Liberty National acquits itself nicely as match-play venue

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports Images

Liberty National acquits itself nicely as match-play venue

PGA Tour

Liberty National acquits itself nicely as match-play venue

JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Match play served up a miracle cure for Liberty National.

The Bob Cupp-Tom Kite design, once so loathed by pros that it finished last in a 2012 PGA Tour player course ranking, succeeded as a match-play venue. The course Tiger Woods cracked wise on eight years ago in the first of two PGA Tour hosting gigs, made an international name for itself at the 2017 Presidents Cup. Just don’t ask the International Team to recount fond memories after a 19-11 drumming.

Granted, the resurrection didn’t happen easily. There were the millions spent to execute 74 changes in 2011, including three green rebuilds and a rethinking of the course setup. A successful 2013 Barclays – now the Northern Trust – helped, but a bold re-routing of the course this time around still meant uncertainty as a serviceable venue in spite of the magnificent conditioning by superintendent Greg James’ crew.

After all, no matter how much more palatable some design features become when individual scores are set aside for match play, this was the infamous Liberty National. How would the world react to a new routing featuring a par 38-33 sequence with a 4,232-yard front nine, and with the club’s normal 18th playing as No. 14 for the matches?

Turns out, the effort paid off and Liberty National will be remembered for more than just the mesmerizing views.

“I think the course is a great match-play course,” U.S. captain Steve Stricker said. “There’s reachable par 5s, some good par 3s, great setting with the Statue of Liberty in the background.”

The new routing was introduced with an eye toward getting most matches to reach the club’s waterside 18th with a mid-course stretch of risk-reward holes. Envisioned by John Mutch, the PGA Tour’s advance official in charge of the Presidents Cup, there was also input from PGA Tour Design’s Steve Wenzloff, overseer of tweaks to Liberty National for the Presidents Cup and perhaps again in advance of the 2019 Northern Trust.

Dangerously, the course started with quite possibly the meanest, craziest opener in team golf history: a tight par-4 with water in play. The intimidating setting included a tee engulfed in white grandstand dressings and an electronic stadium-style scoreboard. The mini-arena made history Thursday by hosting three former Presidents of the United States, and though the 423-yarder will never be remembered as a textbook starter, it led to enough lively match moments while helping pave the way for better stretches later in the round.

The PGA Tour had crunched the numbers to determine most Presidents Cup matches end by the 15th or 16th hole, with only 38 percent of matches having made it to the 18th before the kickoff at Liberty National. This justified the re-routing, even though this left the course with match-play unfriendly par-3s at the 16th and 18th.

As lopsided as the final outcome appeared, most of the matches were tight through nine holes. However, it was the back nine where the U.S. asserted its dominance. No one could pinpoint an architectural reason, but the odd ebb-and-flow managed to work. Jordan Spieth believed something beyond the golf course made the ultimate difference.

“As a team, we’ve played 12 to 18 extremely well this week, something that we’ve struggled to do, especially in The Ryder Cup,” he said after going 3-1-1 in the Presidents Cup. “I think we’ve had a lot of matches flip at that point in time historically. This has been a phenomenal confidence booster for us to be able to close matches and flip matches in those late holes where we can really ride this momentum with the crowd. I think it just has to do with knowing each other a bit better and being able to trust each other a bit more.”

The golf world can now trust Liberty National a bit more, too. Gwk

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