Changing course

It's only been 10 years since the PGA Championship was last played at Atlanta Athletic Club, but there are significant changes from tee to green on the Highlands Course. The bottom line, though, is that anyone who wants to win will really need to keep his ball in the fairway.


As they make their way around Atlanta Athletic Club, the contestants will find different grasses, expanded bunkers and skinnier fairways than they saw in 2001. (Getty Images)

By Steve Eubanks, Contributor

The final touches are almost complete. The first thing you sense when you pull into the parking lot at Atlanta Athletic Club is awe at the enormity of it all: tents the size of three-story office buildings, sweeping grandstands and a flurry of activity as carpenters lay one final plank of decking and electricians test a matrix of cables that will connect the world to the 93rd PGA Championship. 

It is a routine site for those who run major championships for a living. But to the casual observer, the readying of a golf club for the season’s final major is like watching a time-lapse sequence of a skyscraper going up. 

“Other than the U.S. Open, this is the largest annual temporary construction project for a sporting event in the country,” said PGA Championship Tournament Director Ryan Cannon. “If you look at the Super Bowl and the World Series, events like that are played in stadiums that were built specifically to host those events. We come into a golf club that was designed for members and have to adapt. Architects like Robert Trent Jones and Alister MacKenzie didn’t design courses with the idea of getting 250,000 spectators around it, and they shouldn’t have. It’s our job to make that happen.” 

But while the scope of the construction outside the ropes is an engineering marvel, the permanent changes inside the ropes are what will be most noticed once the championship gets underway. 

In 2001, the last time the PGA Championship visited the Highlands Course at AAC, the pre-tournament buzz was about how long and difficult the course would play. Some players expected even par to be in contention on Sunday afternoon. Things didn’t work out like that. With a hole-in-one on the 15th hole on Saturday and an unforgettable up-and-down par on the final hole on Sunday, David Toms shot 15 under par, shattering the old PGA Championship scoring record. 

“The weather cooperated and the greens were soft,” Jim Furyk said at the time. “That takes nothing away from the golf course, but when you have perfect conditions guys are going to make birdies.” 

This year, birdies will be harder to find under any conditions. In 2006 Rees Jones was brought in to do another redesign, which included pinching many of the fairways in with expanded bunkering and turning many of the doglegs so that players will have to shape tee shots to find the short grass. 

But the biggest change is the greens. From its early days, Atlanta Athletic Club attempted to grow bent grass putting surfaces: a grass that is perfect in Augusta in April, but stressed to the point of death in the Dogs Days of August in Atlanta. 

“You’ve got two kinds of grasses: cool-season grasses and warm-season grasses,” said Atlanta Athletic Club superintendent Ken Mangum, who held his current post during the 2001 PGA Championship as well. “Atlanta is in the northern zone of the warm-season grasses. So any Bermuda grass is thriving in Atlanta in August because it’s at the peak of its growing condition.  Any cool-season grass, like bent grass, is at the bottom of its growing condition. Our bent grass is good in the spring and fall when you have temperatures like what you’d find in New York, but in the heat of the summer it’s stressed to the point of death.” 

Now the club has Champion Bermuda grass on the greens, which means that in February the putting surfaces won’t be very good. But this week in the middle of August, they will be as fast and firm as any on the planet. 

“You can dry out Bermuda grass in the heat without stressing it,” Mangum said. “This year our greens will be faster and considerably firmer. Players won’t have as much control when the ball lands, which should make (the course) play tougher. It’s considerably more difficult to play for roll.” 

Firm, fast greens require players to control the spin of their approach shots, a feat that can only be accomplished from the fairway. When last year’s PGA Champion Martin Kaymer visited Atlanta Athletic Club in June, he missed two fairways and was unable to hold the green with either approach. “You have to hit driver here,” Kaymer said, “but you also have to hit it in play to have any chance of holding the ball on the greens, so it’s going to be difficult.”

“Guys will be very surprised by the changes,” Mangum said. “The golf course looks significantly different. It’s 270 yards longer and the bunkering is completely different with much deeper and bigger bunkers, much more penal and much more in play now than before.” 

This isn’t the first time the Highlands Course has undergone a facelift. In fact, the only constant in the club’s 44-year history has been change.  When the Atlanta Athletic Club moved its golf facilities out of the old East Lake property and into what was, in 1967, north Georgia farmland, the new Highlands Course was an architectural mixed bag. The back nine was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. with his typical large flash bunkers and sharp doglegs, while the front nine, designed by Joe Finger, looked like an airport runway, with large undulating greens and long, straight, treeless fairways.

In his pitch letter to the USGA for the 1976 U.S. Open, Bob Jones, the club’s most noteworthy member (although he never played a single round of golf there), wrote: “My home club, the Atlanta Athletic Club, has recently built a new country club consisting of two golf courses, each of 18 holes and the four nines being so designed that they permit consecutive play. The layout also embraces a spacious clubhouse and several ponds of some beauty.” 

Not exactly a rousing endorsement, but the USGA bit and the Highlands Course hosted its first major, one that ended in dramatic fashion when Jerry Pate hit 5-iron from the rough on the final hole to within a foot to win.

But criticism of the course was loud and stinging. Hale Irwin called it a “joke” and said, “The U.S. Open should never come south again.”  

Redesigns by Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio in the 1970s and 1980s helped. AAC hosted its first PGA Championship in 1981, with local favorite and Hall of Famer Larry Nelson winning his first major of three major titles. But by the early 90s the course looked like what it was: a hodgepodge of architectural styles cobbled together over two decades. 

Before the 2001 PGA Championship, the club called in Rees Jones, whose father had worked on the original layout. As part of bringing an “old course feel,” as Jones put it, he rebuilt all the greens, making many of them smaller and replacing many of the mounds with softer, more subtle movements. He also added a few more “ponds of some beauty.” 

The results were universally praised, and the Atlanta Athletic Club proved itself worthy of being a part of a major championship rotation, especially given the dramatic ending, where Toms holed a 10-footer on the final green to edge Phil Mickelson out by a single shot. 

Now, after another Rees Jones tweak, the course is ready to test the best the world again.

“Guys will recognize the holes, but they will not recognize the changes in the contours and the bunkering,” Mangum said. “Having Diamond Zoysia (grass) in the fairways and Tifton 10 (grass) in the rough, the light green versus the dark blue, the contrast is phenomenal. It looks different, and it’s certainly going to play different.” 

So, what score is going to win this year? 

Mangum shook his head and smiled. “I get asked that a lot,” he said. “I would be surprised if anybody gets to double digits (under par).”

Then he looked out over the 18th green, the site of so much major championship drama, and added, “Whoever wins better be driving it well. You have to play from the fairway. That’s all there is to it.”