When players arrived at East Lake Golf Club this week for the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Ga., they couldn’t help but feel a bit disoriented. (I was certainly confused, initially.) Then, they remembered that tournament officials decided to switch the nines. This year at the FedExCup finale, the field of 30 will tee the hole formerly known as no. 10 and finish on the actual par-5 9th hole.
It’s strange when you first take a walk out there and pass the first hole — but, wait, it is now no. 10 this week — and it definitely does throw you off for a few minutes and then you realize the whole switch with the nines. It doesn’t sound like a big deal and it really isn’t, but it’s still confusing.
Tournament officials made the decision to switch the nines for obvious reasons — to provide a potentially more thrilling finish, with a par-5 (which is reachable in 2 if the tees are moved forward) instead of an incredibly difficult, long par-3, which I don’t recall broke or made anyone in deciding the event in recent history.
The numbers don’t lie. In the nine years of the Tour Championship, there have been an average of 2.83 birdies per round at the par-3 18th (or now, 9th). Meanwhile, the par-5 18th has yielded an average of over 12 birdies per round.
The change has been welcomed by the players for the most part, but a few have voiced a bit of hesitation because of the strong holes leading up to the closing par-3.
“First impression was I had to think about the closing holes and the difference that would make,” said Jordan Spieth. “Then I thought it was a really good change because what it does is it makes 5 and 6 into probably the hardest holes on the course, more pivotal, more pressure on them. They’re now 14 and 15.
“And then instead of having, like I mentioned earlier, three kind of par holes, you finish with four holes where you can make birdie. So you have to hold it in there and really pull off some incredible long iron shots on 5 and 6 just to make par, and then you have opportunity for birdies to end up, or even an eagle on the last to win $11.5 million. That’s more exciting, I think, than the closing.
“Although I really like the fact of going with a four-shot lead to a par 3. It was nice last year. We looked at the pin sheet, and we both just said, All right, let’s just get it in the air. I had a 6 iron. The tees were up. When I saw that, I was like, All right, score number one, pins up. Score number two, it would be pretty hard to mess this one up. Let’s hit it on the green and get in in two and get this thing over with.
“So having said that, that just means that No. 9 is going to be a better hole. A lot of potential for good and bad on that hole. I think that that makes it better.”
The par-3 was simply anti-climactic, especially as a finishing hole.
“It’s a little tough to force anything on a 240-yard par-3. It’s very rare do you ever see a shot go smack bang right next to the hole under the circumstances,” world No. 1 Jason Day said. “Finishing on a par 5, I’m hoping what will happen is it will give us a little bit more fireworks at the end…
“I think 16 and 17 of the old 18 — 16 and 17 are great. 16 and 17 holes. They’re good tough par 4s. 18, I think, is a good hole. You’re laughing, so I’m laughing. It doesn’t make me look like that…Hopefully, it will yield a lot of birdies and eagles, and it makes it a lot more exciting.”
When I ran into Day on his way to the parking lot Wednesday afternoon, I asked him about it and he added, “I just hope they move the tees up so it’s reachable in two.”
Good call. I’m sure they will at least one or two of the rounds, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those days were Sunday. Dustin Johnson, who heads into the playoff finale at no. 1 in the FedExCup standings, also thinks switching the nines will provide more excitement.
“I think it definitely will. Especially, I think they’re going to play it a little bit shorter than they have in years past. If you drive it in the fairway you’re going to have a chance to go for it. It’s still a tough second shot, but you’ve got a chance to make an eagle on the last hole, which coming down the stretch, that’s always going to be exciting. Just be a little more exciting than 18, the old 18, which is a par 3, which is a very difficult par 3 at that.
“You know, you see a lot of birdies, maybe some eagles. So that will be a lot of fun.”
And it would be even more fun and thrilling (basically, ideal) if the change lends to deciding the winner this year, unlike in years past. Spieth admitted last year that after he found the fairway on the 17th, he knew he had locked up the win because odds are he wouldn’t throw away the tournament on the way in.
More thoughts from players:
“I definitely think it’s going to give some more excitement even just — we can just start with the new 18th hole. It’s firm out there. Guys are going to be able to reach the green in two shots. There are going to be some eagles. There are going to be some birdies. That provides a lot more excitement and possibilities probably than the par 3, a long par 3.
“There’s also the potential to make — hit it in the rough and get it in the wrong spot and make a bogey on the par 5 as well. So you know you’re never really out of it with that par 5 last hole to play. You can be a couple shots back and still feel like you’re in it whereas you’re kind of wishing on the par 3 if you had two shots back.”
