JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Nathan Smith is playing in his 14th U.S.
Amateur, so he knows a little bit about stroke-play qualifying venues.
“Two of the strongest courses we have played since I have
been playing in Amateurs,” said Smith, 36, in reference to Atlanta Athletic
Club’s Highlands and Riverside courses, which are hosting the U.S. Amateur’s
312-player, 36-hole stroke play qualifier.
On Wednesday, the 114th championship’s match-play rounds move
exclusively to the higher-profile Highlands Course, but the Riverside Course
has certainly been worthy of the players’ praise.
When pressed to name a possible equal to AAC’s tandem, Smith
paused before simply saying, “I don’t think I can.”
In Monday’s opening round, Smith shot an even-par 72 on a 7,437-yard
Riverside Course that gained his respect.
“It’s difficult and in spectacular shape,” Smith said. “It’s
one of those courses that would never play the same every day you played it
because there are so many different options with pins. The rough is tough, but
playable. You have to drive the ball well. It has everything.”
The Riverside Course was originally designed by Robert Trent
Jones in 1964, and hosted the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Betsy King. Six
years later, conversations about upgrading the course began, and the discussion
quickly mushroomed beyond just revamping the greens.
In 2002, Jones’ son, Rees, oversaw a complete redesign.
Holes 13 through 15 were reversed to bring the Chattahoochee River more into
play, and four new holes were created.
Meanwhile, Ken Mangum, AAC’s director of golf courses and
grounds for nearly 26 years, sought to upgrade to the latest and best
turfgrass. Zeon zoysia fairways and Tifton 10 rough were installed, and in 2013
the greens were switched to ultradwarf bermudagrass to bring the course in line
with the Highlands Course.
“By the time we were finished, the Riverside Course was
better than the Highlands, which was our championship course, so we needed to
upgrade the Highlands,” Mangum said. “We were keeping up with the Joneses with
our own courses.”
Prior to 2003, Mangum said 10 percent of the guest play was
on the Riverside Course. After the reopening, that figure increased to 60
“I think [the Riverside Course] is probably the best
alternate course I've played in the few years I've played in this,” said
Scottie Scheffler, the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion. “It's fair and they
put in some tough pins, so it wasn't really playing as easy as I thought it
would. But that's just the way it was.”
From a statistical standpoint, on Monday the par-72
Riverside Course played to a stroke average of 2.91 over par. The par-71
Highlands Course stroke average was 3.61 over par.
“When the best players in golf are engaged, they play better
golf, I believe,” said Rees Jones. “When you think a course is easy, you tend
to lose a little focus. I think the Riverside Course – both actually – are formidable
tests, but also offer a lot of flexibility.”
The Riverside is the more member-friendly of the two
courses. It’s a bit more open off the tee, the greens have more level putting
plateaus and the bunkers are shallower.
Bo Andrews played collegiately at Georgia Tech and became a
club member earlier this summer. In preparation for this week, he said he
played the Riverside Course three times mainly to get a feel for lines off the
“[Former teammate Ollie Schniederjans] and I were talking
about how they should have the U.S. Amateur here every year, this place is
literally that good,” he said. “The Highlands is unbelievable and the Riverside
is way up there.”
Possibly as good as a companion course can get.
Stuart Hall is a North
Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.