NORTON, Mass. –- It was a year ago when Webb Simpson’s work at the 18th green at TPC Boston was an unqualified success in the final round. Not once, but twice – birdies in regulation and the first hole of a playoff paving the way to victory over Chez Reavie in the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Fond memories of a 533-yard closing hole, for sure, and you can understand why Simpson might have been thrilled to visit with his old friend.
Only thing is, Simpson barely recognized the green complex at the 18th.
“It’s a little different,” he said.
Sorry, but that’s an understatement. It’s a lot different and Simpson’s work after the conclusion of his Thursday pro-am demonstrated how different. He stayed with caddie Paul Tesori for 15 minutes, dropping balls to the left of the green, then to the back of the green, then walking to the right of the green to explore the bunker there.
Standing in the collection areas left and rear of the green, Simpson putted ball after ball up a steep slope and onto a green that tilts back to front and presents a lot of not-so-subtle movements. Simpson struggled to get some balls up to the green and of those that he did, he took note of the speedy roll it took once on the putting surface. He even went to the back of the green and dropped a few balls just into light rough – and still he chose to putt.
Oh, yeah, there is a new look to the closing green. Thoughts, please?
“It’s definitely harder,” Simpson said. “I don’t think it’s a bad change or a good change, but it’s a hard change.”
Truth is, the 18th hole needed something. It was a proverbial push-over – clearly the easiest scoring hole on the course. The field average was 4.50 a year ago, 4.39 in 2010, and 4.43 in 2009. Whether you hit it fairly long, very long, or massively long – and folks, those are the categories we’re talking about these days on the PGA Tour where no one is a short hitter – it was a green you could reach in two. Last year, when architect Gil Hanse monitored the action as part of his contract with the PGA Tour to oversee changes to this course, he was sure of his first move – it had to be a smaller green.
Cheers to that move, because at 6,500 square feet, it was too big for a par 5 green. And when you stood more than 200 yards out, you didn’t have much of a view of the green, sunken behind a hazard. Now, the green is just 4,200 square feet, but it has been raised several feet and you can easily see it.
Simpson joins many of his colleagues as being on board with the philosophy behind the change, for those reasons.
“I think with the old green, it was a wide target, but the left half of the green was small because it wasn’t that long in depth.”
It was clear for Hanse and even the million amateur architects who are out there that was there was a simple way for the big boys to play the 18th – drive it into a wide fairway and then launch your second shot from anywhere between 190 and 230 yards. If you were wide left or long, no worries; you had a basic wedge shot out of thick rough and getting it up-and-down was hardly needed for creative talents.
No more, not with shaved-down areas left and long and when balls bounced through the green or wide of the green, you will have a number of style options – putt it, try and flop it off a tight lie, or pitch it into the slope and get it on that way.
But if the homework was done during practice rounds, players know that the swales are steep – especially left.
“We can’t bail out left,” Tiger Woods insisted. “That swale is going to be (a challenge). We’ve got to figure out where the spot is to miss it.”
Chances are, many of those in this week’s Deutsche Bank Championship field will figure it out. After all, we can’t sue for false advertisement because indeed, these guys are good. But Hanse knows when a group of tour players gather, they can’t come to a consensus on what day it is, so don’t expect universal agreement on the work done to the 18th green.
Oh, while we’re at it, let’s not kid ourselves and suggest that there’s not an undercurrent of Ryder Cup curiosity going on this week. Yeah, yeah, there’s $8 million and spots in next week’s BMW Championship wrapped in a blanket of playoff pressure here in the Boston-to-Providence corridor, but you could argue that seven players (Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Brandt Snedeker, and Nick Watney) are teeing it up in a final audition to impress U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love.
In fact, Mahan concedes he’s taking a new approach. He’s acknowledging that the Ryder Cup spot hangs in the balance.
“I think it takes too much energy for me to not think about it. (So), I feel like I need to relax and actually get excited about it, that I do have a chance to make the Ryder Cup team,” Mahan said.
He conceded that in recent weeks, he tried to block it out of his mind – to dismal results, as he missed the cut in the PGA Championship and at last week’s Barclays. So, instead of trying to ignore it, Mahan – a member of each of the last two Ryder Cup teams – smiled after his pro-am and said, in effect, bring it on.
“I’d rather be in the mix for the Ryder Cup than not,” he said.
Rickie Fowler would like to think he’s also embroiled in a bid to win not only this Deutsche Bank Championship but the overall FedEx Cup title, yet it’s the possible call from Love that seems to gather the most attention.
“Weird, huh?” Fowler said.
Well, yeah, except it’s a biennial occurrence, this fascination with the Ryder Cup and while Fowler offered a little lighthearted approach (“When are they playing that? They’re picking in three weeks?), he knows there’s added pressure to this week.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Playing golf is all I can do,” Fowler said. “I don’t think there’s any bribing with Davis. If I fit the criteria, I’ll be there. If I don’t, it won’t be the last (Ryder Cup).”
Funny, but the knock against choosing Fowler in 2010 was that he had never won on the PGA Tour. Now that he has crossed that off his bucket list (he won the Wells Fargo Championship in May), what seems to carry more cache is the way in which Fowler burned it up over the final four holes to earn a valuable half-point in his singles match with Edoardo Molinari at the Celtic Manor two years ago.
“One of the cool things (in that match) was, assistant captain Davis Love watched my match that day,” Fowler said. Walking up to Fowler, who was 4 down, at the 14th tee, Love told the youngster about the unforgettable Justin Leonard rally to help win the Ryder Cup at The Country Club in 1999.
“Davis said, ‘Do I have to tell you the story?’ “ Fowler recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’ve got it.’ “
Mahan, like Fowler and the rest of the Ryder Cup hopefuls, know the question will dog them each of the next few days – or for however long they’re in Boston. But Woods, who unlike 2010 when he needed a captain’s pick is already qualified, doesn’t see it as a precarious predicament.
“I think it’s a great thing,” he said of the presumed seven-for-four sweepstakes. “It’s nice that we have some depth and we have some young talent out there to choose from and we have some guys who are playing well, too, which is great.”