East Lake is no newcomer to championship golf – and, by extension, no newcomer to viewers at home. This year’s Tour Championship will be the 12th edition for East Lake – since 2007 as the culmination of the PGA Tour’s season-long FedEx Cup competition.
Founded in 1904 as the Atlanta Athletic Club, East Lake is the city’s oldest golf course. It was home to Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, was the scene of the 1963 Ryder Cup and the 2001 U.S. Amateur 18-hole layout, and is now a central element in a unique public/private venture by which the neighborhood is the beneficiary of the club’s extensive charitable efforts. The current layout is a restored version of a course that had deteriorated after World War II until Atlanta businessman Tom Cousins rescued the dilapidated facility and brought in architect Rees Jones to revive it. Along the way, the club’s distinctive Tudor clubhouse also was restored, to the point where today it is a showpiece for corporate and charitable activities as well as a golf museum.
With its MiniVerde Bermudagrass greens, Zoysia fairways and Bermudagrass rough, East Lake looks and feels on the ground and on the TV screen like a manorial parkland estate. It’s not an especially difficult course, and it’s devoid of blindness, maddening quirks or the unexpected fold in the ground. The absence of wind as a complicating factor – a function both of location and of extensive tree plantings – further simplifies the number of variables that the world’s elite 30 players will be dealing with as they vie for the FedEx Cup title.
• • •
No. 1, par 4, 424 yards
Straightaway, uncomplicated, to a fairway set perpendicular to the contour line. The hole is organized around four natural high points – tee, green and two intermediate rolls in the fairway, with most drives coming to rest beyond the second rise in a swale that leaves an uphill approach of about 140 yards to a green bunkered at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock.
• • •
No. 2, par 3, 214 yards
A perfect medium-length par-3, slightly uphill, across an inconsequential front pond, to a modestly sloped green reminiscent in its bunkering of the 11th at St. Andrews – a deep bunker front right and another deep hazard flanking the left side. The putting surface, tipped toward the tee and thus receptive of the approach, is divided by a subtle ridge that effectively splits the green. If the hole is cut on the right, you can work the ball off the slope; if it’s cut on the other side, you have to approach from the left. Wind up on the wrong side and you have a testy up-and-over long putt.
• • •
No. 3, par 4, 387 yards
Dense trees and out-of-bounds loom on the length of the right side. The smart play here off tee is a long iron or fairway wood past the first bunker on the left and short of a second bunker 300 yards out. From there, it’s just a short iron in to a green perched above the fairway and aligned from front-left to back-right.
• • •
No. 4, par 4, 440 yards
This is another hole that favors the left side of the fairway, thanks to a pair of fairway bunkers along the high side right and a dense stand of trees. The elevated green tends to attract shots that fall short thanks to front bunkers that are foreshortened and a green that tips from back to front.
• • •
No. 5, par 4, 520 yards
Here’s a members’ par-5 routed at the far end of the golf course that offers a modest reverse-camber effect and tips from high-right to low-left while bending up toward the right. A low-slung swale across the entrance tends to catch a lot of golf ball traffic, especially from approach shots played out of the rough.
• • •
No. 6, par 3, 209 yards
This is one of the country’s oldest island par-3s and surely East Lake’s most action-packed hole. The table-top green is encircled by the club’s massive lake and offers one very busy bunker on the left. If there’s any wind to be found at East Lake, it’ll be in effect here thanks to the complete exposure of the hole to the elements. A back tee, set far to the right on what is technically the wrong angle, makes the hole extremely awkward to play because the offset axis of approach lines you up over the water and makes a draw really hard to control. It also ends up making players line up far left to hit a left-to-right approach that often gets overcooked and winds up wet. The flat-profile, table-top green offers a back-left hole location behind the bunker that is the most inaccessible of any at East Lake. Here’s a hole that will decidedly play over par and presents the chance of disaster.
• • •
No. 7, par 4, 434 yards
This uphill hole twists around a strategic bunker on the (ideal) right side, 280 yards to reach and 300 yards to fly. The safer, right side of the fairway is cut off early, which means that bail-out drives often end up in dense rough that makes it hard to get to this uphill green and brings into play a very deep bunker that pinches into the front left of the approach.
