DORAL, Fla. – He’s been coming to this place since 1977, the era of Nicklaus and Watson, and the year when Andy Bean edged David Graham by a stroke to win what was called the Doral-Eastern Open Invitational.
But so many return trips since had rendered pre-tournament walks meaningless. “There was no need,” said Mike “Fluff” Cowan. “It was always the same.”
It might have been labeled “The Blue Monster,” but to the caddies who take pride in meticulous notes on golf courses and want to know every crease and every slant, it was “The Big Bore.” The Blue Course at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa simply offered no surprises year after year after year. It was like settling into that most comfortable recliner in the den.
“You could read your putt after hitting your second shot onto the green,” longtime caddie Tony Navarro said.
Routine? Stale? The annual tournament stage here at Doral defined the words. You hit driver, 6-iron onto the green at the par-5 first, made eagle or birdie, then birdied the shortish second, held serve at the par-4 third and par-3 fourth and you were off on a round of golf that offered you tee shots and approaches and putts that required very little strategy and offered very little suspense.
So as Gareth Lord, who caddies for Henrik Stenson, and Craig Connelly, who works for Martin Kaymer, strolled up the 18th fairway in pulsating sunshine Tuesday morning, they were asked what they would have been doing at this time, 9:15, a year ago?
They laughed and said most likely in South Beach. “And still in bed,” added Lord.
Indeed, the caddies need to be on their games this week, because architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner have worked their magic to produce a golf course that gives Donald Trump good reason to boast. Now The Donald doesn’t always need just cause, but he has it this week.
“It looks spectacular,” said Lord, and Connelly turned to his left as he walked the 18th fairway, glanced at the tee box for the par-3 ninth and nodded his head. “What he’s done here is fantastic.”
He was referring to the massive theater area where you can stand or sit behind the 18th green and look across a pond and watch guys play the 200-yard ninth, then look farther to the right and see tee balls struck at No. 10. If it figures to be the most popular vantage point to take in the action at this week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, it hardly is the only one. With a mind toward the fans, Hanse has provided a handful of other places to camp out and watch. Some of the best: right of the hole at the par-3 15th, behind the green at the drivable par-4 16th and behind the seventh green.
Clearly, there will be decisions for fans, but there was no option for caddies. Knowing that the one-year redesign had been completed and it’s basically a new golf course, this was not a week in which memory would serve them. So on Tuesday, the course was packed with caddies, “as it was on Monday and Sunday,” said Jimmy Johnson, who works for Steve Stricker and has been coming to Doral for perhaps 20 years, many times for Nick Price.
Did he bring his old yardage book? Johnson shook his head. “I left it at home. I just didn’t want to confuse myself.”
A few caddies suggested the old yardage books were pretty much useless, because changes ranging from minor to significant have been made to 15 of the 18 holes. Even those that play basically the same – Nos. 3, 4 and 18 – have had alterations to the greens. New sight lines, different carries, changes in putting slopes . . . caddies were busy getting it all in.
Johnson said it had taken him a few walks, but still, “I”m not done with the eighth, yet.”
The par-5 eighth is one hole that plays entirely different from what it used to, for now it is stretched to 549 yards and the green sits out on a peninsula, tucked behind a series of bunkers.
As caddies walked quietly and took notes, players started to filter onto the new and improved practice range, and there to meet them was Trump himself. He talked with Bill Haas, greeted Hunter Mahan and Luke Donald, held court with Zach Johnson, and briefly with Justin Rose.
The whole time, Hanse stood at the far corner of the range just absorbing some of the comments he had heard. Sergio Garcia has given it thumbs up, with particular praise for the revamped seventh and 14th holes, while Stricker mentioned that the hole he disliked the most – the par-3 13th – had been made into one that he really liked.
Hanse nodded, but he knows how this needs to be played out. “It’s fine and it’s nice to hear,” he said, “but we have to let them play and then see, don’t we?”
Yes, we do, but earlier, some players had tried to figure out how they’ll play these more demanding shots by taking on the challenge of a practice round over a spot that is arguably one that could be a make-or-break decision. It’s the tee shot at the 16th, and the question is simple: To drive or not to drive?
With a section of trees taken down, players can stand on the 16th tee and look over a pond at a green that is roughly 341 yards away. In reality, though, it’s about a 290-yard carry to the front of a green whose front part is sloped in a way to possibly repel balls back down the slope toward a pond.
“Would you have a spare ball?” Lord yelled over to a group on the tee at No. 3. Matteo Manassero made sure a ball got tossed to Lord, though Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, as he settled over his tee shot at No. 3, knew what Lord’s intention was and offered: “It doesn’t roll down.”
Whack! Fernandez-Castano drove his shot at the third, just as Lord was taking the golf ball and tossing it into the air onto the green at the 16th. It rolled backward, down the slope, through the fringe, but just as Fernandez-Castano predicted, it stopped short of the water.
At least on this day it did. But what happens if the sun bakes the place out a little more, the greens get even more firm, and the speeds pick up?
Like Hanse said, we’ll have to wait and see, because the truth is, all of this is so new to everybody.
Which is sort of the fun to this week’s tournament, eh?