Tom Lehman believes Hazeltine National Golf Club, the 2016 Ryder Cup course, is misunderstood.
“For all of its hype as such a big and wide open golf course, in actual fact, it’s a precision-style golf course that demands a very disciplined approach off the tee,” says the Minnesota native and 2016 U.S. vice captain. “People still remember the cornfield and pasture comparisons in the old days, from the 1970s, but it’s not really a power hitter’s paradise. It’s much more than that. You have to take what it gives you. Length may be an advantage, but generally speaking, Hazeltine favors a guy who hits it straight. You’ve got to be precise.”
Few Ryder Cup venues -- or championship courses anywhere, for that matter – can match Hazeltine’s checkered history. The Robert Trent Jones Sr. design debuted in 1962 and hit the main stage in 1970, when it hosted the U.S. Open. Critics railed early and often. Jack Nicklaus weighed in with a preview piece in Sports Illustrated, asserting that the course lacked definition and possessed too many blind shots. During the Open, the wind howled and so did the players, most famously Dave Hill, who cracked, “All it lacks is eighty acres of corn and a few cows.”
The club eventually fired back, as did Trent Jones, who without admitting defeat, redesigned the layout significantly in 1978. Subsequent renovations by Trent’s son Rees have transformed the course into a well-regarded, Top 100 layout, full of risk/reward drama, as evidenced by upsets in the 2002 and 2009 PGA Championships, when Tiger Woods was victimized by Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang, respectively. Here are the key holes and shots awaiting players in 2016. Coping with them successfully will be critical to a Ryder Cup victory.
To Lehman, who played on three Ryder Cup teams and served as Captain in 2006, “the par-5s seem to be the keys nearly every time with the U.S. Doing some research, we’ve figured out that the times we’ve gotten beat, we’ve gotten spanked on the par-5s. The times we’ve won, we’ve done better on the par-5s. Whether it be alternate-shot or best-ball, we haven’t played the par-5s all that well in the team portion of the event. So the focus would be to see how we can play the par-5s better.”
Hazeltine boasts a formidable quartet of par-5s, with two beefy holes on the front nine, the 3rd and the 6th, checking in at 642 yards and 633 yards, respectively, followed by two more outstanding tests on the back, the 606-yard 11th and the 572-yard 16th.
“If our team has superior length,” says Lehman, “then it makes sense to play these holes as long as you can. A lot depends on the wind, on the tee location and on the makeup of our team. We’re looking for every advantage we can get on these par-5 holes.”
In particular, Lehman points to the 16th as the most compelling of the par-5s.
“The 16th, which is normally the 7th (for member play and major championships) is a great match play hole from the risk/reward aspect. There’s a pond left, bunkers right, and a green that slopes towards the water. It’s a difficult green to hit in two, and if you miss it to the right, it’s very difficult even to keep it on the green (with your third shot). It’s going to be very reachable (in two) probably for nearly everybody. It’s a thinking man’s par-5, and what you’re thinking is, ‘How do I make a 4?’ I see No. 16 as being a very pivotal hole.”
Lehman comes right back to the 17th as another key spot. “It’s a (176-yard) par-3 with a tiny little green (3,890 square feet), with water on the right again. Sixteen and 17 are going to be crucial holes. They’re going to require very precise shotmaking.”
The most exciting hole on the Ryder Cup course is the 402-yard, par-4 7th, which most golf fans will recognize as Hazeltine’s normal 16th hole, with its familiar, pulse-racing arc around Lake Hazeltine. “It’s always a scary hole,” says Lehman. “It’s a tough tee shot, especially because the wind is almost always blowing here. You’ve got to decide whether to risk hitting a longer club farther up the left side to give you a short iron and better angle in.”
The longer club off the tee risks bringing the Rees Jones-designed stream into play along the fairway’s left edge. Depending on tee placements on a given day, players might actually be encouraged to give the driver a whack and go for the green. Still, it’s the rare hole that conjures up drama no matter what the tee or hole locations are that day, and no matter what direction the wind is coming from.
Naturally, the 352-yard, par-4 5th will generate heat, being a drivable par-4. When it played as the 14th hole in the 2009 PGA Championship, Y.E. Yang chipped in for eagle to take the lead over Woods. And speaking of Tiger, a U.S. Vice Captain, Hazeltine is the scene for what he called the greatest shot he ever hit, a three-iron out of a left-side fairway bunker on the 18th hole during his second round that rocketed over the trees and found the green. (He would birdie the hole.) That uphill par-4 will play at 475 yards for the Ryder Cup and serve as the 9th hole on the reconfigured course. No one will be able to duplicate Tiger’s shot precisely; in 2008, Rees Jones moved that bunker closer to the fairway.
In its stead, the closing hole is an uphill 432-yard, par-4, that normally would play as the 9th. It’s a shorter hole that might yield more match-clinching birdies than Hazeltine’s regular 18th.
So, plenty of pivotal holes and crucial stretches, and course setup and wind could help determine the outcome. For the U.S. to succeed, however, Lehman sums it up best: “The par-5s are going to be big.”
Let ‘er rip, boys.