JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Two plaques. Three iconic shots. And now a fourth professional major. Not bad for a golf course that’s only in its fifth decade.
For all its activity as a major venue and busy private course, Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course never has rested on its laurels. The par-70 layout, 7,467 yards long for the 93rd PGA Championship next week, bears little resemblance to the layout that opened here northeast of Atlanta in 1967.
Few modern courses have been through such a dramatic transformation in 45 years, especially after debuting so famously on the national stage as home to the 1976 U.S. Open. That’s when brash, tow-headed 22-year-old Jerry Pate electrified the golf world with a dramatic 5-iron from the right rough, 190 yards out, to within 2 feet of the 72nd hole for a birdie that clinched his first major and inaugural PGA Tour victory.
A plaque marks the site of that historic approach. But it’s much deeper into the right rough line than when Pate hit it. The small pine tree that Pate easily carried now would block the same line of flight. But more has changed than the height of trees.
The course features nine holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. in 1967 and a second nine by Joe Finger in 1971. It’s now a Rees Jones layout because of a second round of his renovation work completed in 2006.
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A number of major renovations affecting every square foot of the course has seen fairway centers moved, the course stretched, drainage improved and the holes given better definition, with the bunkers pinched closer to intended lines of play and deepened. The putting surfaces have been rebuilt, outfitted with bays and wings for more carefully defined target hole locations that are perched over falloffs into bunkers or grassed hollows. And the place has a whole new rug: Diamond Zoysia for the fairways and Champion Bermudagrass for the greens.
The newly fashioned playing surfaces give AAC’s Highlands Course what it never had before: ideally fast, well-turfed playing conditions through the peak months; and a variety of hole locations that demand strength, character and acumen to master. When compared against videos from the 1976 U.S. Open or the 1981 PGA Championship (won by Larry Nelson), the course today looks as if it has been entirely rebuilt in place. And even when measured against the site from the 2001 PGA (won by David Toms), the course for this year’s PGA Championship is more sharply honed, with far more hole locations created in decks and platforms and tucked deftly behind steep bunkers.
They’ve also brought water more into play, mainly by a tighter integration of the landing areas and the ponds. At the 425-yard, par-4 sixth hole, the last 40 yards into the green on the left incorporate a closely shaved bank that will draw anything tugged slightly. It’s not only an issue on second shots here. There are plans for moving the tee up to the 300-yard range and making the green drivable for at least one round. With firm, fast fairways, the putting surface will be reachable, but with a newly built pond short and greenside left, risk will be in play.
The course also is longer than ever, by 254 yards. A plaque on the par-3 15th hole commemorates the 5-wood that Toms holed for an ace during the third round on national TV. Today, there’s a new tee, 25 yards back and elevated, measuring 260 yards from the green’s center.
That 2001 PGA Championship came during the first full season of high-tech, high-performance, solid-core golf balls that ushered in a dramatic spike in driving distances. In those days, course officials acted with some subterfuge in adding distances. At the 18th hole, normally a par 5 for members, the scorecard indicated the pros would play it as a 499-yard par 4. Actually, it measured a record-setting 507. To avoid controversy, the AAC crew removed the yardage marker at the tee.
That was the scene of a memorable finish, with Toms, nursing a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson and forced to make an agonizing decision in the right rough, 225 yards from a green fronted by a pond. Toms, playing cautiously, laid up to a comfortable wedge distance, hit his third shot to 12 feet and sank the putt for a one-shot victory.
They don’t put plaques out for layups, but they do hand out hardware. In this case, the Wanamaker Trophy.
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1.) Ease and intimacy of routing: 8
Reasonably well connected, especially from middle tees, though new back tees require an awkward trek back and then forward. Back nine has far more elevation, which is rare for a modern championship course. This par-70 layout has only two par 5s.
2.) Quality of shaping: 7
Big squiggly bunkers dominate the scene, with lots of earth moved to create definition. Most greens sit on platforms and demand a lofted approach.
3.) Natural setting and overall land plan: 9
An ideal arrangement on this expansive 500-acre facility, where the golf environment is isolated from surrounding suburbia by a functional layering of parking, clubhouse and recreational amenities, with the Chattahoochee River at the deep interior of the site.
4.) Interest of greens and surrounds: 6
Loads of carefully sculpted hole locations on surfaces averaging 5,711 square feet. Elevated green surfaces are framed by newly deepened bunkers and don’t take well to runups. The very modest internal contouring requires high Stimpmeter speeds to be compelling. These Champion Bermudagrass surfaces can deliver them in summertime without compromising turfgrass quality.
5.) Variety and memorability of par 3s: 7
Short (seventh), middle (fourth and 17th) and very long (15th). Sleeper hole could be 219-yard fourth, with water lapping the green left and also now a factor behind a newly installed chipping area long.
6.) Variety and memorability of par 4s: 7
Good balance of length, with front-nine par 4s heavily favoring right-to-left play and back-nine par 4s mainly calling for left-to-right shots. Last three par 4s (Nos. 14, 16 and 18) are long and difficult. If rough is up, bomb-and-gouge play off the tee has no chance. Given the PGA of America’s tendency to go a little easy on course conditions, this could turn into a birdie-fest.
7.) Variety and memorability of par 5s: 6
Well-bunkered fifth hole requires a good tee shot; a more intriguing hazard array on the 12th hole will bring everything from 3s to 7s into play, given the tight landing area and looming greenside pond.
8.) Basic conditioning: 10
Flawless manicuring in summer is now possible at AAC, given the ideal combination of Champion Bermudagrass greens, Diamond Zoysia fairways and Tifton 10 Bermudagrass rough. Ken Mangum, director of golf courses and grounds, has been working here 24 years perfecting the place.
9.) Landscape and tree management: 8
Recent tree work has opened some areas while lifting the canopy on the golf course so that long interior views are available on what still is very much a parkland layout.
10.) “Walk in the park” test: 7
Enjoyable. Though not scenic of the surrounding area, it’s certainly a graceful stroll.
It’s rare for a modern golf course to evolve so much, but in its fifth decade, AAC’s Highlands Course finally has arrived in terms of design and conditioning, enough so to merit inclusion in the Golfweek’s Best Top 100 Modern.