Friday 18 August 2017

The Major Arenas: A look at the venues where dreams are made

THE US MASTERS

(April 8-11).

Augusta National, Georgia.

7435 yards, Par 72.

Champion: Angel Cabrera (Arg).

WATCHING people get their jaw-dropping first glimpse of golfing paradise is one of the enduring pleasures of the US Masters. It's like seeing the faces of children on Christmas morning when they discover Santa's been.

It's the same for players and patrons alike. Padraig Harrington, a 10-times veteran at the Masters, never tires of driving down Magnolia Lane with newcomers in the courtesy car he and every other player receives at the tournament.

"Different people come with me and if they're visiting Augusta National for the first time, it's amazing how excited they get. It's nice to enjoy their reaction."

The beauty of Augusta National extends way beyond its pristine appearance. The real thrill at the Masters each April is watching the world's finest players -- whether it's Seve or Tiger, Nicklaus or Norman -- all walking the knife-edge which separates triumph and disaster at this special place.

It's the ultimate challenge in golf, according to Harrington.

"Augusta consistently asks the most pressurised questions," he explains. "At 13, for example, you know if you hit a good tee shot across that corner, you've a great chance of an eagle. Hit a bad shot and you've a chance of making seven. At Augusta, the difference between hitting a good shot and a bad shot is much bigger.

"Only a certain number of golf courses, and then only at certain times, offer up that spread of four shots between the great shot and the bad one. Yet Augusta seems to do it many times."

Over the past decade, the course has stretched 450 yards, with rough grown and fairways narrowed to meet the challenge of new technology. These changes did not receive universal acclaim, with six-times Masters champion Jack Nicklaus expressing reservations.

Yet widespread fears that these changes might have blunted Augusta's unique challenge were buried under an avalanche of birdies and eagles last spring and the famous 'Masters roar' once again echoed around the golf course.

With or without the Tiger, this year's Masters will be anticipated with as much excitement as ever.

THE US OPEN

(June 17-20).

Pebble Beach, California.

Yardage to be determined, Par 71.

Champion: Lucas Glover (US).

DOES any real golf enthusiast truly believe Tiger Woods could opt out of the US Open at Pebble Beach, his favourite course in the States, or, for that matter, the British Open at St Andrews, his favourite in the world? Of course not!

Woods romped to the greatest rout in the history of Major Championship golf at Pebble Beach in 2000, finishing an unprecedented 15 strokes ahead of the rest of the field.

That stunning performance was placed in its true context by Tom Watson last July. In the midst of his own heroics at Turnberry, the American was asked what had been the most amazing thing he'd seen in all his years. With barely a pause, Watson replied: "The most amazing thing in golf was the Tiger Woods victory at the US Open at Pebble Beach when he won by 15 shots. To me, that is far and away the most sensational thing that's happened in golf."

Of course, Watson came up with a famous victory of his own at Pebble Beach, chipping in from bottomless greenside rough at the par-three 17th hole for an outrageous birdie which brought his 1982 US Open showdown with Jack Nicklaus to a thrilling climax. America's national championship visits Pebble Beach for the fifth time next summer. Nicklaus won the first US Open there in 1972, followed 10 years later by Watson, then Tom Kite in 1992, then Tiger in 2000.

Stretched along the Pacific shore at Carmel Bay, Pebble Beach is utterly irresistible to any red-blooded golfer. It's beautiful, beguiling and, when the ocean breezes blow, it can be brutal.

Though the AT&T National Pro-Am is played there each February, often in intimidating weather conditions, Pebble Beach changes utterly for the US Open in high summer, when its deep, lush rough, narrow, quick-running fairways and rock-hard, sun-dried greens ensure a truly terrible beauty is born -- which makes Tiger's win there in 2000 all the more remarkable.

THE British OPEN

(July 15-18)

The Old Course, St Andrews.

7310 yards, Par 72.

Champion: Stewart Cink (US).

THE oldest and most venerable of all four Majors celebrates its 150th birthday next July when, fittingly, it returns to the fabled 'Home of Golf'.

The British Open is big wherever it's played but at St Andrews, it's overwhelming.

Even in the quietest moments, the 'Auld Grey Toon' has an atmosphere all its own. Yet joining the tens of thousands packed around the 18th green at the British Open in St Andrews is to feel like one is playing a part, albeit small, in history.

The Old Course is acknowledged universally as one of the finest strategic tests in golf and Tiger Woods received great kudos for never hitting his ball into one of its bunkers during his second British Open victory there in 2005.

Yet the key to Tiger's success lay elsewhere, Padraig Harrington reveals. "Tiger has an advantage at St Andrews because he spins the ball more than anybody else," the Dubliner says. "The greens are always firm and with the pins placed so brutally tight to the big slopes at the Open, that's always going to be a big strength."

Harrington and Paul McGinley may dovetail nicely at the Ryder Cup, but they don't see eye-to-eye when it comes to assessing St Andrews.

McGinley insists the Old Course has fallen foul of golf's unceasing struggle with new technology, arguing it now gives the big-hitter an advantage over the shot-maker. "St Andrews definitely has become a big-hitter's course. I play there now and I find it difficult because I can't carry the bunkers at 280. The golf course is two and a half shots easier if you can carry it 280," says McGinley, who describes the decision to stretch 17, the famous 'Road Hole', by 35 yards this winter as "sad."

Harrington counters: "I disagree there's any advantage on that course. A guy hitting it straight with a good ball flight will be in every bit as good a position as a guy who can hit it longer and carry the bunkers."

Though the exasperated McGinley says St Andrews favours the boomers as much as golf's other Major venues, he did insist: "It simply blows the rest away for atmosphere."

THE US PGA

(Aug 12-15)

Whistling Straits, Wisconsin.

7362 yards, Par 72.

Champion: YE Yang (Kor).

WHISTLING STRAITS is a blow-in when compared with St Andrews, but this remarkable 1998 development on the shores of Lake Michigan has the look and even some of the feel of a classic Scottish or Irish links.

Since its arrival on the Major Championship stage as the venue for the 2004 US PGA, the Straits Course has built a strong coterie of admirers among Tour professionals, not least Harrington and McGinley.

"It's a super course, it really is," says three-times Major champion, Harrington.

McGinley secured his best Major Championship finish at the Straits Course in 2004, finishing tied sixth with Phil Mickelson and KJ Choi, just two strokes shy of the three-hole play-off won by Vijay Singh. "I absolutely love it," he enthuses. "It looks like a links and very nearly plays like one -- the ball doesn't run as much as it might on a seaside links and the greens are comparatively soft -- but I think it's a fabulous shot-makers course."

Resort owner Herb Kohler has forged such a strong relationship with the US PGA that his flagship course is slated for the season's fourth Major for a third time in 2015 and will host the Ryder Cup in 2016.

Visitors from the Emerald Isle certainly should feel at home at the Wisconsin resort, resort, where Dye has also built 'the Irish Course'.

A huge Tricolour flies proudly outside the Whistling Straits clubhouse and signposts all around the property point the direction and give the distance in miles to famous Irish links like Lahinch, Ballybunion, Portmarnock, Royal County Down and Waterville.

"You know what made the biggest impression on me in 2004?" McGinley recalls. "When I drove up to the clubhouse on that first day and saw that huge Irish flag flying; it gave me such a great feeling. I tell you what, I was very close to winning that tournament, looking back on it."

Irish Independent

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