Deutsche Bank Championship: TPC Boston review

The 16th hole at TPC Boston.
The 16th hole at TPC Boston. ( Getty Images )

Monday, August 25, 2014

NORTON, Mass. – Give the PGA Tour credit. They’ve got an exciting venue here at the TPC Boston. Who cares if it’s not actually in – or even near – Boston (37 miles away). What else are they going to call it? TPC Providence (22 miles). Or worse yet, TPC Norton, where it actually is.

All that really counts is that this is a fun place for a shoot out and makes for good TV theatre, which is crucial when you’re up against week one of college football season and the final round airs Labor Day Monday. Good thing that low scores are commonplace here as the top 125 on the FedEx point list get pared down to the low 70 and move on to next week’s BMW Championship in Denver.

Here at TPC Boston, the par-71 layout, 7,216 yards (77.0 Rating / 152 Slope) rewards bold play, in large part due to a trio of par 5s that are readily reachable in two. The average winning score for the FedEx Cup’s Deutsche Bank Championship since 2003 has been 19 under par.

OK, the front nine is a little mundane, but the back nine makes up for it thanks to more of everything: elevation, cross hazards, scruffy native elements and increasing drama over the last four holes.

This Arnold Palmer-designed/Gil Hanse-redesigned layout has more character than most other TPC facilities. It also feels like it’s actually in New England, with all sorts of retro gesturing towards local layouts like The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton, Mass. There’s exposed rock, acres of tall fescue, naturalized roughs and old creaky farm ponds. Plus some interesting angles into the greens and enough kick and flair in and around the putting surfaces to command your attention, whether a player, spectator or TV viewer at home.

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No. 1: Par 4, 365 yards

It’s a bit of a shame to open up a round with a lay-up hole, but there’s no point hitting driver here since at 260 yards from the tee the fairway is at its widest (35 yard), flattest and safest as far as bunkers go. At 290 yards out it narrows considerably and leaves players with a harder shot in – a half-wedge. There’s tall fescue everywhere on the side, and islands of grassy clumps in the greenside bunker, too – all a reminder that this is a bit of old New England and rarity among the TPC courses – a layout that feels unique to the native terrain. One of many cool touches here is a deep grass hollow along the right side of the green that makes for awkward recovery.

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No. 2: Par 5, 542 yards

One reason the Tour pros like this course is because it occasionally gives them a chance to bomb away and gain an advantage. All it takes off the tee here is to favor the left side, ideally with a fade, and get the tee ball beyond a diagonal array of two key bunkers on the right, 270-310 yards out. From there, the second shot has to flirt with a grassy marshland that sprawls in front and to the right of the green. There’s a bailout short left, but the beauty of superintendent Tom Brodeur’s maintenance program is that in key areas like this he’s mowing fairway height grass right into the sand. So anything yanked left or hit a bit strong will trundle in, leaving a very unpredictable long shot from sand – or a chip along lumpy, bumpy, unpredictable short-cut ground. This is one of those real “action” holes.

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No. 3: Par 4, 208 yards

A lovely, slightly uphill par 3, to a diagonal green wrapped around a sprawling front right bunker. The green is tipped carefully so that you can easily play safely front left, but the only way to challenge a back-right position is to draw the ball in on the longer right side, which brings into play the bunker, a steep falloff and a hollow over to the green. With its exposed rock, native flower marshland and stone farmer’s wall behind, this hole showcases how a regional landscape vernacular creates a distinct sense of place.

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No. 4: Par 4, 298 yards

Anyone familiar with Merion Golf Club’s sweet little par-4 10th hole will recognize this short par 4 as a free-form version of it – with more elevation into the green. It’s the perfect little par 4: drivable, makes you think, there’s trouble if you wind up in a bunker or scrubby native wildflower, and the hole looks just great from tee to green.

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No. 5: Par 4, 466 yards

Here and throughout the course, the width and angles of play effectively mask the relative absence of elevation change on site. The drive must carry 260 yards over a well-placed fairway bunker right center that defines the ideal line of approach. From there, the second shot plays across a wetlands to a green set on a right-to-left axis, guarded by a long, deep bunker on the inside of the hole.

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No. 6: Par 4, 465 yards

Straightaway, and surely the least compelling hole on the layout, defined only by a green tipped right-to-left toward a pond and with a very tough little hole location in the front left. From tee to green it’s the one remnant hole of the original Palmer-designed layout that bore too much the mark of Myrtle Beach and not enough of rough-hewn southeast Massachusetts.

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No. 7: Par 5, 600 yards

It’s amazing what even a little change of terrain does to make a hole interesting. Here, it’s all in the second shot, which has to deal with a version of “Hell’s Half-Acre,” the famous sandy wasteland found at another long par-5 seventh hole at Pine Valley. The architectural gesture works. Few everyday golfers can handle the second-shot carry of 220 yards or more uphill to the blind landing area beyond, leaving a third shot in of 75 yards. But for FedEx Cup contestants it’s a simple act of blind faith, aided by a modest prevailing wind (7 mph average) out of the southwest and thus helping them over their left shoulder. They can hit a bold second shot easily enough but they have a distaste for shots where they can’t see the landing area. If they pull it slightly they’ll wind up in a yawning front left bunker with a difficult third awaiting.

