Editor's Note: This story originally appeared in the April 2019 edition of PGA Magazine.
Who will be the star of the show at the 52nd PGA Professional Championship presented by Cadillac, Club Car and OMEGA? With an all-star cast of former Champions, several former tour professionals sprinkled into the field of 312, and a long list of PGA Section Champions pursuing the Walter Hagen Cup, picking a winner will be quite the challenge.
Actually, the star of the show April 28–May 1 may be the two highly challenging golf courses – the West and East Courses at Belfair in Bluffton, South Carolina – designed by Tom Fazio. The longer West Course, which stretches to 7,153 yards for the men and 6,070 for the women, plays to par 72, will be played three times by the competitors who survive 36-hole and 54-hole cuts.
It is the West Course that will decide the fate of PGA Professionals representing all 41 PGA Sections in pursuit of the Championship – and in pursuit of a top-20 finish that will be rewarded with an engraved invitation to the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black in Farmingdale, New York, in May.
At first glance, you might never guess that Belfair’s East and West Courses had the same father in Fazio. The older West Course is a modern masterpiece routed through oak trees and natural grasses that LINKS Magazine trumpeted as having “what could be the finest set of golf holes in the Lowcountry, if not on the East Coast” after it opened for play in 1996. The East Course, in contrast, has a different look, that of a Scottish links course featuring open, windswept fairways, freshwater lakes and lagoons, and playing to a par of 71 at 6,899 yards for men and 5,823 yards for women.
Two Distinct Course Personalities
So each Belfair course has its own personality and fingerprint.
“Although both our East and West Courses offer fantastic marshland views of the Colleton River and make their way through indigenous live oak forests, each has a flavor to its own,” notes Belfair PGA Director of Golf James Swift. “Our East Course, although shorter than the West, requires a player to drive the ball accurately and play a solid iron game, especially on the par-3 holes. The West Course does offer a more generous picture from the tee, but makes up for this forgiving factor with more length in many of its par-4 and par-5 holes, in addition to more dynamic green complexes that are well defended by bunkers and natural hazards.
“Both courses truly capture the beauty of a natural Lowcountry canvas, but both are unique in their design and playability.”
The two Belfair courses may have distinctly different physical features, but neither will be tricked up or made more difficult with extensive changes prior to the PGA Professional Championship. Both will demand power and precision off the tees, strategic shotmaking and more precision on the putting surfaces.
“As far as changing or altering the current course architecture, Belfair has not needed to make any enhancements to its two layouts for the PGA Professional Championship,” reveals Swift. “With the exception of three-inch rough on the West Course, we are planning to provide the contestants with the same course conditions we offer our membership each day — with green speeds at 11 on the Stimpmeter.
“If weather permits, we will have firm and fast conditions for competitors to enjoy.”
PGA General Manager and COO Ken Kosak says Belfair completed a four-month renovation project on the East Course last October that included updating green complexes to their original sizes and resurfacing fairways, tees, greens and collars. The bunkers on the East Course were all filled with new sand using a capillary concrete system.
“The golf courses at Belfair require very little in regards to having them tournament ready compared to what our members experience every day,” notes Kosak. “Really, the only addition was adding about 30 yards in length to No. 17 on the West Course, and expanding one of the tees on No. 9 on the East Course. Other than that, no other modifications were undertaken.”
Forging a Successful Strategy
Practice rounds at Belfair will be important for the 312 competitors in the PGA Professional Championship, since formulating a successful strategy to navigate the two courses may determine who makes and misses the 36-hole cut after playing one round on each course.
Swift, who knows every inch of both courses, offers an insightful, strategic scouting report.
“On the West Course, the key play would be to take full advantage and birdie all the par 5s,” he says. “After that, players should just be content making par on everything else. For longer hitters, many of the par 5s may actually be reachable in two, so scores may vary. But, realistically, each player should view 68 as a very successful score.
“The East Course, however, will present some additional challenges for the players with its five par 3s, all of which are at or over 200 yards. Again, there are many opportunities to score on the East, but if a player can still concentrate on making birdie on all the par 5s, a solid score of 68 is a great target score in the first two rounds of the tournament.”
Swift adds that the par 3s on both courses may prove to be the key element for success. “The fourth hole (228/194 yards) and the 14th (200/154 yards) on the East Course are both very difficult and may prove to be two of the toughest challenges between both courses,” he explains. “The eighth hole (208/177 yards) and the 14th (180/148 yards) on the West Course also will present the field with some challenges. If you play even par on all the par 3s during the Championship, you have truly done something.”
Greens to Provide Challenge
Fazio embraced the “variety is the spice of life” theory while constructing the greens complexes at Belfair, creating each putting surface in myriad shapes with various undulations to make each a unique challenge.
“Fazio was not afraid to use small, medium and large greens throughout both courses at Belfair to add great variety and create some significant challenges to the playability,” says Swift. “The fourth green on the West Course and the 12th on the East Course are possibly two of the most challenging greens we have at Belfair. They remind me more of greens normally seen at Oakmont Country Club, minus the poa annua. If a player finds themselves 50 feet or more from the cup, on either of these two greens, getting down in two will be a very worthy challenge.”
The par-4 sixth hole on the West Course is another stroke of genius by Fazio, who constructed two greens, including a challenging choice to play to a small, well-protected green with water in close proximity.
“In the PGA Professional Championship, players will be presented with three different course routings if the PGA decides to put both the left and right greens into play after the 36-hole cut,” says Swift. “That could make the sixth hole (on the West Course) very interesting.”
It may not have a fancy name such as Amen Corner, the Green Mile or the Bear Trap, but the closing four holes on the West Course promise to be pivotal in identifying the 2019 PGA Professional Champion.
“The 15th through 18th hole on the West Course will provide the field with a very challenging finish and could deliver a very dramatic ending to the Championship,” predicts Swift. “That stretch of holes not only throws two of the toughest and longest par 4s at you (the 15th at 465/379 yards and the 18th at 450/390 yards), but the 16th and 17th holes can fool you into playing aggressively because of their length. Any poorly struck shot off the tee on 16 or 17 can prove disastrous if a player finds the numerous hazards/penalty areas that line both of those short but challenging finishing holes.
“If you can par all four finishing holes on the final day, you have truly accomplished something. Most importantly, if a solid east wind is added to the equation, it will make each hole play 20 to 50 yards longer and give even the most experienced player a true test to finish.”
From a scoring perspective, what will take to win the 2019 PGA Professional Championship at Belfair? That, of course, depends on weather and wind conditions, but Swift can make an educated guess.
“I think from experience and previous PGA Section events at Belfair, 10- to 12-under par will be a good target score for the 2019 Champion,” says Swift. “Like I said previously, 68 is the target score to shoot for on a daily basis. However, I would not be surprised to see someone shoot a 64 one day, if conditions permit.”