Insider: Players must adapt to (mostly) unfamiliar test

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July 25, 2012
Fred Albers, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

Golf courses on the PGA TOUR are like old friends you visit once a year.

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A player walks the grounds, and he recalls squeezing a shot onto a green that led toa birdie when the cup was cut near the fringe. He looks at a bunker and remembers a buried lie from two years ago, which cost him two shots. There are the spectator mounds you can use to springboard a big drive and reach a par 5 in two. It goes on and on.

That's what usually happens each week on the PGA TOUR, but not this week.

Hamilton Golf & Country Club in Ancaster, Ont., hasn't seen a PGA TOUR event since 2006, and this week marks only the fifth time in 103 years the club has hosted the RBC Canadian Open.

That means extra homework for the majority of players in the field and their caddies.

Practice rounds and the pro-am are not casual affairs this week. Players will pull out yardage books and make numerous notes.

Caddies will have walked the course before their player arrives. They check numbers in the book to make sure things have not changed since the course was last surveyed. They take note of elevation changes when a hole will play a half-club longer or shorter, depending on the slope.

Not all elevation changes are obvious. Sometimes a caddie will listen to what his legs tell him.

The learning process begins on the first tee. Players always want a target, an aiming point. A caddie will pick out a lone tree in the distance, a TV tower or perhaps the steeple of a church nearby. Like a billiard table, everything is about the optimum angle to attack the green.

Then there are distances to be learned.

How far is it to that bunker? What is the run out in the fairway on the right-hand side? What is my layup yardage and my carry distance on the par-5 17th?

That's the easy part.

The majority of a player's practice round will be spent on the green complexes, where the grass and undulation of the putting surfaces will get the most attention.

This week, Hamilton Golf & Country Club features Bentgrass greens with a mixture of Poa Annua. The rough is fescue combined with Kentucky Bluegrass. It's completely different from the Bermuda players had last week in Mississippi.

You will frequently see players referring to their yardage book on the greens. The Stracka Line book has arrows pointing out the break. Players will align the book in the direction they are facing to get an idea of what movement the putt will take.

Of course, break is merely a function of speed. So while Stracka Line will tell you what direction the putt breaks, it does not tell you how much it breaks. That must be learned through repetition. The faster the greens, the greater the break.

All this will be noted in a yardage book. Caddies sometimes make a "four square" diagram in their book representing the pro-am and first three rounds of the tournament. Each day, for each hole, he will note the yardage, club selected, wind direction and carry.

It sounds so reassuring on Sunday afternoon when you can tell your player, "We had the same number here on Tuesday and hit a 7-iron to the front of the green with a similar wind out of the west."

If it sounds like a lot to learn, that's because it is.

Now, combine the learning curve with an overseas flight from the British Open or the trip from Mississippi. Practice rounds become even more difficult when fighting jet lag.

And yet, after one trip around Hamilton, PGA TOUR players will have 99 percent of their homework complete. There are certain nuances that will unfold as the tournament progresses, but PGA TOUR players have a remarkable ability to quickly learn and adapt.

By Thursday morning, Hamilton Golf & Country Club will feel like an old friend.

Observations:

Courses: In the last decade, the RBC Canadian Open was losing its identity. It's the third-oldest tournament in golf, and yet the prestige was slipping. That's when officials decided to rotate the event through out Canada. It had a long run at a great course in Glen Abbey, but when the tournament was moved to locations like Hamilton, Shaughnessy and St. George's, PGA TOUR players began paying attention. There's the possibility Royal Montreal will host in 2014. The RBC Canadian Open has regained its prestige by going to the best courses the country has to offer.

Par 3s: Players will not go to sleep on the par 3s this week. In 2006, the par 3s yielded birdies to less than 10 percent of the shots played. The sixth measures a healthy 224 yards, the seventh is 210 while the twelfth checks at 236. The 16th hole is the only par 3 that measures less than 200 yards, and it's no pushover at 188.

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Ernie Els: The collective heartbeats of Canadian golfers skipped a beat on Sunday night when Ernie Els announced during his British Open speech, "I am supposed to go to Canada but I think I'm going to blow that thing off." Els later explained he was referring to missing the charter flight, and not the RBC Canadian Open.

Before we turn the page on Els and the British Open, but I want to point out the shot of the championship. Everyone will remember Els' birdie on the 72nd hole, but what about his approach into the 16th green? He tried to drive the short par 4 but pushed his tee ball right. Els threaded a bump-and-run onto a narrow strip of grass separating two bunkers. He missed the birdie putt, so the shot tends to be forgotten, but to have the imagination (and courage) to pull off that shot on the 70th hole of competition was memorable.

Winner, winner: Let's look back on history and see who plays well at Hamilton. Jim Furyk won in 2006 and he's one of the better ball-strikers on the PGA TOUR. We can throw the names of Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar and Ernie Els into the mix this week, but I like a long shot: Graham DeLaet. He's from Canada and will feed off the gallery's emotion.

Plus, the kid can play. He's 15th on TOUR in ball-striking and 12th in driving distance. OK, putting has been a problem: He's ranked 173rd in Strokes Gained-Putting. Every year, a Canadian threatens to win his national Open, and this is the year it happens. Oh Canada: Graham DeLaet is your champion.

Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio. The opinions listed are solely his. For more information on SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio, click here.

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