Since East Lake’s historic golf course was thoroughly renovated and upgraded in the mid-1990s by Rees Jones, most of the work on the course has been relatively minor apart from the replacement of the bent grass greens after the 2008 Tour Championship with Mini-Verde Bermuda, which enabled the course to better handle Atlanta’s Summer heat.
The changes to the course since last year’s Tour Championship are again mostly minor apart from some changes in bunkering near and around the ninth green. Or at least what used to be the ninth green.
Since it was designed more than a century ago, East Lake has been known as one of the relatively few courses in golf with a par-3 18th hole. The 235-yard hole made for a challenging finish, but with birdies a rarity and only the occasional bogey, it did not make for the most exciting conclusion to one of the premier tournaments in golf.
Tournament officials decided to rectify that situation, and when fans arrive at East Lake for the opening round of the 2016 Tour Championship on Sept. 22, they will discover that the 18th hole is no longer the 18th hole and the ninth hole is no longer the ninth hole.
To enhance the drama of the tournament’s finishing holes, tournament officials have reversed the nines for this year’s Tour Championship, a decision that likely will be a permanent one. The original front nine has become the new back nine, with the original back nine now the front nine.
Instead of finishing with a long par 3 that produced a preponderance of pars in the tournament, East Lake will now finish with a par-5 that offers the more enticing possibility of a birdie or perhaps eagle. The change also creates the potential for a big number for players who find the usually thick rough off the fairway after an errant tee shot and are unable to clear the sliver of East Lake that extends across the fairway on what is now the 18th hole with their second shot.
The former 18th hole was surrounded by grandstands which made for a nice finish for many of the golf fans in attendance, but did not provide the most exciting finale for the millions of viewers watching the tournament on television in the U.S. and around the globe.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth, who also won the 2015 FedExCup, gave his thumbs up to the change in the nines.
“Normally, that 18th hole, you’re making a three. That’s going to be about the average score. On the ninth hole you can make an eagle, and then if you’re in trouble you can make a bogey. You can make up two or three shots on one hole.”
Of the new 18th, Spieth said, “It’s a beautiful hole to finish on.”
To accommodate grandstands that will surround the green left and right (the side of the clubhouse sits behind the green), trees between the putting surface and the first tee have been removed, with trees short of the green remaining.
The bunkering around the green has been altered to make for some more challenging up-and-downs for players who go for the green in two but come up just short or a little wide, with a new bunker sdded in the layup area for the second shot.
With holes 16 and 17 a pair of long and demanding par 4s that also did not yield a sizeable number of birdies, the closing trio of holes at East Lake fell into the “hang on and make par” category, something that will no longer be the case.
While the new par-4 16th hole (formerly No. 7) is among the more difficult holes on the course, the new 17th is one of the friendliest par 4s on the course, depending on hole location. Reversing the nines creates the distinct possibility of a birdie-birdie finish for contenders chasing the leader, something that was extremely difficult under the original routing.
With the change, East Lake will offer a more inviting finish for the 30 players who will comprise this year’s field. But before the players near the finish line, they will have to make it through the most difficult hole for the Tour Championship, as well as the most dangerous.
The par-4 14th, which plays as a par 5 for the members, annually plays at the toughest hole in the Tour Championship. The hole typically measures around 520 yards (slightly downhill) and is bordered by some of the most penal rough found on the course. Missing the fairway almost guarantees missing the green, and the hole played to a scoring average of 4.43 last year with 36 bogeys (out of 112 scores), six doubles and only three birdies.
The island green par-3 15th follows the difficult 14th, and begins with the scariest shot the 30 competitors will face at East Lake. The hole usually plays around 210 yards all carry over water, although a shorter tee is generally in play at least once or twice during the tournament.
Although the hole is considerably longer than the infamous 17th at TPC Sawgrass, it accounts for far fewer disasters than its counterpart. Only three players made double bogey on the hole last year, with the drop area providing a definite hope of salvaging a bogey after splashing the tee shot.
“That will have a big effect,” 2012 Tour Championship and FedExCup champion Brandt Snedeker said of the move of the sixth hole to the 15th. “I’m already dreading the 15th. When I won in 2012, I got wet on Sunday, but I had 12 holes to make it up.”
