The East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, the venue for this week's Tour Championship, has probably received the least amount of attention of any PGA Tour course this year. That's because the Tour Championship itself, the fact that the result will produce the winner of the FedEx Cup and the $10-million first prize that goes with a victory, and next week's Ryder Cup, are getting all the attention.
But the course will obviously play its role. And one factor about the course should mean it's a big talking point, and will be as the tournament gets underway Thursday. That's the fact that the course's last hole is a par-three, and a hard one that can play up to 240 yards. It's unusual, although not unheard of, for a top-notch golf course to end on a par-three; or, for that matter, to start with one.
The first hole at the Royal Lytham & St. Annes in Lancashire, England, where Ernie Els won the Open Championship last July, is a 206-yard par-three. A player can of course recover from a poor shot when par-three is the first hole rather than the closing hole. But for Ian Woosnam, that wasn't quite the case in the 2001 Open. And what transpired had nothing to do with his hitting a poor shot on the opening par-three.
Woosnam nearly holed his tee shot, but his caddie Miles Byrne soon noticed that there were 15 clubs in the bag rather than the 14 that are allowed. Woosnam had been trying a couple of drivers on the range before his round, and Byrne neglected to count the clubs and take out the driver. He would almost certainly have noticed the extra driver had the opening hole been anything but a par-three, where Woosnam used an iron.
Woosnam was furious, and Byrne was mortified that he had made such an egregious error. Woosnam had started the last round tied for the lead, and was penalized two shots for the extra club in his bag. He finished in a tie for fourth, four shots behind winner David Duval. The 1991 Masters winner and Byrne parted company a couple of weeks later after Byrne overslept and missed Woosnam's starting time for the last round of the Scandinavian Masters.
That's the sad story that came out of the opening par-three at Lytham. Twenty-two years earlier, in 1979, David Graham produced a happy story when he aced the opening hole at Lytham in the Open's third round, using a five-iron. Graham did not go on to win that Open. The late, great master of creative golf Seve Ballesteros won that Open.
As for closing par-threes, Tony Roberts and Michael Bartlett write about some of the most interesting in their recent book Golf's Finest Par-Threes . I've played many of the courses to which they refer, including the terrific Garden City Golf Club on Long Island, N.Y. The classic course that the Australian architect, writer, and first-class amateur Walter Travis designed, ends with a 190-yard par-three. Travis won the 1900, 1901, and 1903 U.S. Amateurs, and the 1904 British Amateur.
From the tee, it appears that the 18th green at Garden City is just about in the clubhouse. It's a scary prospect to contemplate, and the fear, at least for average golfers, is of whacking the ball right through the green. The back of the green falls away into a wide, grassy hollow, so there is at least some protection from the clubhouse. I love the hole and the setting.
Then there's the closer at East Lake, which could determine the Tour Championship and FedEx Cup winner. It did two years ago. Jim Furyk had a one-shot lead over Luke Donald, who was finished, when he came to the hole at the 2010 Tour Championship. Furyk missed the green into a bunker, but hit a splendid shot within three feet of the hole. He made the par putt and walked away with all the honours, not to mention the boatload of money.
"I don't mind," Furyk said this week when he was asked his feelings about a par-three finishing hole. "I really liked it in 2010. Only had to hit one good shot, and make a par to win."
The 18th at East Lake will ask players to hit anything from a long iron or hybrid to a 3-wood. The front of the green is skinny, as Furyk pointed out. The green runs back to front. Long is not good.
"It's a difficult shot, especially in order to win a tournament," Nick Watney said. He added, for emphasis, that it's a difficult hole "to close a tournament out."
Come Sunday, the par-three closer at East Lake could take centre stage. I hope that happens. I'm all for holes and courses that aren't standard issue. And a par-three closing hole is definitely not standard issue.
RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein