-majors this season. Also included in that subset is the par-4 12th (389 yards) where the target off the tee now includes an encroaching bunker, and the par-3 15th where the water hazard left of the hole is bigger.
All of the updates feed into what’s always worked as the aforementioned strategy at East Lake: split fairways, hit greens and sink putts, the equitable balance of which matters here more than most sites. Still, the emphasis is on the latter, as illustrated by defending champion Jordan Spieth. He led last year’s field in strokes gained: putting, average distance of putts made and scrambling.
However, with rough prepared to stand a fair two-and-a-half inches, keeping the ball in play as often as possible is all but a prerequisite. Reviewing proximities to the hole from 50-125 yards, 125-150 yards and 150-175 yards from lies in both the fairway and rough, East Lake yielded one of the shortest measurements upon approaches from the fairway last year, but it was one of the stingiest from the rough. In fact, distances were doubled or greater based on lie alone. Greens average 6,200 square feet, but they’re expected to run 12-12.5 on the Stimpmeter, which helps explain why they repel incoming shots without any bite. En route to his four-stroke title last year, Spieth ranked seventh in fairways hit, T9 in GIR and fourth in overall proximity.
Mother Nature may trigger the SubAir systems installed at every green this week, but probably stop short of working them overtime. A mild risk for rain exists throughout the tournament. Heat and humidity will overstay its welcome as the first day of autumn aligns with the opening round. Gradually increasing daytime highs into the upper 80s will not be accompanied by any breezy relief, which means that yardages will be pure, so execution must be pinpoint.