To Anders Albertson of Woodstock, Ga., The Country Club presents a unique test.
"Usually we’re playing a short course with small greens, or else we’re pounding drivers on a longer course with large greens," said the rising sophomore at Georgia Tech. "Here I’m sometimes playing a 5-wood off the tee to get the proper angle or to make sure to hit the fairway. It’s better to have a 5-iron from the fairway here than having a 9-iron from the rough."
Albertson started on No. 9 in the unusual 1/9 tee start at The Country Club, and played the daunting stretch of hole Nos. 9-15 in even par, which the field played in an average of nearly 3.5 strokes over par.
"It’s probably the hardest opening stretch of holes I’ve ever played," said Albertson. "It’s so important to hit the fairway because of the size of the greens."
The Country Club’s putting surfaces average 3,100 square feet, about 40 percent smaller than the typical green size of 5,000 square feet.
"You really need to change your mindset," said Justin Thomas of Goshen, Ky., and the University of Alabama, who shot 75. "I hit a lot of 2-irons off the tee to make sure I hit the fairway; when you’re going at the green with a 4- or 5- or 6-iron, you have to concentrate on just hitting the middle of the green, not going for the hole."
Thomas was enamored with the course despite his struggles.
"It’s probably my favorite golf course I’ve ever played," said Thomas, who was recently named to the USA’s 2013 Walker Cup Team. "It rewards good golf; it was such a great setup. I short-sided myself on the first hole and made a double bogey; when you do that, you’ve got to make sure you make no worse than bogey."
Michael Weaver, the runner-up in last year’s Amateur at Cherry Hills, bogeyed his final two holes for a 4-over 74.
"There’s a lot less margin for error from the fairway," he said. "Usually there’s one side you can miss it on, and one you can’t. If you play to the center of the green, you’re not going to have more than a 30-foot putt."
Randal Lewis of Alma, Mich., the 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, fell victim to another danger of the small greens in his round of 80.
"You can’t go over these greens," he said. "I thought the course would play in my favor, but I struggled with my wedge play. I was just over the green on No. 2 and just over the green on No. 7, and I bogeyed both of them."
The metaphor for his day was the 505-yard, par-4 ninth hole. I play it as a par 5, he said. I hit my third shot to about 20 feet, but then three-putted.
No Caddie, No Problem
Competing in a national championship is a tall task for anyone, especially when the host course measures more than 7,200 yards and has hosted 15 USGA championships, as is the case this week.
The benefits of a caddie who knows the golf course and can alleviate the burden of carrying a golf bag for 18 holes seem to be obvious in this situation, but Neil Raymond doesn’t see it that way. The 27-year-old Englishman carried his own bag on Monday morning at The Country Club, and got around the venerable track just fine, firing a 3-under 67 that was the low score of the day at the course. For him, playing without a caddie is a common practice, and one that he prefers.
"If I’m going to have a caddie, I’m going to want to have one that knows my game pretty well, and no one knows my game better than me," said Raymond after his round on Monday. He is competing in his first U.S. Amateur after earning an exemption by being in the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. "I did a bit of caddieing for my friend for a couple of years on the European Challenge Tour. I’d say I’m a pretty knowledgeable caddie, so if I’m a player and a caddie, it’s a perfect mix for me. That’s just the way I’ve done things."
Raymond’s approach seems to be working quite well of late. The 2011 and 2012 winner of the prestigious Brabazon Trophy in England, Raymond also collected the St. Andrews Links Trophy this June. A late bloomer who plans to turn pro later this year, he was clearly pleased with the start of his U.S. Amateur debut.
"It’s up there, about as good a golfing memory as I can have," he said of his round, which included five birdies against a pair of bogeys. "I’ve won a tournament at St. Andrews, which is pretty high up there, but shooting 67 on a golf course like this, it’s going to sit with me for a very long time."
Easy Birdie? Not So Fast
The Country Club’s unique setup at this week’s U.S. Amateur offers competitors just one par 5, and while it may offer a reasonable chance to make birdie on this demanding course, players may want to be cautious in their approach. The hole, which measured 605 yards on Monday but can be stretched to 623, was the sixth-easiest on the course, but still scored well over par (5.244). Competitors made twice as many bogeys or worse (52) as they did birdies (26).
No. 12 requires players to make a tough decision after hitting their tee shot, should they put it in the fairway: Lay up to about 150 yards short of the green, or hit a long iron or fairway wood uphill to try and have a go at the green. Bunkers and fescue await those who choose the latter option and come up short, while players who miss the fairway are generally only left with the first option. Even those who have the length to get home in two know that the odds are against them.
"I hit a driver down the right side, and I had about 280 yards uphill, but downwind. If I could draw it around the bunkers I figured I could put it in the bunker right next to the green and make birdie," said Charlie Danielson, one of the few players who was able to reach the green in two shots on Monday. "I guess I hit it perfect; I’m not sure where it landed, but it ended up about 20-25 feet [from the hole]."
The Country Club was set up at 7,246 yards for stroke-play qualifying, a bit under its maximum length of 7,310 yards, and the par-70 layout played to an average of 76.49 strokes (compared to 73.94 for Charles River, also a par 70).
Not surprisingly, the two holes at The Country Club that played as par 5s in previous USGA championships and were converted to par 4s were the two toughest of the day. No. 14, at 507 yards, played almost a full stroke higher than its new par (4.89). The ninth hole, a 503-yard hole that half the field started its round on, played to a 4.78 average.
No. 9 and No. 1, a 476-yard par 4, yielded only four birdies apiece. No. 14 was the hole with the most big numbers, chalking up 18 double bogeys and 10 others. On the flip side, the 311-yard, par-4 sixth hole was the only hole on the course to play under par at 3.95 strokes.