• • •
No. 8, par 4, 405 yards
This is the only one of East Lake’s holes that is not set at a rigid right angle to the holes immediately in front of or behind it. There’s no need for a driver here. All that counts is getting the tee shot safely into play on an unusually contoured fairway — the rolling terrain is a remnant of Civil War-era entrenchments. From there, the short-iron approach has to be precise and with perfect spin onto the hardest green to hold at East Lake. A deep front bunker with a raised edge cuts off incoming shots and makes golfers hit it just a little harder and firmer to make sure they carry – with the consequence that many shots end up running out long and over. The perched green is the scene of many short-sided recovery shots. Here is the most delicate and subtle of East Lake’s 18 holes.
• • •
No. 9, par 5, 600 yards
Forget the length here; this will be easily reachable in two for players who can drive the ball 300-plus yards in the air and reach the downward kick point where fairway turbo-charges the ball forward. From there, short of the lake that cuts across the fairway at 380 yards off the tee, it’s a fairway wood or long iron to a green that will hold a shot slung in on the left side around a bunker that protects the front-right entrance.
• • •
No. 10, par 4, 469 yards
Another converted par 5, this one heavily bunkered the length of the fairway on the left side – close to the line best suited for approaching the small green. The putting surface is designed for a par 5 and thus somewhat elusive to long irons on a low trajectory. A deep front right bunker at the green forms a deflective angle that makes approaching on that side very difficult. This forces golfers on the tee to favor the tightly bunkered left side.
• • •
No. 11, par 3, 197 yards
This hole occupies the far northeast corner of the property and plays slightly uphill to a deep green, the rear third of which cannot be seen from the tees. It’s also heavily bunkered at 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock, which means that the oncoming middle iron has to be perfectly struck or it will bound over into heavy rough, leaving an awkward up-and-over chip shot for recovery.
• • •
No. 12, par 4, 476 yards
All of a sudden the course loses steam thanks to the three consecutive par 4s arrayed in parallel, sausage style. This downhill hole is the toughest drive of any par 4 at East Lake thanks to a massive fairway bunker on the right and an overhanging hardwood on the right that cuts off the landing area. The approach shot has to carry a steep front bunker that, from the fairway, looks bigger than the green.
• • •
No. 13, par 4, 453 yards
The uphill drive has to trundle through an ominous-looking chute of tree and needs to steer wide right of two expansive fairway bunkers 280-330 yards out on the left. The irony here and elsewhere at East Lake is that for all the normal advice of bunker avoidance, players are better off hitting an approach out of the sand than from out of the thick Bermudagrass rough.
• • •
No. 14, par 4, 442 yards
Straightaway, slightly downhill, tight off the tee, to a green with a second tier that makes getting an approach close to the hole very difficult, especially out of the rough. From behind the green, as with much of East Lake, par-saving recoveries will go a long way toward determining the winner.
• • •
No. 15, par 5, 525 yards
Now the course kicks into high gear with the first of four stirring and readily memorable holes. The pressure here on the 15th tee is that you feel like you have to make birdie just to stay abreast of the field. From the low-lying tee, the land here is just crying out for a left-to-right slider played off a deep bunker on the left side such that the land steers the ball safely around two steep fairway bunkers short right. From there, 225-240 yards out from the green, it’s an uphill slider to a potato-chip green that’s easy to hit but hard to hold if approached through the middle where the waist line is narrowest. There will be many eagles here, with the hole playing close to a 4.5 average.
• • •
No. 16, par 4, 481 yards
A dramatic downhill tumbler, with a great view of downtown Atlanta four miles to the west and a clear sense from the tee that you had better hit this fairway. The right side falls off quickly into woods; the left side gets progressively narrower from 230 to 320 yards off the tee thanks to four successive bunkers arrayed diagonally into the line of play. Catch the speed slot right center, and some players will be hitting wedge into this green. Miss the fairway, and players will have trouble keeping an approach shot from racing over and down a steep embankment.
• • •
No. 17, par 4, 453 yards
Over the years, the lake on the left side has been brought more into play. Three yawning fairway bunkers 275-320 yards off the tee are definitely to be avoided, though that brings water more into play. The raised green, protected up front, kicks everything to the left and toward that water again. Just ask Bill Haas, who in last year’s playoff with Hunter Mahan made a miraculous recovery on a ball half-submerged in the pond, then went on at the next hole to win the FedEx Cup.
• • •
No. 18, par 3, 235 yards
East Lake is one of only a handful of major-venue courses to end on a par 3. This one will get the players’ blood racing because it demands a long iron or rescue to a well-bunkered, small green perched 15 feet above the tee box. Because you no longer can get the world’s best players to hit long irons into par 4s, the only way to make them hit long clubs into the 18th hole is make them play healthy par 3s like this one. Unorthodox, but it works.