KORN FERRY TOUR INSIDER
'The ball actually started traveling backwards'
Recalling historic opening-round 'carnage' at 2017 The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic
February 03, 2021
By Nick Parker , PGATOUR.COM
- February 03, 2021
- The opening round of the 2017 Bahamas Great Exuma Classic featured a scoring average of 80.405. (Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)
The wind was blowing so hard that the beach sand was hitting Anders Albertson like bee stings as he made the short sprint from his beachside condo to his car on the way to the course. His pre-round range session was “an absolute nightmare,” with a 35-40 mph crosswind leaving Albertson with no idea how he was actually hitting it heading into the round.
Both proved just a prelude to the difficulty of what may be the toughest round in Korn Ferry Tour history, the first round of the 2017 The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic at Sandals Emerald Bay, a round that brought a scoring average of 80.405 – the highest for a round on the Korn Ferry Tour since 1991. At the conclusion of the day, 74 of 132 players failed to break 80, with three players failing to break 90, and 1-under 71 led.
“Waking up that day blowing 40, and you know no matter how much preparation you’ve done that just goes out the window,” said Albertson, who was in second with an even-par 72. “It was one of those rare rounds where before you start it almost doesn’t feel like a tournament. It was just figuring out a way to get it in the hole 18 times, and you know everyone’s going to be up against the same fight.”
Hats off to you, Ken Looper. pic.twitter.com/syhmAZc87b— Korn Ferry Tour (@KornFerryTour) January 8, 2017
Albertson described it as “just survival” and Willy Wilcox as “just carnage everywhere.” Looking back on the day, Ben Kohles can only chuckle. It was almost fun, playing so many different shots than he was used to. Toughest round he’s ever played, though?
“No shot. By far the hardest round I’ve ever played. Not even close,” said Kohles, who shot 83, with a laugh. “It was obviously pumping, and you can’t even explain the things your ball is doing because it’s just the craziest stuff. You hit a shot and you’re just like ‘Oh my God, how is it moving that hard?’”
Added PGA TOUR member Jim Knous: “It’s got to be (the toughest round I’ve ever played). There’s no other round that is even close to that. I mean, the course is designed by Greg Norman, who makes hard golf courses, and there was just nowhere to miss on that course and then when the wind is blowing 30-plus, sustained, good luck! It was impossible!”
Knous remembers how fired up he was to be in Exuma during the practice rounds. The course was stunning, the Bahamas weather was spectacular, and the golf course seemed gettable the first two days during practice rounds with a light breeze. When go-time came, though, it was howling and Knous remembers getting quite the welcome-to-the-Tour moment when he looked down at his scorecard after the front nine and saw a 45 staring him in the face.
“That was my first Korn Ferry Tour round I had with full status, so I was pumped, jazzed, ready to go, here we go starting the season, and then I made the turn in like 45 on the front. Horrible. I was like ‘Good God. What just happened?’” Knous said.The cut line at the 2017 Bahamas Great Exuma Classic ultimately settled at 11-over 155. (Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)
Knous, who described his play that day as his B-minus game, would go on to sign for an 86 – his first time shooting in the 80s since, well, he’s not quite sure.
“That’s the crazy thing right there is it was probably in high school, like sophomore year of high school. I can’t even remember shooting over 80 before that, you know?” Knous said, laughing. “Yeah, the scoring average was super high, but I shot 86. I was like, ‘Oh my god! Do I stink? Or was that just a weird day?’ It was just a weird day!”
Wilcox, who was a PGA TOUR member at the time making a warm-up start on the Korn Ferry Tour, lives in St. Croix and is used to playing in the island breeze. Even he wasn’t ready for what he found in that first round on his way to an 86 despite three birdies.
“It was wild. It was just out of control. I remember walking up to a cameraman and you’re just screaming at the top of your lungs to hear each other,” Wilcox said. “The fact that they televised it was wild. It was out of the ordinary. If the greens had been rolling just a little bit faster, they would have had to call it.”
It’s not often one sees a 7,001-yard golf course bring the world’s best to their knees. But the Greg Norman-designed Sandals Emerald Bay course is no ordinary track. The beautiful front nine is more inland and winds through the mangroves, while nearly the entire back nine is along the beautiful scenic coastline of Emerald Bay. The Korn Ferry Tour rules staff has since started marking the mangroves in most spots as a hazard, where players could drop. But not in 2017.
“When we were playing in those winds, out-of-bounds is staring you dead in the face on every hole. You’re like, ‘Please just let me get this tee shot in play,’” Kohles said. “Because it was blowing 40, it looks tight as hell. It’s not that tight, but it’s still tight because if you barely get a shot off that’s not center hit, that thing is slicing or hooking so far and it goes in the mangroves and you got to re-tee. It was just absolute carnage.”
