Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Hitchhiker's Guide to Locust Hill Country Club

In her op-ed on the future of the LPGA Championship, former Rochester champion Dottie Pepper asserted that "Locust Hill is a fabulous members['] track, but the facilities are challenged and the layout can't be expanded to counter today's power players." As anyone who's followed the PGA Tour in the era of "Tiger-proofing" knows, though, making courses longer simply plays into the hands of the tour's bombers and the big boppers. The last thing the LPGA needs is to homogenize their majors by selecting primarily for power and making length the tour's gold standard.

Having walked Locust Hill inside the ropes on Monday and Tuesday and scouted it for my own purposes (so I can have a clearer mental picture when I'm following the live scoring today, figure out which holes I want to focus on on Friday and Saturday, and be prepared if the club hosts any New York State Golf Association qualifiers down the road), I think I'm in a good position to evaluate what difference the changes to the course have made. At 5'6" and around 150 lbs., I'm not that much bigger or taller than most of the players in the field. Depending on the conditions, my drives usually end up in the in the 235-to-265-yard range; I hit my wedge about 90-100 yards, my 7-iron 145-155, and my 3-hybrid 185-205 (it's new; I'm still figuring it out). If I actually played enough to be accurate, I'd be a precision player in my taxonomy, bordering on a straight shooter, so I'm looking at the course through those kind of eyes. But I did keep an eye out for holes where a bomber could take a risk and gain an advantage on the field.

All in all, without having played the course, I can still give my take on how tough it's going to play. Between the lengthening of the holes, narrowing of the fairways, thickening of the rough, and speeding up of the greens, I'm confident that Locust Hill will provide a fair test and a real challenge to all kinds of golfers. With trees bordering just about every hole, anyone who gets wild with their driver is going to have a very long day. Even the most accurate players off the tee will be challenged to hit more than 75% of the fairways. And since even the narrow 1st cut of rough will grab clubheads, players will find it quite difficult to hit even 67% of the greens. That means everyone is going to be scrambling a good deal. There'll be a lot of knee knockers and testers, whether for birdie or to save par (or worse). With all the elevation changes on the course and undulations on the greens, this course will weigh on everyone. Ad it'll get heavier the longer into the week they go. At the same time, though, the greens are so true that 10 footers will feel like 3 footers to good putters, if the putting green is any indication. When I practiced on it Monday in the vain hope someone would drop out of the pro am to free up a slot just for me (yeah, right!), I was getting annoyed if I missed anything. One cool subtlety was that you could feel the way slight differences in slope affected the speed of putts. It's not enough to think "uphill" or "downhill," but what kind of uphill or downhill. This may be old hat to those who don't play the Easiest Course in the World (which has gotten a little less easy since they narrowed the fairways, lengthened some holes, and even added in a new pond, but that's another story), but it's been a long time since I putted on fantastic greens and I just loved the experience! My favorite part was putting downhill to a cup in the middle of the green right on the edge of an even more downhill slope. It was like like trying to putt right up to the edge of a cliff without falling off it. Heaven! But I digress. My point is that if you can actually find enjoyment in your adventures on Locust Hill's greens and go in with the attitude that you ought to be making everything from everywhere, no matter how far from the cup your previous putt ended up, I imagine you can make a lot of putts. Or at least take a lot. What do I know, right?

Sorry I don't have cool photos to share like Dave Pelz (who noticed the same thing about the #3 tee as I did and wrote it down 1st, dammit). And of course what I was able to see and figure out is probably about 1% of what your average caddie takes note of. So take this for what it's worth--a scouting report from someone who was once a decent amateur.

#1 414-yard Par 4
This is one of the holes that was lengthened in a serious way--by about 30 yards, according to the media guide. The idea was to force most players in the field to think more about the trees on the left of this downhill gentle leftward dogleg and keep their drives on the right side of the fairway. However, the only trees you really have to worry about are only about 225 out, so with the increased elevation of the new tees, even the shortest hitters should be able to fly their drives past the corner to a fairway that's wider than it looks from the tee. Since the pond that guards the green on the left is about 300 out and the fairways will be wet, not even the longest hitters will have to worry about reaching it. Given how small the green is and how surrounded by ponds it is, I'd say it's worthwhile to try to be a little aggressive off the tee and draw your drive as far down the dogleg as you can. The green is guarded by 2 traps and surrounded by mounds (a Locust Hill signature), so approach shots hit to the edges of the green will bounce and roll accordingly. Looks like there might be a little funnel effect to the middle of the front of the green.

