Perhaps it’s no surprise to golfers that Atlanta’s hottest — or should I say splashiest — new attraction is the Georgia Aquarium. With more than 100,000 fish swimming to and fro among 8 million gallons of water, the Georgia Aquarium is the world’s largest.
For a landlocked city, Atlanta is awash in water and that holds true for its golf courses, too. Thanks to a bevy of beautifully-situated water hazards amidst the city’s finest layouts, there’s no shortage of drama when it’s tournament time in the capital of The South.
The aqua-oriented fun parade starts at the Tournament Players Club at Sugarloaf in Duluth, a northeast suburb of Atlanta. Home to the BellSouth Classic, this TPC is a 10-year-old, Greg Norman-designed track that made its Tour debut in 1997. Early critiques centered on the layout’s intriguing, free-flowing, sod wall bunkers, which were then unique in golf course design.
Next came the whining from the pros — and especially caddies — because the TPC at Sugarloaf is extremely hilly. Then the lightbulbs went off. The pros eventually realized that when played before the Masters, Sugarloaf’s hilly lies, large, undulating greens and closely mown chipping areas were perfect practice for Augusta National. For spectators and television viewers, however, only one thing mattered: Would this layout inspire exciting golf? The answer is an emphatic, “YES!”
In Atlanta, it must be written somewhere in stone (maybe nearby Stone Mountain) that a tournament must end on a dramatic, liquid-laden hole. For the past nine years, the closing hole at the TPC at Sugarloaf has more than held up its part of the bargain.
Originally tabbed to be a meaty par-4, the current version is a prototypical risk/reward par-5 for the pros, one that will yield a smattering of eagles, provided you’ve bashed two bold blows. The 576-yard dogleg right plunges downhill, to a two-level fairway. Even a drive that reaches the lower level faces a daunting, forced-carry second with a big club. Naturally, this carry is over water, in the form of a large lake. A short third is cause for pause as well. No matter how precisely placed the lay-up, the golfer is going to have to tempt the agony of a splash if the hole is cut on the left portion of the immense putting surface. It’s an exhilarating hole for the members of this private club, as birdie or eagle is within reach for even middle-handicappers. For the pros, and the fans who are watching them, it’s pure excitement,
The TPC, however, is not Atlanta’s only PGA Tour venue — and wouldn’t you know it, every other course on the Big Occasion roster sports a closing hole menaced by water.
Perhaps the toughest of the bunch is the home hole at the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club , which is situated in the same town as the TPC at Sugarloaf. Instead of a gambler’s par-5, however, the AAC bids adieu with a mammoth par-4 that measures 490 yards on the card, but the majority of pros who dueled with it in the 2001 PGA Championship swore it played more than 500. The approach is all-carry, with no bail-out. Rees Jones did the fine-tuning on this hole and as usual, Jones made it a perfectly fair hole — just don’t figure on a lot of heroics, unless your name happens to be David Toms.
Toms wasn’t overly aggressive, but things turned out just well for him at the PGA. One shot ahead of Phil Mickelson and paired together, Toms faced a shot of 214 yards to the hole. After much deliberation, he laid up with a wedge, leaving 88 yards for his third. Mickelson had safely reached the green in two and had a legitimate birdie try. Toms then lofted a lob wedge to 10 feet. Typical of Mickelson’s efforts in those days, he hit a gorgeous putt, but it stayed out. He tapped in for par and waited to see if he might force a playoff. It was not to be. Toms coolly rolled in the 10-foot par putt to clinch his first major. Mickelson would finally win a major in Georgia, but it took three and a half more years.
If there’s a tougher finishing hole for the pros than Atlanta Athletic Club’s 18th, it’s not far away, over at East Lake Golf Club, permanent site of The TOUR Championship. The 18th at Bobby Jones’ old home club is a gargantuan par-3 of 240 yards that plays over an arm of East Lake to an elevated green. The lake seldom bothers the pros on this hole; what gets them is the demanding, back-to-front sloping green and the steep bunkers that frame the green. Still, you can’t ignore one of golf’s most historic water hazards. Long irons, fairway woods and utility clubs have been the weapons of choice for past champions Sutton, Mickelson, Singh, Goosen and Bart Bryant.
Let’s pay respects as well to the Atlanta’s original golf thrill ride, the 499-yard, par-5 18th at Atlanta Country Club. Host to the PGA Tour from 1967 through 1996, this dogleg left par-5 was for years one of the Tour’s most scenic risk/reward holes. Perhaps too short in its final years (John Daly blasted an 8-iron second here in winning the 1994 event), but it was always exciting. Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite all took victory walks up No.18.
Unfortunately for traveling golfers, the TPC at Sugarloaf, Atlanta Athletic Club, East Lake and Atlanta Country Club are all private, so unless you’re tight with a member, you’re out of luck to sample their terrific closing holes. Nevertheless, the Atlanta area has no shortage of quality public-access tracks. Two that have outstanding, watery finishing holes are The General Course at Barnsley Gardens and Nicklaus at Birch River.
Barnsley Gardens is situated about an hour northwest of Atlanta in Adairsville and features a rugged, scenic Jim Fazio design. The par-4 18th checks in at 452 yards, much of it curving to the left around a large lake. Nicklaus at Birch River is in Dahlonega, an hour’s drive to the northeast, in Georgia’s wine country. Oddly, it crosses the Chestatee River, not the Birch. The 18th is a par-4 that doglegs to the right, around a lake, with trees to the left. A very three-puttable green sits perilously close to water’s edge. Par here is well-earned.
Finally, if you’ve got a little extra time on your itinerary, take the 80-minute ride east from Atlanta to Reynolds Plantation. Jack Nicklaus’ Great Waters course and Rees Jones’ Oconee are crammed full of superb holes and vistas, culminating in 18th holes that are guaranteed to make the journey worthwhile. Great Waters closes with a handsome, reachable par-5, with the drink lurking to the left, while Oconee ends with a massive par-4 that demands a healthy drive over the lake.
What every one of these watery Atlanta area closing holes shares is a sense of adventure, the potential to offer a wild ride, a chance for do-or-die glory — which is exactly what brings us back. See you at the 18th. Stay dry.