DESTIN, FLA. — The par-4 18th hole at the Raven Golf Club is the toughest hole on the Champions Tour. Or it was. Or maybe it never was, but it seemed to be, last year. Or it will be again, some day. It’s confusing, because a chart in my tournament program says, “Toughest Holes on the Champions Tour, 2006,” and right there, at the top of the list, is No. 18 at the Raven.
All I know is, I walked out to 18 yesterday during the first round of the Boeing Championship, and right off I could tell that this was one mean hole. Long tee shot over water to a diagonal fairway. Another lake guarding the left side of a narrow green with a big tree hanging over the front apron on the right.
Here’s how tough it was for the first threesome to come through. Loren Roberts, from the fairway, hit an iron to 14 feet and made his putt for birdie. Mark McNulty, from the fairway, hit an iron to eight feet and made his putt for birdie. Then Gil Morgan, from the fairway, blew my mind by hitting an iron to seven feet. He then made his putt for birdie. I tell you, it was a train wreck out there. It was the Battle of Britain, only with Nikes and Titleists instead of Stukas and Spitfires. It was Hurricane Katrina versus FEMA. It was … .
Well, actually, it was a big snooze. The skybox spectators hardly got to go “Ooooooh!” Player after player earned that smattering of applause you give kindergarteners when they throw the Nerf ball into a barrel at the school carnival.
I thought about filing a missing-hole report. Was this the 431-yard monster that squeezed the seniors for an average of 4.577 strokes last year? Was this the hole that played tougher than the toughest hole at Turnberry, site of the 2006 Senior British Open? Was this the hole that out-nastied the nastiest hole at Prairie Dunes, site of the 2006 U.S. Open?
Apparently not. Today the flag at 18 was back-left, closer to the water, but the senior pros still handled it as blithely as a gardener caring for an artificial plant. Through two rounds, the 76 players in the Boeing field are only .059 over par on 18. That’s more than half a stroke better than last year’s full-field average.
There are a couple of ways you can look at this. It’s possible that the seniors — who are very disciplined guys when they aren’t dashing off to some race track or casino — have practiced really, really hard since last year. Or maybe Robert Trent Jones, Jr., who designed the Raven, defanged the 18th hole over the winter. Or maybe — and this is my best guess — conditions changed.
Last year, for instance, the wind blew a lot. Yesterday, it didn’t. You could have carried an octogenarian’s birthday cake down the 18th fairway without having a single candle blow out.
Last year, the Raven’s fairways and greens were lined with deep bermuda rough, extracting a penalty for every wayward shot. This year, you can find a contact lens in the rough.
The 18th hole didn’t change; it was the conditions that changed. I took another look at last year’s Top Ten list of toughest holes, and guess what? The Raven course has three holes on the list, as does Prairie Dunes. Turnberry is mentioned twice. Does this strike you as statistically improbable? Or is it the predictable consequence of a major-championship-type course setup?
I’m not saying the 18th isn’t a good finishing hole. Heck, as I write this Loren Roberts is brooding over his final tee shot of the day. Roberts trailed second-round leader Jay Haas by just a stroke until he drowned his ball on 18 and had to re-tee. Roberts and I would probably agree that the 18th hole is tough enough.
But is it the toughest? No.