Another impact of the change will come much earlier in the round. The former first hole was among the easier par 4s on the course, and was a potential birdie hole for players who found the fairway off the tee. The new opener is a converted par 5 of 480 yards, and played as the most difficult hole last year after the new 14th, producing just four fewer bogeys over 72 holes.
With the nines reversed, East Lake will offer the chance for a fast start, providing players get past the first hole unscathed. Four of the next five holes are on the tame side, with the par-5 fifth the easiest hole on the course by a wide margin.
The new back nine presents scoring opportunities early and late, with the toughest stretch being the three holes in the middle (13, 14 and 15). Because of the challenge of East Lake’s fast, sloping putting surfaces, the difficulty of the holes can change markedly depending on pin location, with a potential birdie hole one day becoming a possible bogey hole the next.
The reversal of the nines will also make for some changes for tournament spectators. With crowds more concentrated on the final nine late in the day, crowds following the lead groups will find things a little different as they move from hole to hole.
A majority of holes on the new back nine will add spectator stands, most with overhangs to shield the spectators from the sun, and a triple-decker hospitality stricture between the 14th and 15th holes is expected to be a popular spot to catch the action. The original back nine consists primarily of parallel holes with plenty of room between them, with the only bottleneck found between the old 17th green and 18th tee.
The new back nine includes a few holes that intersect at a perpendicular angle, and with the increased number of spectators on that nine, there is the chance that galleries following two different groups could cause something of a traffic jam. The two areas are behind the 18th tee where it borders the 13th fairway, and in front of the 17th tee, which has been pushed back near the 15th tee.
The increase in spectators around the 15th green will also make for some potentially tight quarters for those walking from that hole to the 18th on the relatively thin strip of cart path behind the practice area. The tournament’s volunteer gallery guards will be tasked to keep spectators moving in the potentially congested areas.
Because of NBC’s commitment to Notre Dame football, the Tour Championship will have an early Saturday finish, with NBC’s broadcast running from noon to 3:30 p.m., when Notre Dame hosts Duke. The Sunday network broadcast will be from 1:30 to 6 p.m., with very limited commercial interruptions once the leaders reach the back nine of the final round.
Golf Channel will have the first two rounds from 1-6 p.m., and early round action on the weekend, from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday and noon to 1:30 p.m. Sunday.
This will be the 16th time that East Lake has hosted the Tour Championship, the first time in 1998. East Lake became the permanent host in 2004 after alternating with the Champions Club in Houston in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Coca-Cola and the Southern Company have been the tournament’s two primary sponsors since it came to East Lake and continue in that capacity.
Spieth added his name to the distinguished list of players who have won the Tour Championship at East Lake, shooting 9-under 271 to win by four strokes last year. He posted four rounds in the 60s (68-66-68-69), taking a one-stroke lead after 54 holes over 2013 champion Henrik Stenson, who led by two after an opening 63 and expanded his lead to three over Spieth after a second round 68.
Stenson retained his lead for most of the third round and was still three ahead with nine holes to play Saturday before bogeys at 10 and 11 trimmed his margin to one. Spieth made up three shots over the last four holes, carding birdies at 15 and 18 while Stenson bogeyed the 17th.
Spieth dropped into a tie Sunday after bogeys at 5 and 6, but birdied the eighth for a 2-shot lead when Stenson bogeyed the hole. Spieth’s lead increased to three when Stenson bogeyed the 12th and Spieth parred in from there to win by four over a trio of players including Stenson, who birdied the 18th after taking double bogey on 17.
Also tying for second were Danny Lee and Justin Rose, who both made early charges Sunday, shooting 4-under 31 on the front. Lee finished with a 65 and Rose shot 66. Dustin Johnson shot 30 on his final nine for a 64 and tied for fifth at 276 with Bubba Watson and Paul Casey.
Spieth will look to join Phil Mickelson as the only player to win twice at East Lake, with Mickelson scoring his victories in 2000 and 2009, both times coming from behind in the final round to overtake Tiger Woods, the 2007 champion.
Other tournament champions include Hal Sutton (1998), Vijay Singh (2002), Retief Goosen (2004), Adam Scott (2006), Jim Furyk (2010), Bill Haas (2011) and Billy Horschel (2014).