Insider: Change will be good for those competing at Liberty National

John Swantek and Amanda Balionis take an in-depth look at The Barclays.

August 21, 2013
By Fred Albers, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent

The question caught me by surprise.

I was walking, just inside the ropes, on the ninth hole at Liberty National in 2009 during The Barclays when a voice asked, “What do you think of this golf course?”

Maybe not a surprising question had it come from the gallery, or one of the marshals, but it was Phil Mickelson who had asked the question.

He was in the midst of a frustrating tournament and apparently wanted to chat. That, in itself, is not unusual. Mickelson has a very active mind on the golf course and will occasionally chat while a round is in progress.

You have to be very careful when talking to a player in the midst of competition. You don’t want to say anything that will affect his play, but Mickelson had initiated the conversation and I thought he wanted someone to tell him the golf course was flawed. So I gave him my honest assessment: there was too much movement in the greens considering the length of the holes.

Phil did not want to talk about the greens but had plenty to say about the length at Liberty National. Mickelson went on to tell me he was a member there and had never even seen some of the tees that were being used that week.

Phil wanted to vent some frustration. I listened and the whole conversation lasted about 200 yards. I digested Mickelson’s critique, compared it with other opinions and found Liberty National was evoking quite a few discussions.

I fully understand looking at a golf course is like looking at a painting. Some people look at Jackson Pollock’s work and see a masterpiece; some see high-priced nonsense. Golf architecture, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder but there was some negative beholding going on that week.

Now, that viewpoint was not unanimous. Padraig Harrington went out of his way to praise the golf course and Heath Slocomb did not do any complaining, but there were enough objections that the club listened, evaluated and made changes.

Don’t you just love it when officials actually listen to criticism and not just discard it as sour grapes? When egos don’t get in the way of improvement?

Tournament officials call them “tweaks,” but 15 holes have been modified. Greens were moved and creeks were rerouted. The putting surfaces at Nos. 3 and 18 were entirely redone.

And it turns out Mickelson was correct.

The course was playing a little too long at some critical junctures. The 331-yard 16th hole was designed as a drivable par 4, but players never attempted to hit driver. A risk-reward hole had turned into a boring lay-up and wedge.

That has changed.

Holes have been shortened, landing areas have been widened and the grass has been cut.  The rough has gone from mop-top to crew cut.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the New York City skyline and views from the golf course. The former landfill boasts the best panorama of Manhattan. Forget that Circle Line cruise, buy a ticket to The Barclays and see the best view of the Statue of Liberty.

I’m not saying PGA TOUR players are huddled masses or wretched refuse, but Lady Liberty is lifting her lamp beside the golden door that is Liberty National.

I’m glad I listened to Phil Mickelson four years ago and I’m equally glad The Barclays tournament officials did as well.


Rough: Nothing artificially inflates the scores of a tournament quicker than long rough, and that brings with it a huge element of luck. One ball kicks into an unplayable lie just 1 yard from the fairway, while another sits up in the tall grass. Look at the results of tournaments that feature long fescue and you will occasionally see a “fluke” winner. That shouldn’t happen this week. The rough at Liberty National resembles the grass we see at Augusta National. The more times a great player can get his club on the golf ball, the greater the chance he can separate himself from the field.

Jersey boy: There is nothing better than returning to your hometown a success. That's why Morgan Hoffmann should savor every moment this week. Everyone knows he went to school at Oklahoma State but Hoffmann is from the Garden State, having grown up in Franklin Lakes. He is still very much a Jersey boy, albeit without the accent. Hoffmann took time out to give a clinic and talk with local school kids following a practice round at Liberty National this week.

Par 3s: Pay attention to the par 3s this week. Hole Nos. 2, 4, 11 and 13 could determine the tournament. The 11th is the longest of the four stretching a possible 250 yards with water on the left. The 13th is the shortest at 130 yards with the Statue of Liberty on the right. But the fourth hole might be the best of the foursome. It’s 190 yards and plays the same as it did in 2009. It runs straight back toward Manhattan and is well bunkered. The architects purposely framed this hole with trees both left and right. From the tee, those trees are like the edges of a photo directing your eyes at both the flagstick and the New York City skyline. It’s picture perfect.

Winner, winner: Players used to walk off the golf course at Liberty National talking about the great views of New York City. Now, they head to the clubhouse discussing the great layout. The greens have been modified, the fairways widened and the rough has been cut. That combination will produce a memorable winner such as Dustin Johnson. He finished T15 at Liberty National in 2009 and plays well at seaside courses in windy conditions, such as the Plantation Course at Kapalua in Maui or Pebble Beach. Johnson also comes to the Barclays with some momentum following an eighth-place finish at the PGA Championship. Granted, there could be distractions as he got engaged to Paulina Gretzky last week, but I believe that’s more inspiration than distraction. Johnson is "Great One” this week and wins The Barclays.

Fred Albers is a course reporter for SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio.  For more information on SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio, click here.