#2 337-yard Par 4
The pond to the right of the 1st green and the pond in front of this green frame a kind of island fairway that you want to leave your drive a comfortable distance for your approach shot to this elevated, 2-tiered green. Anything longer than about 250 runs the risk of running through the fairway, but as the fairway is fairly sharply uphill and the green is elevated still further, a good number of players may want to stick with their driver to make sure they get a wedge in their hands on their second shot. I saw Inbee Park fly her drive right to the edge of the fairway. The green is protected by a deep bunker in the front left, but its real defense is a sharp tier that runs kind of diagonally back left to front right across the green. Although the bottom tier is relatively flat, there's a false front between the traps, shots short of the pin will kick forward off the mound at the top of that front left bunker, and the tier is so steep that it's not easy to use it as a backstop. And that's the easier tier to get to. So while this may look like a birdie hole on paper, and there will be plenty of them, the players will really have to work for them and there'll be a number of disasters each day.

#3 380-yard Par 4
The media guide notes that this downhill dogleg right "has been lengthened 21 yards" and recommends a "left-to-right slider" off the tee, but fails to note that this is because of the huge trees overhanging both the old and new tee boxes more than the trap that sits on the left corner of the dogleg right in the 230-250 yard range. As Pelz pointed out, if you tee off from the left side of the new tee box, you can afford to hit a high baby draw. I personally like that shot better than a fade on this hole, because there's room on the right side of the fairway if you block it and if you pull it or snap you can still recover from that, whereas if you try to hit a fade and block it or slice it, you're likely to be smacked down by the trees on the right, or worse, hit the cartpath and bounce OB. But that's probably just me. The key thing to remember is that the fairway is actually much wider than it looks from the tee. Oh, and a bomber may take note that the fairway pinches a bit around 275 out. This green, too, has a false front, traps guarding the front with mounds that kick shots forward, mounds guarding the back, and a front left-to-back right diagonal tier that's much gentler than the one on #2.

#4 532-yard Par 5
This hole has also been lengthened, which brings trees on the right from about 225-265 yards out more into play for most in the field. The fairway's very narrow and pretty flat, perhaps with a slight left to right tilt, but about 310 yards out it begins climbing toward the green, eventually so sharply that most players will have a blind approach shot for their 3rd, with only the pin in view. I didn't get a good look at this green this year, but I do remember Ai Miyazato missing a short birdie attempt here last year. The media guide say it slopes left to right but from my angle it looked like some shots might funnel to the middle of the green and actually stay there.

#5 161-yard Par 3
This is a sharply-elevated par 3 with sunken bunkers to the left and right of the 3-tiered green. It's pretty much a blind shot, and there are shaved areas to the front of the front tier between the 2 traps and behind the middle tier to the right of the left trap, which leads me to believe that it's easy for even slightly misjudged or mishit shots to trickle into them. Pretty diabolical little par 3, it seems to me. Oh, and if you miss way right or long right, your ball will end up in someone's back yard, OB. No pressure.

#6 439-yard Par 4
This one is as downhill as the previous hole-and-a-third were uphill, but since Locust Hill's normally soft fairways were saturated Tuesday and probably took more rain (or are about to) this morning at least (a thunderstorm rolled through Dunkirk around 2 am), players can't expect much of that sweet, sweet roll, so it'll be hard for most to reach the relatively flat area about 280-300 yards off the tee. That's too bad, because there's a pond behind this back-to-front sloping green with a big mound in the back, so you don't want your approach shot going long, but it's pretty easy for it to happen from a downhill lie.

#7 178-yard Par 3
I didn't get a chance to walk this hole this year and last year onechan needed to go to the bathroom right around the time we got here, so all I remember is that it's very uphill, the green is small, the ground was hard around the green, and the grass was thin. Sorry for the verb tense shifts there, but I can't say how the green is.

#8 466-yard Par 5
I've never seen the 2nd half of this hole, because of the whole onechan-bathroom thing last year and the need to get to the media tent for my interview with Mika Miyazato this year. All I can say is that this hole is severely uphill for your drive and twin bunkers pinch the fairway from about 210 to about 235 yards off the tee. Advantage to those who can carry their drivers more than 240 yards uphill and even more of an advantage to those who can get far enough up the left side of the fairway that they don't have a blind shot or have to deal with the overhanging trees on the right. Somehow this plays as the easiest hole on the front, according to the media guide, but you'd better trust your fairway wood, hybrid, or long iron on that blind 2nd shot!