“I think it’s a great thing they reversed it. It’s going to be better for the fans and watching. A lot more exciting things can happen. The last hole is not a bad hole, but it’s just a par 3. There’s just not a whole lot of stuff that’s going to happen, especially at that length. There’s not really water around it, there’s the bunker. You’re pretty much going to make a par or make a bogey. That’s kind of your options.
“At that far distance, you’re trying to hit it in the middle of the green and just not a lot of stuff that’s going to happen. That back side is just so much tougher than the front, or last year’s back side. You’re mainly just making par. It’s hard to make a run, but on the new back side, you can — 7, 8, and 9 are definitely birdie opportunities. You can see some stuff going. If somebody’s got a two-stroke lead going into last year’s 18, it’s pretty much over. If somebody’s got a two-shot lead going into the last hole this year —
“As a player walking on the par 3, you feel like it’s pretty much over. You feel like the guy that you’re behind is going to have to mess up, and you’re going to have to hit a good shot. Whereas with a two-shot lead, the other guy could make a par, but you could do something great and make an eagle. It’s still a little bit, you feel like you have a chance to control that a little bit. But if you’re walking on the tee on a par 3, you feel like, well, I’ve got to do something good, but he’s got to screw up…
“I think I played it even. I don’t really remember. It was either even or 1 over. I think one year I — one time I hit a 6 iron. One day I was ripping a draw 4 iron. You basically aim for the middle of the green. They moved the tee up one day. So you had a front pin and had a chance maybe to make a birdie, but you’re still 200 yards out. Middle of the green is still a pretty good shot.
“Like I said, if it was an island green at 110 yards — it’s just there’s not a whole lot of stuff up there to — I mean, rightfully so. It’s a 240-yard hole. You don’t want to put a lake right next to a 240-yard par 3. Like I said, it’s not a bad hole, but it’s not the best finishing hole, in my opinion.”
“I understand. I thought it was unique, an iconic hole, in the fact that par 3, it’s different. I kind of like historically unique stuff like that in the game of golf. I understand why the change was made because, in the last eight years, there’s been very little volatility on that last hole, or last two holes, for that matter.
“This year you’re going to have volatility. There’s just no way not to. You’ve got 15, somebody around the league will hit one in the water on Sunday. It’s just going to happen. It’s a tough hole. Somebody will make an eagle on Sunday or a birdie, birdie finish to finish up there, and that just wasn’t really possible with the old 17, 18 were so tough, the old 17, 18.
“That’s why it makes sense TV-wise, and to be honest with you, guys are all excited about it because we know we’ve got a chance come Sunday afternoon. Even from 4 back, we have a legitimate chance of winning the golf tournament.”
“I think it’s a good move. I actually haven’t played now the back nine yet this week. You know, just thinking about it before we arrived here this week — I like the volume tilt we have coming down the stretch. For me, it was for me and other places, it was a case of hanging on the last three holes. 16, 17, 18 were just tough to make birdies, tough to make something happen. And then hung on in the last three, three holes where we can be very aggressive. Hopefully, the tees are moved up on 18 on Sunday and make that par 5 reachable would be very cool.
“Also, the possibility of an eagle, somebody could make double, I just like that. I like the fact there could be a lot of movement. The things I’ll explore today on the back nine that I found on the front nine. Visually, it changes a lot. So holes like the old 15, number 7 — old 16, number 7 now.
“At least with grandstands and hospitality units, you never saw the lake behind. So the shot actually becomes tougher because you lose your depth perception a little bit with sort of the infinity effect down towards the lake. You might see guys hit better shots than you’ve seen on certain holes in the past. You might see guys really struggle to get it close on certain holes because infrastructure has a lot to do with it. Grandstands and hospitality units can help or hurt depending on the hole.
“I think you might see a lot of different stuff this week. It would be cool.”
“I think the big thing is the golf course has changed. They flopped the nines. So the start now is a little bit more demanding. The new — the old 1, 2, 3, really the only hole you were ever worried about was 2. Because No. 1 you could hit driver. If you hit the fairway, you had sand wedge. If you hit 3 wood, you had pitching wedge. 2 is a 200-yard par 3. So that hole it seemed like it allowed you to get into your round.
“Now with them flopping it, you have to be solid right out of the gate because 10 and 11 are not easy. You go to 12, it’s kind of a breather, but then once you get to — after that, it just seems to kind of kick back up.
“Then also the changes they made this year on the back nine with lengthening — it would be 16, 17, adding bunker in the actual driving area on 12, it just changes the golf course a little bit and makes you think a little bit more. The longer hitters aren’t going to be able to take as aggressive of lines on some of those holes.”