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No. 8: Par 3, 213 yards

A simple, not-so-little platform green with a run-up ramp on the far side of a marsh, with bunkers set at 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock and a hollow around the back. It’s very much in the style of Seth Raynor and makes for a simple but effective presentation.

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No. 9: Par 4, 472 yards

During his renovation work on the course, Hanse studied Shot Link patterns and found that the more tree clearing he did here the harder the fairway was to hit. Turns out that contrary to conventional wisdom, PGA Tour pros get more disoriented when they have to create a target. The wider the landing area, the harder it is for players to put it in play. That’s because they tend to get a little looser thinking when they have more room to work the ball, and on a dramatic dogleg left like this one, the ideal draw quickly turns into a power block right or an ugly pull left. A cross bunker well short of the green effectively makes it a bit of a guessing game where to land the approach on a green that’s aligned to reward shots working in from right to left.

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No. 10: Par 4, 425 yards

An unremarkable opening to an otherwise compelling nine, thanks to a straightaway landing area with no angles or hazards and a contour mowing pattern on the sides that make the land look like it was helicoptered in from Florida. This is a lifeless hole. It’s only partial saving grace is a green with a slight diagonal tilt that brings flanking bunkers into play as well as the threat of running long into a grassy hollow.

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No. 11: Par 3, 231 yards

Stepping onto this tee is like going from Motel 6 to the Savoy. Wow, dramatic in the extreme, thanks to a green sitting 20 feet above the tee protected by a massive rift of sand that makes going for the right side (if the hole is cut there) pretty scary. The left-side approach has been dished out, making the front left of the green readily accessible, but there’s no getting to the right half without flying it there all the way. A distinctly two-tier green establishes a back-shelf hole location as about one-half shot harder than when the hole is cut on the lower deck.

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No. 12: Par 4, 461 yards

The only unbunkered hole on the course, with a drive across a tawny grassed slope that helps propel the ball sharply to the left. This is one of those holes where you have to reverse yourself: a right-to-left drive followed by a left-to-right approach into a green protected by a rock-strewn hill.

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No. 13: Par 4, 451 yards

A hole that looks tougher from the tee than it plays for these guys. Of course it helps if you regularly carry your drive 270 yards or more, which they all do. Once carried, the more ominous left side, with heavy grass and rocks scattered randomly throughout the rough, gives way to a very favorable fairway line to the green on this dogleg right hole.

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No. 14: Par 4, 495 yards

Now the course starts getting real interesting – and scenic. The idea on this long, graceful left-turning hole is to hit the left side of the fairway for an ideal line with a middle iron to the green. Tug it a bit and the ball will wind up in a nightmarish pile of rocks, mounds and deep fescue. Bail out right and you’ll next face a shot of 200-plus yards on a very tough angle over bunkers on short right, which is exactly where you’re likely to land the ball.

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No. 15: Par 4, 421 yards

This closing stretch of holes has Hanse fully engaging the golfer in his strategic options. Here the trick is to draw the player into the tightest corner of the fairway, deep on the left side, for a perfect angle and view into the green with a short-iron – at the risk of running aground amid sand off the tee. A safe tee shot to the wider right side leaves a blind entry to a perched green that does not support an approach played in from that side.

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No. 16: Par 3, 161 yards

There‘s box-seat stadium-style viewing here around this petite par 3 over water to one of the smallest greens on the course. And it’s played into the prevailing wind, however modest it tends to be in late summer. Sometimes under pressure, half shots are the hardest to pull off, especially when a slight pull brings water into play, which is the case here when the flag sits on the top-left shelf. As for the green, a big blob buried in the middle creates all sorts of segmentation on the periphery and makes putting across it something of an adventure.

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No. 17: Par 4, 421 yards

This is an absolutely ingenious hole based on the principle of a chicane, or angled chute, that feeds the ball down and around. It’s mesmerizing to play and evokes memories of the same golf landscape principle at work at both the third and ninth holes of The Country Club. Here there are more pronounced options, all created by a diagonal mound that traverses the fairway and creates three options: you can drive deep right and play down to the green from 130 yards out; you can lay-up short left and play in from 155 yards, though with your view obstructed; or you can thread a drive through the mid-fairway chicane and wind up under 100 yards out on a perfect little flat spot. The target here is the smallest green on the course, nestled low into a cove defended by sand left and heavily grassed falloffs all around.

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No. 18: Par 5, 530 yards

The green here, changed two years ago, remains somewhat controversial for its extreme internal movement. It’s now a smaller target, elevated, and heavily contoured – no doubt because it’s also readily reachable in two and thus the scene of lots of risk/reward action. It all starts with a decision at the tee: whether to back off a bit, play the drive safely left to a very inviting fairway, and play in from 240 yards out over a massive wetlands crossing; or to bomb it past two central bunkers and come as close as possible to two others on the far side of the landing zone 300 yards out. There’s also a chance to utilize the firm ground game and exploit another mid-fairway chicane that’s the reverse image of the one at the 17th hole, which if successfully negotiated leaves a player only 180 yards out. The old green was miles wide, and since Tour-quality players never hit short, they just miss it right or left, there was little question they’d get home, Now that’s more of a question since the new green, 30 percent smaller and perched, brings more trouble into play, including wetlands on the right that had hardly been relevant before. This is an exciting finishing hole, with lots of possibilities across the spectrum of scores from 3 through 7. readers: We value your input and welcome your comments, but please be respectful in this forum.