BMW Championship: Conway Farms, hole-by-hole preview
LAKE FOREST, Ill. – PGA Tour pros and the attentive public watching at home probably know that a metro area the size and population of Chicago has a lot of fine golf courses. Yet this is the first time Conway Farms Golf Club will be in the national spotlight – following, that is, its duties as home to the 1997 NCAA Division I Championship, the 2009 Western Amateur and the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. This Tom Fazio design, opened as a private club in 1991, occupies 209 rolling wooded acres in the leafy suburban enclave of Lake Forest, 35 miles north of downtown Chicago and three miles inland of Lake Michigan.
Unlike the other major Chicago tournament sites – Medinah, Olympia Fields, Cog Hill and Butler National – Conway Farms has an intimate feel. The course, the grounds and the country-style clubhouse all convey the look of a stately outpost in the prairie. For a golf club set amid relatively recent suburban residential and commercial development, bounded by the Tri-State Tollway on one side and a commuter rail line on the other, that is a considerable achievement.
At 7,132 yards and par 71, Conway Farms will play short by modern tournament standards for the BMW Championship, the third of four FedEx Cup playoff events. The 70 starters leading the FedEx Cup points race – hoping to be among the 30 who move to the finals at East Lake in Atlanta the next week – must deal with a course that is receptive to players on their game yet brutal to golfers who are off even a bit. Small misses and less-than-ideal ball-striking will result in shots finding very awkward areas. Expect a considerable spread in scoring this week, a rarity in modern tournament play.
With 24 acres of modestly contoured fairway and landing-area widths varying from 22 to 35 yards, Conway Farms is not overly restrictive. (By contrast, Merion for the U.S. Open had only 18 acres of fairway.) Most of the trouble is greenside – convex kick-outs on the perimeter make for maddening recovery. And yet the whole site has a soft look thanks to 60 acres of wildflowers and native grasses.
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No. 1: Par 4, 355 yards
Your proverbial “gentle handshake” of an opening hole, this one they’ll play with less than a driver off the tee, or whatever it takes to steer clear of twin deep bunkers on the right that are 226 yards to reach and 275 to clear. If they steer clear and drive it straight or a bit left, another bunker comes into play on the left 285 yards out. There’s no real advantage to a driver over a fairway wood because it’s only a short iron or wedge to a green well protected up front and narrow from left to right.
The hole sets a clear tone for the presentation of issue at Conway Farms: closely cropped, lush but tight Penncross bentgrass fairways, a modest intermediate perimeter band of rough cut at 1.25 inches and a thicker stand of 3-inch deep Kentucky bluegrass as primary rough. The modestly sized (6,000 square feet on average) Penncross greens, cut to one-tenth of an inch, will roll about 12-12.5 on the Stimpmeter. All of which makes for a fair if manageable setup for golfers who keep the ball in play and that will stress those who don’t.
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No. 2: Par 3, 196 yards
An elegant par 3, slightly uphill, with a densely bunkered kidney-shaped green that gets more elusive the farther back the hole is cut. The back-left hole location is especially tough because the narrow putting surface there starts to fall away and is protected by sand on both sides.
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No. 3: Par 4, 402 yards
A bit of a traffic jam at the tee – the price paid for returning to the front door of the clubhouse where fan traffic converges with play from returning nines. The hole is straightaway and plays through a chute of trees that appears narrower than it actually is. There will be a lot of layups here off the tee because the ground short of the bunker on the right (265 to reach, 285 to carry) is much wider than the ground past it. The difference between hitting an approach from 140 yards out (short of the bunker) or from 90 yards (past the bunker) is not enough to make the majority of pros risk a driver.
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No. 4: Par 4, 486 yards
A big hole with an open-prairie look. The right side is restricted by a line of oak trees 315 yards off the tee, which tends to squeeze drives over to the left and near a looming fairway bunker. That’s also the better line of approach, because the steadily sloped green is tipped high right to low left.
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No. 5: Par 4, 470 yards
Awkward, very hard: A reverse-camber dogleg right whips around a tree-lined bend that’s also protected by a yawning bunker. The fairway funnels down in the landing area and makes it hard to contain shots left of the bunker from running into deep rough – and a thick stand of trees. The ideal approach is a mid- or short-iron approach played left-to-right to a slightly elevated putting surface. It’s simply a disorienting hole that requires a lot of discipline to maintain one’s playing lines.
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No. 6: Par 3, 218 yards
Very difficult-looking shot. The forced carry over marsh won’t be an issue for these players, but overhanging trees make the right side of the green hard to access. The green falls away steeply up front and left into a bunker so that anything not flighted well into the putting surface easily can run off.
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No. 7: Par 4, 340 yards
Options abound off the tee on this short, tempting, dogleg-left par-4. OK, it’s the tiniest green on the course, perched up above three deep bunkers and with a very tough recovery from behind that includes a newly installed bunker. The hole presents an attacking golfer with safe and risky paths. The key is to avoid a right-side bunker 238 yards out, as well as a mid-fairway bunker that’s 225 yards to reach and requires a 275-yard carry to clear the sand as well as the mound behind it. An iron off the tee to the fat of the fairway leaves a wedge approach in. Bolder play with a fairway metal between the two bunkers into a strait of fairway leaves a better line in from a shorter distance. There’s also the half-bailout option right of or just past the central mound, with a 3-wood or driver that leaves a clear line in from very close. Finally, there will be those with a full-bore approach who can reach either the front of the green or the three protective bunkers at its entrance. The prevailing wind off Lake Michigan – from behind – will help here. All of which should make for a good mix of strategies for spectators onsite and viewers at home.
