The yardages being discussed at Soldier Hollow Golf Course during the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links are staggering. The course measures 7,670 yards, the longest in Public Links history, and there is a 540-yard par 4. Players are hitting 300-yard 3-woods, 250-yard 3-irons (uphill), 210-yard 7-irons and 180-yard 9-irons.
These gravity-defying distances are the product of the thinner air at Soldier Hollow – from less than 5,500 feet at its lowest point to more than 5,900 feet at its highest. During the first round of stroke-play qualifying, players used to playing at sea level have had to adjust their club selection, which has brought a level of uncertainty to their games.
"The ball flies like crazy, especially downhill shots," said Ryan Kohler, of Alstead, N.H., who shot 7-over 78. "Pretty much all day you’re hoping you have the right club."
Everyone had a different method for picking the right club. Tyler Ekenberg, of Apple Valley, Minn., who shot 70, generally took off 6 to 10 yards for iron shots. Joel Dahlenburg, of St. Augustine, Fla., who also shot 70, reduced his yardages by 10 percent, the most common rule of thumb.
Chelso Barrett, the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur runner-up, seemed to have the most dramatic adjustment, taking a club and a half off each shot. He also had to adjust to the 20 to 30 yards of roll on his drives.
"The ball doesn’t roll in New Hampshire," said Barrett, who will be one of the favorites next week in the U.S. Junior Amateur, held at The Golf Club of New England in his home state.
Derek Ernst, the 2011 Amateur Public Links runner-up, charted every shot he hit during his two practice rounds.
"[My caddie and I] wrote down how far every shot landed and rolled out," said Ernst, who shot 70. "All I had to do was pull the sheet out before every shot."
The calculations become more complicated when factoring in the uphill or downhill factor for each shot.
"There are a lot of elevation changes from tee to fairway, fairway to green," said Ernst.
For other players, familiarity with playing at elevation proved to be an advantage. Dan Horner has won at Soldier Hollow, while James Erkenbeck attends the University of New Mexico, which is located in mile-high Albuquerque.
And one player, Carlos Rodriguez, is used to playing at even higher altitude. Rodriguez grew up in Colombia and played courses near Bogota, which sits at 8,600 feet above sea level. Soldier Hollow’s elevation was not a factor in a round of 71 for Rodriguez, who played for the University of West Florida.
Despite the added challenges wrought by the altitude, nearly every player enjoyed hitting shots like a long-drive contestant.
"It’s fun to hit it that far," said Ekenberg. "It’s cool to see the ball hang in the air, especially back up into the mountains.
There are scores of collegians in the field, so it was understandable when one of Dan Horner’s fellow-competitors asked the Utah resident about his school.
"One of the guys in my group asked me what college I played for," said Horner, who lives in nearby Sandy. "I told him ‘Dude, I’m 34.’"
On the first day of stroke-play qualifying, Horner not only looked like a collegiate player, but also played like one, shooting 2-under 69 to tie for fourth. In fact, Horner shot the lowest score among non-student-age players.
"I enjoy the competition, especially with a field like this with a lot of strong college kids," said Horner, who graduated from New Jersey’s Rutgers University in 2001 before moving to Utah. "You get to test your game against some great competition."
Although the building-materials salesman is giving up more than a dozen years to the top competitors, he can rely on a big advantage: local knowledge. Horner estimates he has played Soldier Hollow more than anyone else in the field – combined.
"I know the lines," he said. "I know what the greens do. I can make confident swings where other guys might be second-guessing."
Improving On Last Year
In the final of last year’s U.S. Amateur Public Links, Derek Ernst lost to Corbin Mills on the 37th hole at Old Macdonald in Bandon, Ore. After coming so close to winning last year, Ernst began his quest to improve his result with a round of 1-under 70 at Soldier Hollow.
"It was a good run last year," said Ernst, who is from Clovis, Calif. "I had a lot of fun. I want to do the same thing as I did last year, with a different result."
Ernst also became good friends with Mills since their match. Mills is in the greater Salt Lake City area this week, but will not be defending his championship. Instead, Mills will be making his professional debut in the Web.com Tour’s Utah Championship, held at Willow Creek Country Club.
As he attempts to improve on last year’s finish, Ernst sees some similarities between Soldier Hollow and last year’s site, the firm and fast Bandon Dunes Resort.
"I like [Soldier Hollow] a lot," he said. "I think it’s going to get very firm and fast. That’ll make it more creative, so you have to play more break on the greens."
After a round in which his score didn’t reflect how well he played, Ernst is looking to shoot a better number in the second round of stroke-play qualifying.
"Since I left a couple out there today, I feel like I’m due to go out and shoot a lower round tomorrow," said Ernst, who attends UNLV. "The higher you get up there for stroke play, it makes that first match a little easier."
Hunki Yun is a senior writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com