#9 178-yard Par 3
You can't be long on this sharply downhill hole, and I don't just say that because there's something like a little cliff behind this back-to-front sloping green. No, it's because of the bleachers and tv tower only 10 yards down that cliff. Those who try to play it safe still have to avoid deep bunkers on each side of the green guarding the front with mounds that kick shots that just clear them sharply forward, not to mention the false front between them. There's some sort of narrow little top tier, but I can't imagine putting a pin on it; I think its main function is to serve as a backstop/funnel for players who want to spin their shots back to the relatively flattish area right in the middle of the green, where I'd be happy to end up any time. Picking the right club here is obviously of prime importance.

#10 413-yard Par 4
Another big lengthening effort, this time by creating a new, sharply elevated tee 30 yards back, right near the entrance to the clubhouse and behind the walkway all the spectators use to get from the front to the back and players and caddies use to get from the putting and chipping areas to the driving range. So you're always going to have a crowd waiting for you to hit the damn ball, you're always going to have traffic noise from Jefferson Road, and now you're hitting into a downhill, right-to-left sloping fairway that pinches from about 215-230 yards out due to a well-placed trap on the left. The media guide says it's "now in the player's landing area," but I think that's true of only the shortest hitters on tour. In any case, the green is 2-tiered vertically, with the right tier the upper one and deep bunkers guarding the front R and L of each side.

#11 511-yard Par 5
There's a blind tee shot (you can just spot the tops of the bleachers by the green from the tee) and a creek about 310 out, but OB right is much more dangerous and the trees on each side of the fairway seem to funnel in on you but really funnel out. If you hit your drive past about 240, you're going to have a downhill lie on your attempt to reach the green in 2, which isn't necessarily a bad thing b/c you're likely to get some extra roll to compensate for the slight uphill grade to the slightly elevated green. But with traps guarding the false front, a ridge behind the green, and a bump on the left side that looks designed to shoot balls off the green, it might be a smarter play for most in the field to treat this as a 3-shot hole.

#12 361-yard Par 4
It's almost a blind tee shot; you can usually just see the tip of the flag from the tee. With both overhanging trees and OB right pushing you leftwards off the tee, but with some trees on the left interfering with the left side of the elevated, right-to-left sloping green and a huge and deep trap after a creek that runs beneath it, you have to be very accurate with your driver or 3-wood to have a good shot at a pin on this hole. Tee balls between 220-240 and 260-280 will find the flattest parts of the undulating fairway. Balls that land past the trap but on the very front of the green will kick forward, while there seems to be a collection area on the left (a "false side," if you will).

#13 386-yard Par 4
The little creek looks a little farther out there from the elevated tee than it really is--it's only about a 200-yard carry--and the fairway is wide, so players have a big incentive to go after their drives and climb the uphill slope past the creek as far as possible. They'll be hitting into a long, relatively narrow, and sharply-tiered green (kind of like a shelf in the very back of the green). There's a small bunker to the front right of the green that you can't see from the fairway (at least it was a surprise to me when I got far enough up the hill to spot it!) and 2 deep ones on either side more even with the middle-back part of the green.

#14 400-yard Par 4
The narrow fairway slopes right to left at first, but the hole curls slightly to the left at the end, where overhanging pine trees and a creek guard the front of a green with a false front and a collection area in the front left and bunkers on either side guard its middle and back.

#15 150-yard Par 3
I saw Ai Miyazato make a great birdie putt on this big, 2-tiered green. The back tier bulges a little, especially on the left, but there's a relatively flat area in the front left of the green on the lower tier. Expect a lot of birdies when the pin's down there. But with an elevated tee and a relatively open feel around the green compared to most holes at Locust Hill, look for any wind to affect approach shots more here than usual.

#16 341-yard Par 4
The fairway here slopes left to right and is uphill until about 200 yards out, but stays relatively flat until about 270. The green slopes severely back to front, tilts a little left to right, and is protected by 4 bunkers surrounding it and a mound behind it. Odds are you're going to have a downhill putt on this hole.

