By BETSY LAREY – Gazette Columnist
I had planned on a column on course management this week, so a last-minute invitation to play Hazeltine National couldn’t have come at a better time. I haven’t played the course for 20 years and I knew they recently did a complete redesign two years ago, so I was anxious to give it a shot.
It looked pretty much same but the first thing I noticed was the quality of the turf in the fairways. I’ve played a fair number of highly rated courses over the years, but I have never stepped foot on, what I would label "perfect" turf. I won’t waste words describing every blade of grass, but this was the best of the best – and that includes Medinah C.C,, (where the Ryder Cup is being held this summer).
I purchased a yardage book (best investment you can make when you play a new course) so I wouldn’t have to waste time walking off distances, and I knew there were a lot of shots that would demand nothing short of perfect. There are five sets of tees (5,129 to 7,674). I wanted to play the whites but at almost 6,300 yards I knew I would be playing catch up all day and I didn’t think that would be fun, so I chose 5,700.
The cover on the yardage book pretty much sums it up. "You will know you are playing a championship golf course as soon as you step on the first tee at Hazeltine National Golf Club. Your game will be tested as the course requires you to hit every shot in your bag. Holes will vary as the course flows in and out of prairie- and parkland-style holes. All of Hazeltine’s obstacles are right in front of you making it a fair, but difficult test."
I started with par on the first hole, with a good up and down from the rough. I was happy that the rough was not as brutal as my home course (Dellwood Hills) but I suspect that will not be the case when they play the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in 2016.
It didn’t take long for that book to come in handy. A dogleg left on the second hole has a clearance of 19 yards between bunkers at the turn. So for long hitters, driver would not be the right choice. The fourth hole was a fun little (not from the tips at 210) par 3. The pin was back, and I got a nice little run up with a good look at birdie but missed the putt.
On to the fifth hole. It was here that I started to notice a pattern that would continue throughout the round. First, if you’re playing the correct set of tees for your game, the bunkers can easily come into play off the tee and are located in your landing zone on most holes.
Second, the openings to the greens are incredibly narrow. On the fifth hole, it was 9 yards wide. The pin was in front, and the width of the green wasn’t much wider than that. I was playing 170 into the green, which meant a perfect seven wood or the beach. I chose to lay up and take my chances with a little chip which proved to be the smart choice. Third, the greens are not all that big. Some are very narrow, some are shallow (No. 12 is only 25 yards deep). There are not a lot of severe undulations (e.g. Troy Burne) that I like.
The next three holes had greens surrounded by water and sand, so once again club selection for your second shot had to be spot on. If you didn’t hit a great drive, most players would be much better off to lay up and take their best shot at getting up and down.
The back nine had the same theme; play the perfect second shot or lay up. My favorite holes on the back were 10 and the infamous 16. I hit a good drive on 10, and I was still looking at 170 to the pin. It’s the only hole I remember playing that far downhill from the fairway, with water left, bunkers in front and right. The bunkers aren’t all that tough, but I thought the sand was pretty firm. Less bounce on a sand wedge would be the best choice on this course.
What makes 16 so difficult is the width of the fairway in your landing zone. A creek on the left, the lake on the right and long is not a good option. Driver is a bad choice for most players. Add to that a narrow green surrounded by water and you know why the TV cameras are always on this hole. I was happy with an up and down for par.
The lesson I learned this week was to play smart golf. Take what the course gives you, and unless you have your fairway shots dialed in, laying up is often the best choice. Work on your short game, and you could come away with a pretty decent score. The secret is choosing the right set of tees that matches your game.
I have a few openings for players to join me at Mississippi Dunes, Edinburgh and Oneika Ridge. Let me know if you are interested.
Betsy Larey is an LPGA Teaching Pro who enjoys teaching, writing, researching and playing golf. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 651-470-2297.