No hole brought more carnage that day than the par-4 12th, a hole that looks like it comes from a postcard wrapped around the cove but left players praying for par. For the round, the 12th played to 5.366 average and for the week, it played to a 5.008 average. To give it context of just how difficult that was, no hole had ever played to a scoring average more than a stroke above par previously on the Korn Ferry Tour, and the toughest non-Exuma hole in 2017 on the Korn Ferry Tour was the par-4 14th at Victoria National Golf Club, which played to a 4.555 average.
“There’s literally 100 yards right from the edge of the cove to out-of-bounds, and guys were hitting it out of bounds like clockwork,” Kohles said. “If you literally hit a one-yard fade, if that thing had the slightest amount of cut spin, that thing was slicing 50 yards and there was nothing you could do.”
For those lucky souls who found the fairway, the adventure was just getting started. Albertson remembers hitting his drive into the fairway only to have a full 3-wood into the green.
“No. 12 was beyond brutal. You could hit a good tee shot, but then the second shot was even harder than the tee shot,” Wilcox said. “I hit a ball one year that went 50 yards out-of-bounds right with a 5-iron. But it was wild. If you got out of that hole in 2- or 3-over (for the week), you were like, ‘Alright, here we go!’”
Knous remembers hitting his second shot into the greenside bunker and clipping a perfect 30-yard bunker shot at the flag only to watch it blow back at him.
“I hit probably one of the best clipped bunker shots I’ve ever had that was going right at the flag, then it hit this huge gust and the ball went up and eventually started coming back at me,” Knous said. “Tripp Isenhour from Golf Channel was standing perpendicular to me, and he said, ‘Yeah, the ball actually started traveling backwards towards you.’ It was hilarious.”The par-72, Greg Norman-designed Sandals Emerald Bay GC measures 7,001 yards. (Ryan Young/PGA TOUR)
It didn’t get any easier coming in. Despite playing downwind, the 15th, an exposed par-5 down the coastline, played to an unthinkable 5.966 average in the first round. With the tee box located just above the ocean on the furthest point of the property, Kohles remembers taking a super wide stance on his tee shot just to hold his ground enough to try to bunt a 4-iron that ended up going 280 because of the wind.
“You could barely stand up on the tee box because it was so exposed right on the point, and then these waves are crashing right behind you and you’re getting soaked because of the mist and the salt,” Kohles said.
Knous, who has been on the PGA TOUR since 2019, said he couldn’t remember a par-5 ever playing as difficult as the 15th did that day. If you happened to find the fairway, going for it was basically out of the question with the wind and where the drop location would be if you lost it. But the layup shot was narrow, too, and the third shot left nowhere to miss, with a massive deep bunker on the right and ocean on the left.
“It was so narrow with that wind that all three shots were going to be basically impossible,” Knous said. “You’re standing on the tee, thinking, ‘What do I do here?’ I can’t even think of any other par-5 that comes close to that. I can’t think of anything, even on the PGA TOUR.”
The par-3 sixth was a wild ride, too. Hitting from an elevated tee to an island green that Kohles estimates is about twice the size of the island green at TPC Sawgrass, players had to have the ultimate trust, aiming in the water and trusting the wind.
“You’re hitting like a 6-iron, so it wasn’t crazy short and it was an island green, so you just hit it and get down on your knees and pray that thing finds land,” Knous recalled of his strategy.If you literally hit a one-yard fade, if that thing had the slightest amount of cut spin, that thing was slicing 50 yards.
It’s one of those days in Korn Ferry Tour history where every player that teed it up that day seemingly has a hilarious story. Wilcox, who stayed in a house with a number of Korn Ferry Tour veterans who he said still talk about the crazy things of that day, remembers watching players hitting 5- and 6-irons into the par-3 13th, which played to around 100 yards. Albertson, who said he hit multiple drivers off the deck that day just to keep it below the wind, recalled watching Talor Gooch start a ball out over the ocean on the par-3 11th with an 8-iron only to watch the ball get up too much in the wind and hook 40 yards left of the green, caroming off the cart path into the bushes – the type of shot shape that you never see from a TOUR pro.
Knous remembers walking to the 13th green when his caddie, who was his college golf coach at Colorado School of Mines and looped for the week, was walking too close to the coastline and a wave crashed so hard that it doused his caddie, leaving him hysterically laughing on the walk to the green at his coach’s misfortune.
All carnage, and embarrassing scores, aside, it’s a day all the guys look back on, laugh and appreciate. It’s not often pros hit every chip shot throughout the day with a pitching wedge like Albertson did, choke down to the shaft on iron shots or have to factor the wind into every putt.
“Looking back on it, it was kind of fun, although at the time, it was just a grind,” Kohles said. “You’re just trying to get through it. But thinking of all the crazy shots that you’re trying to hit, it was kind of fun.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 portion of the wraparound season unfortunately won’t start in Exuma. Competition resumes at the LECOM Suncoast Classic in late February. With a winning score of 23-under 265 there last year, it’s a safe bet Korn Ferry Tour members will face an easier start to 2021 than 2017.
Kyle Thompson interview after winning Great Exuma