Five things to know about East Lake Golf Club
The site of the FedExCup Playoffs finale has a history of providing plenty of dramatic moments
September 14, 2018
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
East Lake Golf Club back nine flyover
If you don’t get swept up in the history of East Lake Golf Club, perhaps the philanthropic side to its story will intrigue you. To be directly tied to a cause that has helped rejuvenate an entire neighborhood makes the East Lake Foundation a model program and East Lake Golf Club as special a stage as the PGA TOUR visits.
As it has done since the FedExCup Playoffs began in 2007, East Lake GC will play host to the climactic tournament, the TOUR Championship, which will produce the FedExCup champion for 2017-18. With 30 of the game’s best talents qualified, the storylines are plentiful. Justin Thomas is trying to become the first back-to-back FedExCup champion. Xander Schauffele earned the opportunity to defend his title after a strong performance at the BMW. FedExCup leader Bryson DeChambeau could become the first player to win three Playoffs events in one season. And, of course, Tiger Woods is returning to the TOUR Championship for the first time in five years.
Here are five things to know about East Lake Golf Club:
1. Flip is not a flop: Matt Kuchar has felt a kinship with East Lake dating back to his days at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had access to the golf course associated with one of their most famous alums, Bobby Jones.
Kuchar loved the place, save for that little detail about the finishing hole, a long par-3. “Anti-climactic,” suggested Kuchar, who knew the option was to flip the nines, giving you “a chance to birdie the par-5 18th to win.”
So that was a thumbs-up from Kuchar in 2016 when the PGA TOUR indeed flipped the nines, making the closing hole a par-5 that can play up to 600 yards. Turns out, Kuchar wasn’t alone; players were near unanimous in their support and the first two years have validated the move.
In 2016, the new finish stole the show. McIlroy finished eagle-par-birdie to get into a playoff with Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell. The 18th was the first extra hole and McIlroy ignited great thunder with a second shot to 6 feet.
Though McIlroy missed the eagle putt and was pushed further into the playoff by Moore’s birdie putt (the kid from Northern Ireland would win at the 16th, the fourth extra hole), the PGA TOUR was given confirmation that this flip of the nines was a huge success. That was proven again in 2017 when Xander Schauffele birdied the final hole to stun Justin Thomas.
The flip of the nines hasn’t had an impact on the field’s scoring average. It’s been under par each of the last two years, but it also was in the red several times before the change.
The hardest holes now (Nos. 7-9, Nos. 10, 14, 15) were the hardest holes before, only numbered differently. It’s just that there are outlets to plug in the excitement with the new order of play.
2. Welcome back, Mr. Woods: This will mark Tiger Woods’ first start in the TOUR Championship since 2013 and just the fifth time he’s made it to the finale of the FedExCup Playoffs.
But it’s not as if he doesn’t have a feel for East Lake, where he also played in five TOUR Championships prior to the FedExCup era. His nine visits here have yielded a win (2007), four seconds, and two other top 10s, so, yeah, you could say the place has appealed to him.
East Lake is where one of the more comical moments occurred in the Woods and Phil Mickelson rivalry. Standing on the first tee in the 2002 TOUR Championship, Woods was introduced by the starter, who read off a list of his achievements, which grew lengthy. At one point, it appeared as if all 34 of the tournaments Woods had won at that juncture in his career were going to be mentioned, but Mickelson – then without a major – interjected, “All right, all right . . . “
The crowd erupted in laughter. So, too, did Woods, though that isn’t how he felt when he first met East Lake in 1998. That year, he opened 75-76 and didn’t make his first birdie until his 37th hole. But you could say he’s figured the place out, going a combined 66 under over his next 34 rounds.
Two of Woods’ runner-up finishes have been to Mickelson, way back in 2000, then nine years later. But in 2009, at least, Woods did win the FedExCup for the second time in three years. He remains the only two-time winner, but seeded 20th this week, Woods’ chances at a third title face long odds.
3. But Bobby Jones remains the true icon: Forever, the golf club that people will associate with the iconic Jones will be Augusta National, located approximately two hours southeast of Atlanta. But East Lake is where he first learned the game and the first course that he called home.
The great history here includes many changes – it was the original home of the Atlanta Athletic Club and at one time included 36 holes – but there’s no debating that Jones treasured his time playing these golf holes that still challenge the best players in the world.
His first ace came at what is now the par-3 11th hole – a hickory-shafted 4-iron, thank you very much – and when he returned to Atlanta after so many of his major championship triumphs, Jones relaxed at East Lake. His father had been club president and Jones served in that same capacity in 1946-47.
A second 18 designed by Donald Ross is long gone, but the famed architect is given credit for re-designing the original layout by Tom Bendelow, one that Jones reportedly thought was curious. He approved of Ross’ work from circa 1913, however, and decades later Rees Jones added restoration efforts that make East Lake a supreme par-70 challenge.
But what is not owed to either Ross’ or Rees Jones’ talents is the area inside the East Lake clubhouse where artifacts and pictures catch your attention and give you a sense of unmatched history. It’s the Bobby Jones Room and it’s a direct connection to arguably the game’s first real hero.
4. The teeth of the course: The numbers have changed, but the tough spots have not. At East Lake, players must suck it up and play some stellar golf when they get to the seventh, eighth and ninth holes.
When they were labeled the par-4 16th, par-4 17th, and par-3 18th, these closing holes were traditionally ranked among the six toughest at East Lake and leaders knew that pars could probably seal the deal. They’re still three of the most demanding holes, but coming in the middle of your round, it offers a different complexion.
And, before players get to the new closing stretch and its scoring opportunities, they must endure two more tough holes.
The par-4 14th and par-3 15th are as demanding a back-to-back challenge as any player would want.
The 14th hole -- a beefy downhill par-4 that can play up to 520 yards to a difficult green – was the hardest hole at East Lake last year. Among the 538 par-4s played on the PGA TOUR last season, East Lake’s 14th ranked No. 21 in difficulty. Players averaged 4.3 strokes on the hole and hit the green just 43 percent of the time.
Make par there and you don’t get a chance to breathe easy, because then you’re faced with a 211-yard tee shot to a green surrounded by water. Even the TOUR’s top 30 players have an over-par scoring average on the hole (3.03).
5. Golden Bear not invited: Given the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Tony Finau’s selection to round out this year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, despite not having won in 2017-18, it’s worth remembering how things have changed on that landscape. And nothing brings that home quite like a visit to East Lake GC.
That’s because it was 55 years ago when America’s Ryder Cup team arrived at East Lake without a 23-year-old dynamo named Jack Nicklaus. No matter that Nicklaus had already won the 1962 U.S. Open and two more majors earlier in ’63, the Masters and PGA Championship. (For context, imagine Brooks Koepka not being on this year’s U.S. team. You can’t.)
It was a different era and players had to serve an apprenticeship, so to speak, before being full members of the PGA, so it wasn’t until 1967 that Nicklaus was eligible. (By then, he had won seven major championships. OK, kid, I guess you have proved yourself.)
Arnold Palmer, the last playing captain in the Ryder Cup, had more than enough power at East Lake in ’63. Playing in all six sessions, Palmer went 4-2 and never sweated out the dominating victory over Great Britain, 23-9.