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No. 8: Par 5, 600 yards
Every once in a while, a bunker grabs your attention and simply mesmerizes you – or, in the case of one particularly deep greenside bunker on this long par 5, powerfully affects how you play the hole every step of the way. An expansive pond is in play the length of the left side, from the inside of the landing area on the tee shot to well past the landing areas of second shots. It's enough to make most players steer cautiously to the right and play the hole the long way, reducing to a handful the players who can risk two full-bore shots to reach this elevated green. But the real imperative here is to avoid five front bunkers at the base of the green – one of those hazards being so steep and sheer-faced that it seems the bunker floor never sees the light of day. The look of the shadow trapped within it determines one’s strategy playing the hole. There’s a lot to behold on this hole: the scale of the par 5, the apparent safety of the right side and the trouble posed by anyone seeking to take a shortcut.
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No. 9: Par 4, 405 yards
Here’s the least-complicated hole on the course, a modest-length two-shotter where the object off the tee is to keep the ball left of center. That means hugging the tree line. From there, the left-to-right green opens up perfectly, especially when the hole is cut back-right over a pair of bunkers.
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No. 10: Par 4, 458 yards
Here’s a very demanding par 4, with a creek running the length of the right side and very much in play for wayward drives and approaches hit just short and/or with too much rightward drift. In steering clear of that stream and a steep fairway bunker 295 yards out, it’s easy to end up hitting it through the fairway and into left-side rough.
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No. 11: Par 3, 150 yards
A very Florida-like hole, with the green set diagonally on the far side of a big pond and a forced carry all the way. A small, front-right bunker creates the appearance of two different greens, one on each side of it. Anything hit on the far right side of the putting surface could readily roll off into the water. And there’s a back-left bunker that will get plenty of play; golfers are prone here to taking a half-club more than needed or simply to stepping on an iron shot with special urgency – leaving a difficult downhill recovery back to the green.
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No. 12: Par 4, 419 yards
Here the course enters a four-hole stretch on its westward edge where it feels tightened down by trees and perimeter framing that fends off the outside world. The tee shot here is a bit disorienting due to the offset angle that mismatches the landing area from the teeing ground – and it’s not a bad thing to force strong players to commit to a line that their eye doesn’t settle on. The ideal line is right center, but with trees down that side and the tee oriented toward a nasty bunker complex on the left 265-305 yards out, golfers are fighting their instincts here. The landing area leaves a slightly uphill shot that has to skirt overhanging trees on the right. The putting surface is well bunkered up front, which tends to promote stronger-than-needed approaches. Anything hit behind the hole leaves a very quick, downhill putt.
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No. 13: Par 4, 465 yards
Power draw off the tee goes a very long way (a fade, that is, for Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson). The green here is deep but also thin across its waist and basically two-tiered. Getting the ball to the back pod is difficult given the elevated target and the deflective nature of the contouring (and bunkering) in that deepest section of the green.
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No. 14: Par 5, 585 yards
Plays downwind, but tight all the way and to a well-protected green that’s hidden from view from the approach zones after the drive and most second shots. Most drives will land short of the left-right bunker complex that’s 325 yards off the tee. From there, some 275 yards out, a protruding knob with deep bunkering cuts off a view of the green and forces golfers to decide to lay up with a mid-iron or hit a full-bore fairway metal. The green has enough of a rise and a false front to make it unreceptive to a run-up. But there’s also no great hazard to face here; merely deep bunkers or consistently lush, dense rough grass around – not enough to deter players of this caliber from having a whack at it in two. This is one of those holes that really separates mid-handicappers from Tour players. They’ll have little problem with it.
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No. 15: Par 4, 342 yards
Here’s the real action hole at Conway Farms, short enough to tempt bold players and perched close enough to water and so tightly protected by sand that trouble looms on every shot. And the best thing is that none of it is hidden. In fact, it all stares you in the face from the tee. It all starts with a pond down the left side that laps the fairway and the green. There’s no problem off the tee when the club of choice is a long iron to the fat of the fairway. The risk on the drive comes with a longer club that, if pulled even slightly, will find the water in a hurry. And with the left side of this thin green tipping toward the water as well, the lake comes into play for any approach (especially from the fairway safe zone) that is ever-so-slightly left of target. The front-left hole location is by far the hardest to get close to because it brings sand into play up front – and the pond left and immediately behind. For players trying to drive this green, the prevailing wind, slightly helping and from the right, will aid in their effort to find the little neck of approach fairway. The front bunkers are not a bad bailout – certainly better than the rough or bunker right of the green, which leave a delicate downhill recovery with that water lurking.
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No. 16: Par 4, 466 yards
Tough, long, demanding and uphill all the way. A very deep fairway bunker starting at 280 yards out grabs anything hit left of center. The better position is right of center, leaving 165-185 yards in to a dangerously tight green across its axis that appears to offer no support when viewed from the approach zone. It will be fun watching player after player struggling with the third shot from low left of the putting surface.
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No. 17: Par 3, 205 yards
Great theater from the highest ground of the back nine, where the tee looks down upon an unusually wide, receptive green. There’s a cove of putting surface on the far right that is extremely hard to get to – an ideal hole location for Sunday. Most shots here will be played safely left to the fat of the green.
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No. 18: Par 5, 570 yards
Let there be 3s and 7s here. All of the elements of good risk/reward are present, thanks to a creek that starts on the right of the drive landing zone, crosses the fairway, laps the left side of the second-shot landing area and crosses back again in front of the green. The fairway is wide enough to encourage bold play. Anyone approaching from more than 270 yards will have to decide whether to risk carrying the last creek crossing or lay up safely to 85 yards out. This will be a fun concluding hole to watch, especially Sunday as players worry not only about their finish in this event but also finishing among the top 30 in FedEx Cup points so they can move on to the Tour Championship at East Lake.