My old college buddy Z-Man is a member at Hazeltine National, a past US Open and PGA Championship site, and the host course for this year’s Ryder Cup. Z invited me to play there a few years ago. We originally planned on three rounds; at the conclusion of the second, I felt like I had gone 15 rounds on consecutive days with Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier. We spent out what was to be our third round hanging out at Lord Fletcher’s on Lake Minnetonka eating pan-fried walleye, downing Bloody Mary’s, and watching young ladies of Scandinavian descent hop on and off various motorized nautical vehicles. It was one of the few times I did not regret making a planned tee time.
Hazeltine is one of the three most difficult tracks that I’ve played – Carnoustie and Bethpage Black being the other two. There’s nothing unfair about Hazeltine – but as noted course designer Tom Doak has said about Carnoustie, Hazeltine is depressingly efficient in drawing out the deficiencies in one’s game. Miss a fairway, play from 2 ½ inches of bluegrass rough. Get on the wrong side of a pin location, face a slick downhill putt that regularly stimps at 11 ½ for the members.
The course’s first foray into major championship golf was to host the 1970 US Open. To say that it played to less than stellar reviews would be roughly akin to acknowledge that Donald Trump may be prone to hyperbole. Tony Jacklin was the victor, the first British player to win since 1924; however, the most memorable comment came from runner-up Dave Hill who, when asked what the course lacked, replied “Eighty acres of corn and a few cows. They ruined a good farm when they built this course.”
After fending off bankruptcy, Hazeltine underwent significant renovation and was tapped to host the 1991 US Open, which produced a far more exciting tournament. The late Payne Stewart and Scott Simpson were tied after 72 holes; Stewart prevailed in the playoff to claim the second of his three major trophies.
The PGA Championship has been held there twice and produced two rather unlikely winners, with one Tiger Woods being the equally unlikely victim in both instances. In 2002, Rich Beem, who not long before this was selling mobile phones and the subject of Alan Shipnuck’s raucous “Bud, Sweat, and Tees: Rich Beem’s Walk on the Wild Side of the PGA Tour”, played the golf of his life and performed a victory snake dance on the final hole (Woods, for his part, was pulling off ridiculous shots like this).
The 2009 PGA was even more bizarre, as Woods had the lead into the final round, a position which, as we had been reminded countless times during his career, he had never surrendered in a major championship. But Woods uncharacteristically faltered, limping to a 3 over par 75 while the golfing world witnessed the spectacle of South Korea’s Y.E. Yang becoming the first Asian-born winner of a major championship. And a few months later, Tiger would have an entirely different set of issues to face.
The hole at Hazeltine that stands out the most to my recollection is the par-4 16th , which Johnny Miller has described as the “hardest I’ve ever played in my life”(as an FYI, it should be noted that the 16th is rated as the 9th handicap hole, but Miller is not far off in his assessment). One must drive over Lake Hazeltine while making sure he doesn’t run through the fairway, lest his ball finds a bordering creek. There is seemingly about a 5 square yard area in the fairway that gives one a good peek at the green, which sits on a peninsula in the aforementioned lake. When I played it the first time, it took the Z-Man a good minute or so to convince me where to aim my tee shot, such was the incongruity of the landing area.
For the Ryder Cup, Hazeltine may not play as difficultly as I’m describing, as the host captain generally has the final say in regards to course setup. From what Z-Man tells me, it looks like US skipper Davis Love III, in an effort to help out the bombers on the American team, has requested that the normally fierce rough be cut shorter to lessen its punishing effect on any wayward drives. This bit of pseudo-chicanery is quite common in this series by both sides – for its part, when the Euros host the Cup, the greens are typically slower and the rough is higher.
This will be DL3’s second crack as the American captain – he was at the helm in 2012 at Medinah when, after taking a seemingly commanding 10-6 lead into the Sunday singles matches, the US team collapsed spectacularly, allowing the Euros to duplicate the US’s improbable 1999 comeback. But apparently, the players prefer Love’s laid-back personality (as opposed to that of Tom Watson, who Phil Mickelson openly called out in the presser after the last US debacle at Gleneagles in 2014) and to be fair, it was a somewhat improbable comeback by the Europeans.
His counterpart, Darren Clarke, has already set his team (Love still has four picks to make) which will feature 6 Ryder Cup rookies. Past US nemesis Ian Poulter is sidelined by injury, and some eyebrows were raised by Clarkie’s selection of Thomas Pieters over Russell Knox. Luke Donald was also passed over; however, Clarke can still call on Ryder Cup veterans like Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy (although his performance with the putter lately has been abysmal), and the forever irrepressible (or, depending on which side one supports, annoying) Sergio Garcia to make life miserable for the home side.
Meanwhile, Love will have some interesting decisions to make with his remaining slots – he had hoped that Ricky Fowler would automatically qualify at the Barclays at Bethpage (Patrick Reed, who became something of an instant hero/villain at the 2014 Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, did so with his victory there), but ol’ High Tops (who is now sporting a moustache that would embarrass a porn star) faded on Sunday, and is now part of a mix that includes Jim Furyk (making a decent run coming off a wrist injury), Matt (Mr Bronze) Kuchar, Bubba Watson, and J.B. Holmes, all of whom have Cup experience – albeit in a decidedly mixed fashion. Poor Furyk has experienced more frustration in the Ryder Cup than just about anyone, Kuchar has been decent, and who knows what to expect from Bubba, who has more mood swings than the Trump campaign. The wild card may be Holmes, whose only appearance in the Ryder Cup was a brilliant one in 2008, which, coincidentally, was the last year that the US came away with a victory.
In any event, Hazeltine’s history suggests that we should expect the unexpected, which, given the dearth of US wins in recent history, might indicate a victory for the red, white and blue. My prediction will come once the US team is finalized, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince me. Maybe Dave Hill needs to convince the powers that be to plant some corn.
All I know is that Z-Man will be there, no doubt knocking back a Grain Belt beer or two and moaning about the lack of rough on the course.