What it's like to play Baltusrol, the home of the 2016 PGA Championship
SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Every job has its perks. One major perk that comes with my job is the semi-frequent opportunity to play golf courses most could only dream of playing. The operative word there is “major” since many of these courses are major championship venues.
Such was the case on Wednesday when I teed it up at Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course.
In five week’s time, this gorgeous A.W. Tillinghast design that opened in 1922 will host its sixth major overall (other majors were played at Baltusrol’s Upper Course) when the PGA Championship rolls into town.
Jack Nicklaus won two U.S. Opens at Baltusrol in 1967 and 1980. Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship there in 2005. Needless to say, it’s a special place.
My round on Wednesday was part of PGA Championship Media Day, which gives writers and broadcasters alike a chance to get familiar with the course, or better yet, gain some perspective as to what the world’s best players will face in the season’s final major.
And personally, it’s also a chance to add another peg to the pegboard (basically a physical board of the country’s top 100 golf course’s), seeing as Baltusrol is routinely on those various top-100 courses lists.
So what’s it like to play Baltusrol? First off, it’s an honor and a privilege. In this day of smartphones, social media and instant gratification, we’ve lost the ability to smell the roses, or savor moments. That’s why it was refreshing to see signs posted near the clubhouse indicating that no cell phones were allowed on the course. That’s right – for five hours, the focus was on playing the game and enjoying the company of your playing companions.
Oh, and as if playing Baltusrol weren’t enough, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there was hardly a breath of wind with temperatures topping out toward the end of the round in the mid-80s.
Worth noting too: while you’re engrossed with your golf, there’s a lot going on around you at a Media Day outing. Workers are on the course building grandstands, hospitality villages, etc. It truly is a site to see. It’s as if a city is being built on a golf course and it’s always amazing when you return just a few weeks later to see how it all came together so fast.
The format for the day was a shotgun. Our foursome, with two caddies – dressed in white overalls similar to what you’re used to seeing at Augusta National -- along to guide us, began our day on the par-4 fifth hole.
After hitting my opening tee shot left of the fairway, I was quickly reminded of something that we should never forget: The guys playing in major championships aren’t good players. They’re great players. The rough is just so gnarly. If you’re going to play anything resembling a decent round of golf at a place like Baltusrol, you absolutely must keep the ball in the short grass.
All those great shots we see out of the rough in majors? I have no idea how they make it look so easy. Even trying to punch out back into play, that thick grass shuts your clubface down so fast it makes your head spin.
To say the first two holes were brutal for me would be an understatement. They were downright ugly. Thankfully, that would quickly change on the par-5 seventh hole.
Each hole at Baltusrol looks like you’re walking into a painting to play golf. Just like a painting that catches your eyes, that’s what the seventh hole did to me straight from the tee box. It just really fit my eye. The 505-yard hole will play as a par 4 for the Championship.
Off the tee, you’re staring at OB left and bunkers inviting your ball for a visit to the right of the fairway. I striped my drive. I mean I killed it. So much so, I was left with just 170 yards for my second shot. From the middle of the fairway, I dropped a 6-iron right over the flag and was left with a 10-footer for eagle. The putt lipped out, but hey – you’re not going to see me complaining about tap-in birdie putts.
On that seventh hole, my third of the day, I was reminded about what should be common knowledge on these types of courses: they’re much easier to play when you keep the ball in the fairway.
Luckily, my brain and my driver synced up on that for most of the rest of the round.
I wasn’t just playing good; I was playing great (for me). After that birdie, I made three pars in a row. Things were going swimmingly. It was so much easier playing from the fairway than from the rough!
I made a great bogey on the par-3 16th hole and then… we made our way to the 650-yard, par-5 17th hole. As a special treat for the round, the Media Day organizers had us play this hole, as well as the 505-yard, par-4 third hole from what will be the tees used for the PGA Championship.
Talk about intimidating. The 17th at Baltusrol starts with a drive through a chute of tall trees. Cross bunkers. Pot bunkers. They’re everywhere on this hole. I hit a terrible drive short and left, directly behind a tree, which made a monster hole even longer. I visited a bunker, more rough and walked away with a triple-bogey 8, which – considering the tee shot – wasn’t so bad.
You want to talk about the “meat of a round?” The 17th was the first of three consecutive par 5s we played.
Next, at the 18th – another iconic hole at Baltusrol – your eyes are drawn to the water on the left side of the hole that eventually crosses the fairway on your way up to an elevated green. The walk up the hole is amazing. It’s like playing golf in a museum as you walk past the plaque in the fairway commemorating the 1-iron Nicklaus hit to secure his win in the 1967 U.S. Open – the one Mickelson tapped with a 4-wood for good luck on his way to winning the 2005 PGA Championship.
You’re also staring at the iconic clubhouse that sits just left of the green. It reinforces that you’re at a place oozing history and you’re incredibly fortunate to be roaming the fairways.
After soaking all that in on 18, I had another eagle putt on the first hole with a driver and 6-iron to about 20 feet that set up another two-putt birdie. Who am I, I wondered? I could get used to this me.
Because of where we began the day, we were set up for an extra memorable conclusion to the round with the par-4 third hole and the par-3 fourth hole.
Like the 17th, we played the third hole from the Championship tees making it a 500-yard hole. While the tee shot – and the yardage on the card – are both scary, a great drive in the fairway, if long enough, will get some extra roll out as it swings downhill.
With a creek about 50 yards in front of the green, the approach shot forces you to think: do I go for it, or lay up. There’s a lot of strategy involved.
Our round ended at the 195-yard par-3 fourth (which played 140 yards for us). What a hole. As picturesque as picturesque gets. There’s a pond that starts at the end of the tee box and ends at the green. A front pin placement will mess with your head. Hit it too short, you’re in the drink. Too long? You’re in one of the many bunkers behind the green, facing a daunting second shot – green running away from you and water oh so close.
Known as the “Famous Fourth” this is Baltusrol’s signature hole (though countless others could make a case for deserving that moniker). Here’s the story behind the fourth:
The fourth was the scene of one of golf’s most memorable vindications. The great Bobby Jones was criticized for design changes in 1952 that made the hole too difficult. In response, he took a group of critics to his new tee to play the hole.
As the story goes, Jones knocked in a 4-iron for an ace, and announced, “Gentlemen, as you can see, the hole is eminently fair.”
All in all, playing Baltusrol was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. It’s timeless. Unlike most newer courses today that keep stretching out, Baltusrol was an enjoyable walk loaded with history. You step a few yards off a green and you’re on the next tee. I love that.
I’ll no doubt catch myself daydreaming and recollecting back on my day at Baltusrol when I return there to cover the PGA Championship in just a few weeks.