Anytime you hand pro golfers five par-5 holes in a round, they’re likely to make a ton of birdies. Add the drama of team match-play competition, then flip the order of nines so that the course winds up on a famous, reachable par 5 with water, and – presto! – you have the makings of a thrilling event. In this case, it’s the seventh Solheim Cup, a biennial event pitting 12-player teams from Europe and the United States Sept. 20-22.
The setting is storied old Interlachen Country Club, 16 miles southwest of downtown Minneapolis. Interlachen dates to a 1911 layout by Willie Watson that was thoroughly transformed into its current guise by Donald Ross in 1919. Bobby Jones made headlines there in 1930 when he won the U.S. Open, the third leg of his Grand Slam.
The course subsequently hosted the 1935 U.S. Women’s Amateur (won by Glenna Collett Vare), the 1986 USGA Senior Amateur (won by R.S. “Bo” Williams) and the 1993 Walker Cup (United States over Great Britain & Ireland, 19-5).
Interlachen, also slated for the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open, is ranked No. 50 on Golfweek’s America’s Best classical courses list.
For the Solheim Cup, Interlachen will measure 6,545 yards and play as a par 73. As with many vintage courses, Interlachen offers rolling fairways, 25-30 yards wide, that require precise shotmaking in order to keep one’s ball in play. The greens are small, averaging 5,000 square feet, with a lot of pitch from back to front. Many of them are perched on modest plateaus and require well-struck approaches to prevent balls from rolling off into bunkers and chipping hollows.
With only 24 golfers in the field for match play, not stroke play, superintendent Matt Rostal says he has more latitude in course setup than normally is the case for an LPGA event. He needn’t worry about slow play or embarrassing the golfers. Thus, the rough will be grown out to a hefty 3-4 inches, and green speeds will be amped up to 10.5-11 on the Stimpmeter.
There’s also a new twist to the layout thanks to the nines being flipped. That places a road crossing earlier in the round, presumably before heavy spectator traffic builds up toward the end of each match. More importantly, it defers the club’s most famous hole, normally the par-5 ninth, which should provide a dramatic theater for action as No. 18.
Actually, both nines end on what could prove to be decisive holes. The 387-yard, par-4 ninth hole calls for a semi-blind tee shot to a landing area 30 feet below the tee, followed by a tough, uphill approach to a putting surface 30 feet above the fairway. As hard as the undulating fairway is to hit, the green is even more elusive – all three tiers.
Interlachen’s 522-yard, par-5 18th hole is a fine stage for the culmination of a match. The broad, open expanse of the green provides ideal viewing. If the weather holds to form and the ground dries out from an unusually wet summer, the longest hitters will be able to reach this green in two – or at least gamble for it.
The key is a strong tee shot that favors the right side – leaving a second shot that must carry a huge mid-fairway lake that runs up to within 50 yards of the putting surface.
This is where Jones once skipped a shot with a thinly struck 4-wood across the water and into the fairway (some writers at the time speculated the ball caromed off a lily pad) en route to making a birdie to win the U.S. Open.
Like many classical courses, Interlachen demands controlled shotmaking. That’s never an easy matter, a task made even more difficult when the ground beneath one’s feet is uneven and the ball rarely comes to rest on a level plane. Of course, familiarity might be an advantage. Both team captains played the course this year, as well as several American squad members, but none of the European competitors have.
Talk about a challenge: They’ll have but a few days to learn the subtle nuances of a golf course Interlachen’s members have spent a lifetime getting to know.