#17 478-yard Par 5
Mentioned by many players in the media guide as their favorite hole on the course, this is one of the few tee shots where the longer hitters may have a slight advantage. The uphill, left-to-right sloping fairway seems to feed into a bunker on the right side of the fairway that's sitting about 230-250 yards from the back tees. If you can carry it past this trap with a slight draw and keep it on the right side of the fairway (where there's a little more room than you might have expected from the tee), you'll have a great view of the dogleg left, from a flat area that extends from about 220 to 100 yards from the green. There's a little depression between 60 and 100 yards from the green, which I'd try to avoid, but trying to get past it brings the 2 huge, deep, and long traps that guard both sides of the green and extend well in front of it into play. This is the hole I most wanted to play because I wanted to see if I could carry the trap and hit a good fairway wood or hybrid to the green, which is 2-tiered horizontally, with some weird subtleties that I couldn't catch from a distance. You can still make a birdie staying short of the trap, keeping at least 100 yards away from the green, and hitting an accurate wedge or 9-iron, but what's the fun in that?

#18 387-yard Par 4
This looked like the longest par-4 on the course to me from the tee and for a hole where water doesn't really come into play (unless you spray it way right toward the 2nd green), it's probably the most intimidating drive on the course. That's because the narrow fairway seems to go straight up toward the clubhouse and get narrower as it goes. All I know is that the hole doesn't flatten out until you get to the long, narrow green that's guarded by 2 front traps on either side of it. The 1st third of the green seems flatter than the rest, which (you guessed it) slopes from back to front. Now surrounded by grandstands, this green is probably even tougher to hit (at least in your head), because you have to worry about an errant shot ending up someplace weird. I would not wnat to have to par this hole to win the tournament.

So that's my scouting report. Frankly, I have no idea what I'd shoot at Locust Hill, given how rarely I'm playing and how volatile my scoring has been. (I sandwiched my best score in 6 years--a 73--between my 2 worst scores in that same time span. And, no, I'm not telling what they were. And that was on the Easiest Course in the World, which now plays to a par-37 on the front, which is the only side left after some kind of dispute with the people who were leasing most of the back to them. Long story, and I don't know the half of it. All I know is that my days of striving to break 70 there are probably over.) If I were in mid-season form, I'd be licking my lips, but honestly I'd be happy just to break 80 there under LPGA Championship conditions--and shocked if I broke 75. And that's assuming I hit my driver as straight as I usually do. If I had problems there or with my chipping or putting, or let myself get frustrated or rattled after making a big number, breaking 90 would be a challenge.

That said, although the changes to Locust Hill could lengthen it to as much as 6500 yards, it still has the feel of a short course to me. I would argue that its elevation changes and slopes will present even more of a problem than the deep, wet rough. They'll really test your ability to club yourself and shape/control your shots. If the winner goes under -12 I'll be super-impressed, but I'd be somewhat surprised if we don't have anyone getting into double digits under par. The greens would have been much more intimidating if they were firmer, but from the weather forecast today and the weekend, along with the water they've already taken, I expect them to stay pretty soft all tournament. If players are getting a lot of 10-20 footers, a few people each day will find themselves making more than their share of them, due to how true the greens are. That's why I think breaking 70 twice and keeping it close to 70 the other 2 times should put you in the hunt at Locust Hill.


courtgolf said...

TWO par fives under 480 yards ? And that's as long as they will be played. Most par 4's are under 400 yards. Not exactly a challenging layout length-wise.

This is part of the PR problem facing the LPGA. Men won't turn out to watch professionals play courses this much shorter than they play at home - no matter how good the players are. My favorite local muni has four sets of tees and you have to get to the red tees to find a sub-500 yard par 5.

Mike said...

It was probably a long course at the time, Court. The original Locust Hill course opened in 1925 (as an 18-hole course in 1931), and Robert Trent Jones apparently didn't feel the need to lengthen it much when he redesigned it.

Just reading the history at the club's website, it appears they've spent more on improving the facilities than redoing the course. But if you're happy with your course (and the LPGA seems to be), then why mess with it?

The Constructivist said...

CG, the other question is how many trees does your favorite local muny have? I feel free to play bombs away on most courses, b/c I don't hit it that far off line when I miss. But the rough is narrower than the fairways at Locust Hill because of the trees overhanging it and the way the holes run up on each other. If I'm feeling that the course is tight and there's not much margin for error, how about the typical pro-am participant, who, from the sample I saw, would have spent more time in other fairways than their own if they hadn't been playing a scramble with an LPGA pro? A course can be tough w/o being super-long. Did you notice that both short par 5s are severely uphill?

courtgolf said...

I'm in Georgia - most of the courses around here are either tree lined or house lined...and sometimes both. :-)

Looks like even with the semi-pitch-n-putt length, they'll be happy with it because of all the rain. That has to be some sticky rough they're playing from this week. Three inches doesn't sound terrible - but wet and thick - 3" can be trouble.