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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Champion Course for Champions at PGA National

Planning a trip to PGA National Resort and Spa? Be forewarned: the Champion Course, home of the Honda Classic, is a hard, hard golf course. That's not say you shouldn't play it--it's a great golf course well worth the exertion--just keep your expectations under control.

Remember that the course was really designed for professional competitions. It opened in 1981 and hosted the Ryder Cup two years later, followed by the PGA Championship in 1987. It was the home of the Senior PGA Championship from 1982-2000.  After a major renovation, it became the home of the Honda Classic in 2007. It's interesting to note that during those last nine years, only twice has the winner pushed the final score to double digits below par for four rounds.

When Jack Nicklaus took on the renovation in 2002, he basically designed a new golf course, attempting through modifications of the fairway and green contours to make it a little more forgiving for the average player.  While that was accomplished, little was done to change the routing and the heavy influence of water hazards on play.  Coupled with thick, sticky rough, the course well deserves its high ratings and slopes.  From the 6,719-yard gold tees, those are 73.4/145. Most of us will tackle the Blues, which play 6,367 but carry a 71.8/138.  For a real indication of how tough the course plays, though, look at the White tees.  Many players will ignore them because the card shows they measure only 5,934.  The 69.9/129 rating/slope, though, is more like many 6,300-yard courses I've played around the country.

Looking for a challenge? The Champion Course is it. Fifteen of the holes have water in play that dictates strategies both off the tee and during your approaches.  Another caution: the green surrounds generally don't release a short approach shot unless it's a briskly-struck bump and run, so don't expect to trickle a lucky miss onto the putting surface. I played the course this year while the fairways were still narrow after the tournament, so I got to experience plenty of play out of the rough.  It wasn't particularly long, just thick and sticky, so digging out with a short iron is almost always your only option.

The famous Bear Trap gets all the TV coverage, but there are plenty of other tough holes on the course.  Number 6, which looks like a pushover 468-yard par five on the scorecard, plays as a par four for the pros.  Water lines the entire left side just a few yards away from the fairway and bunkers encroach on the right off the tee.  The green has three levels, too, so distance control is paramount on the approach. Number 7, a 186-yard par three, plays downwind but has a front bunker that makes it all carry.  The green is long with a Biarritz-like swale in the center just to make it extra interesting.

One of the strongest holes on the course is Number 11, par four at 395 yards from the Blue tees. Getting off the tee isn't a big problem, but the approach is a killer.  Water runs from the landing area all the way to green on the right. The green itself sits diagonally to the fairway, making for some interesting pin positions. If you overshoot the green, you're left with a shot from a treacherous bunker back toward the water.

Water and wind are hallmarks of the famous Bear Trap, holes 15 through 17.  The two par threes are relatively short (153 and 155 from the blue tees), but both play all-carry with water wrapping around the right side of both greens to drown slices.  Sixteen, 391 yards, calls for an iron or hybrid off the tee to stay in the short grass, but that sets you up for a long approach over water to an elevated green. How tough is it?  Even the bailout for the second shot is over water!

The finishing hole is a classic double dogleg par five that provides all sorts of excitement. It truly is one of the best finishing holes in the game, playing 527 from the blue tees and forcing the player to negotiate fifteen bunkers and water on every shot.  A strong drive sets up a wonderful risk and reward second shot, too.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Champion Course is not an easy walk in the park. It's hard. But for golfers who want to challenge a real player's course, it can't be beat.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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