Bettencourt tries to defend at Reno-Tahoe Open

Matt Bettencourt earned his first career PGA Tour win last year at the Reno-Tahoe Open.
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RENO, Nev. (AP) — For the first time in its 13-year history, the Reno-Tahoe Open will be played this week the way Jack Nicklaus originally designed the course at Montreux Golf & Country Club and defending champ Matt Bettencourt says it should make for an exciting finish on the 616-yard, par-5 18th.

By flipping the order of play of the front and back nine, even a five-stroke lead might not be safe come Sunday as the leaders head for the final three holes of the 7,472-yard mountain course lined with towering pines on the edge of the Sierra Nevada.

“A lot more can happen on these last three finishing holes,” Bettencourt said. “I think it’s definitely going to provide a great finish on 18.”

“It’s just a great risk-reward hole,” he said. “You can see a three to five shot swing without question.”

Bettencourt had three eagles during the tourney last year enroute to becoming the seventh player on tour to claim his first victory at the course that sits at an elevation of about 5,500 feet on the side of Mount Rose about 20 miles from Lake Tahoe.

Other past Reno winners in this week’s field are Steve Flesch, Will Mackenzie, Parker McLachlin, Chris Riley, Kirk Triplett and Vaughn Taylor, who did it back-to-back in 2004-05.

The biggest names in golf are missing because they are playing this week at the World Golf Championship’s Bridgetone Invitational in Ohio.

But nine former champions of majors are among those chasing the $3 million purse in Reno – Ben Curtis, Rich Beem, David Duval, Steve Elkington, Lee Janzen, Justin Leonard, Shaun Micheel, Jose Maria Olazabal and John Daly.

Others competing include Boo Weekley, Chris DiMarco, Rocco Mediate, Tim Herron, Jason Bohn, Paul Goydos and Cameron Beckman.

“It’s the best field we’ve ever had here. There’s no question,” said Scott McCarron, who has been a member at Montreux for 10 years and is in his second year serving as the tournament’s official host. “And the golf course itself, honestly, is in the best shape I’ve ever seen it.”

Leonard, who won the British Open in 1997, is back at Reno for the first time since he tied for fifth in 2001. The last of his 12 career victories came three years ago at the Stanford St. Jude Championship.

“Such a beautiful place,” he said after playing in Wednesday’s pro-am. “Great golf course and good people out here. It’s nice to be back.”

This year for the first time, instead of closing with a pedestrian par 4 on the flattest part of the course, players will have to decide whether it’s worth the risk to try to reach the new downhill 18th in two shots.

“I think it’s cool,” said Duvall, the 2001 British Open champ whose 13 career wins are the most of anyone in the field. “It’s a nice place to finish.”

Doing so will require avoiding not only the pond in front of the green but trouble on the left side of the fairway where the Douglas firs and Jeffery pines are known for knocking drives into a sagebrush-filled waste area.

“Anything can happen,” McCarron said. “You’re going to see guys making 3s and guys making 7.”

“So you could have a guy that’s four or five back with three holes to go who can win by two. Unfortunately, you’ll probably see some train wrecks coming down there too. Hopefully I won’t be one of them. But you’ll see a lot of lead changes and the whole bit with three holes to go.”

McCarron said they’ve wanted to make the change for years to play the tournament the way Nicklaus designed and members play Montreux, with the 220-yard par-3 16th and 464-yard par-4 17th rated the two toughest holes on the course.

“For a tour player,” McCarron, the old No. 18 “is not much of a hole – driver-wedge.”

To the contrary, the 17th is Montreux’s signature hole, dropping 138 feet from an elevated tee to a well-bunkered green and a creek running through the narrow fairway.

“It’s probably one of the hardest par 4s we’ll play on tour all year,” McCarron said. “It’s one of the toughest driving holes. And then you even have a short iron there, an 8 iron to a wedge, and it’s probably one of the hardest second shots we’ll play all year. I mean, it really is.”

Bettencourt said that for him, the only tee shot on tour more “intimidating” than Montreux’s 17th is No. 18 at Quail Hollow.

“You just have to be very precise,” he said. “When Jack built the hole he basically said, if you want to have a short iron (into the green) you need to hit it further off the tee.”

“It’s just a great hole,” he said. “And 16 is a phenomenal par 3.”

Bettencourt grew up about three hours away in Modesto, Calif.

“I have a bunch of buddies that live in the area so it’s kind of like coming home,” he said. “It’s been an awesome ride. I love being the Reno-Tahoe Open champion.”