Hail Hazeltine: Another U.S. Ryder Cup Winner

October 3, 2016

Perhaps overlooked in the excitement of the U.S. capturing its first Ryder Cup since 2008 was all the questioning and complaining about the host venue, Hazeltine National Golf Club. What’s that? You don’t actually recall hearing any gripes? Exactly. Crickets. Nothing. (Justin Rose called the course set-up “incredibly weak” but did not criticize the course itself.) This was a golf course that stayed out of the way, and let its virtues bring out some of the greatest play the Ryder Cup has ever seen. Bravo, Hazeltine.

History remembers the 1970 version of Hazeltine as one of the most reviled, heavily criticized U.S. Open courses ever, one riddled with blind shots and an overabundance of sharp doglegs. After that, original architect Robert Trent Jones reworked the course several times and then turned over the task to son Rees, who continued to refine the layout ahead of the 1991 U.S. Open, ahead of the 2002 and 2009 PGA Championships and again before the Ryder Cup. It’s now considered a highly respected championship course, one that’s ranked 84th in the country in GOLF Magazine’s 2015-’16 Top 100 list.

At the Ryder Cup, however, Hazeltine performed much better than “respected.” It served as a superb match play course. Here’s why Hazeltine helped produce so many memorable shots, big putts and sustained drama.

Ideal weather

Hazeltine is set into rolling prairie, where the wind can howl. It blew ferociously during the first round of the 1970 U.S. Open, 35 to 40 miles per hour. This week, the breeze was barely a factor on Friday and Saturday and was non-existent on a warm, sunny Sunday. The gust-free conditions allowed players to hit their full shots with supreme confidence, without having to adjust swings or strategies. By mid-day during the Singles, only one player continued to don outerwear — Phil Mickelson, the oldest man on either team.

Friendly course conditions

Pre-match rains softened the fairways, allowing for marginal drives to remain in play. The moisture kept the greens receptive as well, which permitted approach shots to stop, hold and even back up. That’s why there were so many close-range birdie opportunities. The greens themselves were of medium of size, averaging 5,000 square feet, and while Trent Jones and his son Rees outfitted them with sufficient contouring, few of them possessed extreme undulations. So it didn’t take a savant-style green reader to be successful this week. Everything was pretty straightforward.

Course superintendent Chris Tritabaugh was praised early and often this week by players and captains for achieving excellent fairways and flawless greens. Give the best players in the world smooth, semi-soft greens running between 12 and 13, with little fear from embarrassing mis-reads or mis-hits, and they’re going to make a ton of putts. And they did.

A nod as well to Davis Love III and the PGA of America for shaving down the rough throughout the course, a tactic that favored the longer-hitting U.S. squad. Occasionally, a player would draw an iffy lie, or a muddy one, but for the most part, the guys could recover from the rough.

The PGA of America’s re-routing provided for maximum excitement and impact

Purists were aghast when the PGA of America’s setup folks, led by Kerry Haigh decided to reconfigure a major championship layout. For the Ryder Cup spread, they took the second half of each nine and swapped them, so that the 14th through 18th holes became 5 through 9 and vice versa. The stated reason was to provide galleries more breathing room on some crucial down-the-stretch holes. This took Hazeltine’s most famous hole out of the spotlight, the par-4 16th that arcs dangerously around Lake Hazeltine. It became the 7th hole. In its stead was the regular 7th — which became the 16th — and which also became the best and most pivotal hole on the Ryder Cup course.

The 572-yard, par-5 16th offered the best test of shotmaking and the finest risk/reward opportunities. The hole doglegged to the right after the fairway landing area, leading to a well-bunkered green guarded front-left by a pond. U.S. vice captain Tom Lehman called it a great match play hole. “It’s a difficult green to hit in two,” said Lehman “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) 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 Number 16 as being a very pivotal hole.”

Incredibly, in the 13 matches that made it to the 16th during the first two days, only once was the hole halved, when J.B. Holmes and Ryan Moore matched the 4 made by Danny Willett and Lee Westwood during the Saturday afternoon four-ball. On Friday afternoon Dustin Johnson bombed his drive and Rory McIlroy was nearly up with him. Johnson found liquid disaster with his second, while McIlroy found the green, where he putted in for eagle and a 3 and 2 victory for him and partner Thomas Pieters.

On Sunday at 16, during the best match of the tournament, McIlroy was 1 down at the time, but found deep rough off the tee, and had to lay up. Patrick Reed’s drive left him 257 yards. With that slender lead, many urged him to play conservatively, but Reed stepped on the gas and went for it, perhaps invoking the lingering spirit of Arnold Palmer. Reed avoided the water, finding a right-side bunker instead. From there, he hit a nervy explosion to two feet, and when McIlroy couldn’t drain his 25-foot birdie effort, Reed was rewarded with a 2 up cushion with two to play.

One group later, Jordan Spieth tried desperately to close the gap on Henrik Stenson at 16, but found the water instead. And so it continued. Pieters birdied 16 to beat J.B. Holmes 3 and 2. Rickie Fowler won the 16th to take a 1 up lead that he never relinquished against Justin Rose. Jimmy Walker bogied the 16th to hand the match to Rafa Cabrera-Bello. A shorter hitter, Ryan Moore, came to 16 one down to Lee Westwood, then stuffed a hybrid to 10 feet and made eagle. He would go on to beat Westwood 1 up. Tom Lehman was right. Sixteen was the pivotal hole.

Sufficient but not overly taxing topography

Hazeltine National can’t really be called a hilly course, but it enjoys enough elevation changes to let you know you’ll get some nice variety in stances, lies and vistas. The par-4 10th hole, with its handsome backdrop of Lake Hazeltine is the perfect example. There were some uphill climbs, too, such as the ninth and 18th, two par-4s that ascended to the clubhouse. Overall, however, Hazeltine was a comfortable walk. That made it less onerous for the guys chosen to go 36 in a day, especially the older folks. Less fatigue allowed for consistently good swings when players needed them late in rounds. Don’t be surprised to see some tired late-in-the-day swipes in the next two Ryder Cups, at France’s Le Golf National (Albatross) in 2018, at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits (Straits in 2020) and then again in 2024, when New York’s Bethpage (Black) hosts.

Enough drama-inducing risk/reward opportunities to influence the outcome

Aside from the sensational 16th hole, Hazeltine served up a fistful of other holes that may not necessarily induce hysteria in golf course photographers, but that fostered exciting results. You wouldn’t call this a Florida-style track in terms of water hazards, yet the lakes, ponds and streams frequently affected the outcome of the matches. A handful of weak, faded irons found the lake short-right of the par-3 17th — notably Jordan Spieth in Saturday afternoon’s four-ball. The aforementioned 7th saw overly ambitious or tailing tee shots find the drink every day, most egregiously on Sunday, when Danny Willett rinsed two drives in his losing effort versus Brooks Koepka. Pieters, the long-hitting Belgian, took advantage of the waterless 311-yard, par-4 5th on Saturday afternoon, driving the green and sinking the eagle putt. In the Singles on Sunday, he parked his drive off the property, leading to a bogey and a loss of hole to J.B. Holmes.

Did Hazeltine perhaps play too easy, as some have suggested? Maybe. But so what? This wasn’t the U.S. Open. This was the Ryder Cup, where there’s enough pressure playing for team and country that no extra weight is required via brutal conditions or quirky design. Hazeltine might sound like a cracker, and Chaska, the city it’s located in, the spread you put on that cracker, but let’s be clear: it rewarded great play and provided unforgettable highlights through heroic successes rather than through dismaying failures. That’s all I want in my Ryder Cup course.