New course in Playoffs rotation puts everyone on an even playing field

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Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Plainfield Country Club, the first test in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup, checks in at under 7,000 yards.
August 24, 2011
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

EDISON, N.J. -- Not far from the laboratory where Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb we still use today and the phonograph long since replaced by MP3 players, the PGA TOUR makes its first visit to Plainfield Country Club this week.

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The quaint Donald Ross layout, which was completed in 1921, will present a host of challenges to the 123 players on hand to open the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup at The Barclays. Pitched fairways and those severe, speedy and sloping greens are prime among them, and the pros have had just three practice days to invent a strategy that will allow them to prosper on a course hosting its first TOUR event.

With so little time to get familiar with Plainfield, nobody has the advantage of course knowledge. The players who can figure out the nuances and sightlines the quickest should benefit the most, especially in the early rounds.

"I think it puts everybody on a level playing field," Luke Donald said. "No one has more experience than anyone else. So when it comes to golf courses, I'm just looking to see if it suits my game. I'm not really concerned with other people."

One player whom you thought might have seen Plainfield before this week is Keegan Bradley, making his first start since winning the PGA Championship. Bradley went to school at St. John's University in New York but said he never got the chance to play Plainfield, which will also host the 2015 Barclays as part of the tournament's course rotation.

"It's an hour-and-a-half from the campus," he said.

Webb Simpson, who won the Wyndham Championship last week on another Ross layout at Sedgefield County Club, says he'll rely on his caddy, Paul Tesori, even more than he might normally. Of course, Simpson, who enters the Playoffs ranked third in the FedExCup, knows he'll make the ultimate decisions so he'll need to have an equally discerning eye.

"It's a little tougher," Simpson acknowledged. "I have a great caddie who does very good, hard course preparation work. So I'm allowing him a little more this week than another week. But if I'm going to get one practice round tomorrow, come Thursday, I'll just try to be a little more aware of certain things. After I putt out, I might look at certain places on the green.

"So it is a little tougher but there's a checklist that I'll go through to make sure that I haven't missed spots where I think the pins will be and kind of go through that. I learned on Sunday something that I didn't know, you know, tomorrow. So it will be a little harder work."

Even so, Jim Furyk, who won the FedExCup a year ago, says there shouldn't be a huge learning curve. Plainfield may not be TPC Deere Run -- where Matt Kuchar joking said the Steve Stricker Invitational is held after the Wisconsite's three consecutive wins -- but the pros are paid the big bucks because they can adapt to any course or conditions.

"I think a veteran player has an advantage on a course he's played every and over and over again for 10 years," Furyk acknowledged. "We go to Colonial or Memorial or Hilton Head where I don't really need a practice round to be honest with you. I can go in on Tuesday night and play the pro-am, to see how the ball is bouncing, if the greens are hard. I can look around real quick and literally nine holes I can say, OK, I know how the course is playing and I know how I'm going to get around. ...

"I always feel like if I get around a course twice, I should be able to learn it pretty well. If it's straightforward once is good. A blind course like this, I feel like if I do my work twice around, I should be able to figure everything out fairly well. By the time I've played it three times, I know the course."

The blind shots, like the one off the tee at the fifth hole or those approaches where you can't see the pin, can be a bit off-putting, of course. But the more trips around the 6,954-yard layout, the more of a comfort zone can be found.

"There's some guesswork, because you don't really know what's out there," said Nick Watney, who leads the FedExCup and won the AT&T National on another Ross gem in Aronomink. "On some of these courses, there could be hazards or something like that, so I think the first couple of times you play it, it's a factor but after that, you've got your lines down pretty well."

Furyk agreed. "I think it was Bob Charles that said it's only blind once, so we need to do a good job as players to figure out where we are going and what shots and clubs we can hit off the tees," he said.

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Plainfield isn't the shortest course on the PGA TOUR this year -- that distinction would go to the historic Pebble Beach Golf Links at 6,816 yards -- but it certainly offers a unique set of challenges, not the least of which are the severely undulating greens. Keeping the ball in the fairway to set up approach shots that settle underneath the hole will be key.

"I think coming from the fairway will be a premium just so you can control it," Watney said. "I heard they got a lot of rain last week (a total of 9.5 inches) but the greens are firming up somewhat. And coming from the fairway will be a huge advantage. The rough's very thick. And to get the ball close, you have to be able to control spin. You can only do that out of the fairway, and so I think that would be the biggest deal."

The driveable 18th hole, an uphill 285-yarder, offers a risk-reward possibility that should sweeten the finish and add to the excitement come Sunday afternoon -- weather and Hurricane Irene permitting. Variety like that is enticing for pros like the PGA TOUR's utlimate gambler, Phil Mickelson.

"Plainfield to me is what I consider really a great golf course," he said. "It's playable for the average player while still creating challenge for the good players to score low. I think that the setup is terrific and we are going to have a great week."

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