LOS ANGELES — The slightest bit of excess moisture or firmness might have turned Los Angeles Country Club’s 15th hole into a freak show Saturday at the Walker Cup. So how perfectly did the 78-yard par 3 play?
With the 2023 U.S. Open in mind, USGA executive director Mike Davis ordered the USGA’s agronomy and setup team to document firmness readings for reference six years down the road. Because at 78 yards, it’s probably the first sub-90-yard hole played in a significant championship and definitely the first under 80 yards.
As short as the steeply pitched green played, the slightest bit of excess moisture or firmness would’ve made the hole a beast. Instead, it was a beautiful – sometimes zany – exhibition of wedge play into a green area just eight paces wide and pitched at 3-percent slope.
The players not only performed beautifully – four birdies, nine pars and one bogey (by LACC’s own Stewart Hagestad) – but the thrilling dynamics introduced into match play made it the epicenter of Saturday’s singles matches. Besides Davis, setup man Jeff Hall watched anxiously to see if the decision to play the shortest hole imaginable would work. As did architect Gil Hanse, who oversaw the restoration of George Thomas’s wily par 3, and even most of the senior members of LACC’s maintenance crew, who came out to see if the hole location would succeed.
Braden Thornberry’s stock par in the first group out confirmed that playing to the green’s center would work, followed by Harry Ellis’s marvelous up-and-down from the back bunker edge. The hole was definitely playable. The second match’s near ace by Norman Xiong reaffirmed the hole’s vulnerability to a perfect shot. And an all-world up-and-down by Will Zalatoris, who airmailed the pin and ended up in a back wing of the green, confirmed the sheer madness of it all.
“It’s honestly the coolest hole I’ve ever played,” Zalatoris said. “Especially in match play; it’s so awesome.”
Here was the situation for the Wake Forest senior, who arrived at the 15th 1 up in his match versus Matthew Jordan: “I think I shot 78 to the flag and I was trying to play it 90. I was trying to throw it all the way up on the hill and rip it back.”
Zalatoris hit his shot in the back-right area where the hole will be placed in one of Sunday’s sessions. His ball spun back into the fringe, leaving a shot around the bunker, down a steep slope with a huge bump in the way complicating the entire affair.
“I’m actually angry that I hit that bad of a shot,” Zalatoris said, “because it would have been really cool to just have run one down the hill.”
Zalatoris also knew that Jordan faced a tricky up-and-down. Looking at multiple paths to the hole, he finally chose a bold path by clipping his wedge and watching it slowly feed down to the hole. He secured the par with a putt, and ultimately won his match, 2 up.
Collin Morikawa hit the green and halved the hole with Paul McBride, but loved the challenge.
“You’re hitting a little pitch shot over a bunker with like 8 yards to land it,” Morikawa said. “And I don’t think I can remember a hole especially in college golf or amateur golf where we’re hitting it this short and create so much havoc because of the rough. The greens were definitely a lot firmer I think from the morning, so I think playing that today was awesome.”
Not everyone was thrilled. Even though he hit his tee shot to about 10 feet, two-putted and won the hole in his victory over Stewart Hagestad, GB&I’s Jack Singh Brar wasn’t a fan.
“It doesn’t really quite suit the rest of the golf course because the course is a bit a beast and then they chuck in a little 78-yard par 3,” Singh Brar said. “But it’s such a demanding shot for only being 78 yards. I think if it was further back it would probably be an easier shot.”
Easier probably would not have been better, nor would longer. For the people setting up the shortest hole ever played in a significant championship, everything about it was just right.