September 4, 2018 By: Jim McCabe — If allowed some latitude in translating golf history, one might look at this week’s third event of the FedExCup Playoffs, the BMW Championship, and get nostalgic over the host course, Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
That is where a notable Grand Slam was completed, after all.
No, not that one! Not the one with Bobby Jones in 1930. He concluded his historic Grand Slam about 8 miles away from Aronimink, at Merion Golf Club.
But the Grand Slam we’re talking about occurred in 1962 when Gary Player won the PGA Championship, the season’s final major championship. Earlier that season, the majors had been won by Arnold Palmer (Masters and Open Championship) and Jack Nicklaus (U.S. Open). It’s the only time golf’s iconic “Big Three” won all four majors in a calendar year, making 1962 the zenith of their massive popularity.
Bit of a stretch? Maybe. But Arnold, Jack and Gary were an extraordinary trio and Aronimink GC is a very special place, about which we offer five other things to know before the top 70 players in the FedExCup tee off Thursday:
1. More Hanse fingerprints: Like the first two stops in this year’s FedExCup Playoffs — Ridgewood Country Club and TPC Boston — Aronimink will showcase the restoration talents of architect Gil Hanse and his assistant Jim Wagner. They were hired in 2015 to “restore what (Donald) Ross had intended” at Aronimink, Hanse said.
That meant bringing back the abundance of bunkers, clusters of three and four in some spots, 178 in all, where there had been 72 when they started. Many had been filled in over the years, but Hanse credits Ron Prichard, highly regarded with his restoration work of other Ross courses, with encouraging the club to move forward with a restoration program in the 1990s.
Hanse and Wagner were hired by Aronimink in 2015 to continue that restoration project. They studied aerial photos from the 1920s and when they looked at a film showing Ross on site during the construction of Aronimink, “we became convinced this was a special place to (Ross) and he was changing (his plans) as he went along. Where he drew one bunker, he put in three or four. We wanted to give a facsimile to the direction he was going.”
There is consideration given to the suggestion that J.B. McGovern, Ross’ trusty assistant and green chairman at Aronimink, inspired the cluster of bunkers, but Hanse is convinced Ross approved.
The plethora of bunkers is a bit out of the ordinary for a Ross course, but Hanse always tries to understand what the architect was “trying to do at a particular club at that particular time.” That’s why Hanse has had the privilege to work on courses built by the grand masters – A.W. Tillinghast, William Flynn, Seth Raynor, C.B. MacDonald and Ross.
And he is intrigued by what had to be going on in the late 1920s with Ross at Aronimink. “(Ross) was at the height of his game, he was ‘The Man,’” said Hanse “but this was Philadelphia.”
That meant the fabled “Philadelphia School” of golf course design – Philadelphia natives Tillinghast, George Crump and George Thomas, together with Flynn and Hugh Wilson – was real and established and their work in the surrounding area (Pine Valley, Merion, Whitemarsh, Philadelphia CC, and Philadelphia Cricket Club were testaments to their greatness.
“Ross was very refined and confident at that point in his career, so I think he got bold and pushed (the envelope), almost to crash the party and to make his mark.”
Hanse’s and Wagner’s intent was to clearly define that mark Ross, with perhaps a nod to McGovern, intended to leave.
2. Their new look: Beyond the 1962 PGA, Aronimink has hosted a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Junior Amateur, the Senior PGA Championship, and the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Quicken Loans National. But none of those shows presented Aronimink as the golf course Ross was quoted as saying was intended “to be my masterpiece.”
Hanse and Wagner, in addition to bringing back more than 100 bunkers, oversaw a largescale tree removal, expanded many of the greens to what they think Ross intended, and rebuilt all the tees. “Ross wanted the tee boxes to be free-form, not rectangular,” said Hanse.
What they didn’t do was add a lot of yardage. There is approximately 7,267 available yards to the par 70 Aronimink, which is not substantially more than the 7,045 yards that Player faced 56 years ago.
“What I’m most excited about for the club,” said Hanse, “is that at no point since it opened (in 1929) has the golf course been closer to what Ross intended.”
3. No easy 3s: When the TOUR last visited Aronimink, three of the four hardest holes were par-3s. And for good reason. Three of Aronimink’s one-shotters are longer than 210 yards. The course’s par-3s played a combined +0.73 over par in 2011, while the field was even par on the other 14 holes. The par-70 layout, which had yet to undergo Hanse’s changes, played to a 70.72 scoring average in the TOUR’s last trip here.
Players face the first of Aronimink’s short holes at No. 5. It is a warm welcome to an otherwise trying set of holes. The 178-yard hole was the only par-3 to play under par, and only by the slightest of margins (2.997). Three holes later, the field faces the rare par-3 that is a course’s toughest hole. That honor is usually reserved for a long par-4. But, even with the benefit of a tee, players could not get the best of the 238-yard eighth hole. It was the most difficult hole in 2011, playing to a 3.38 scoring average, and the third-hardest par-3 on TOUR, trailing only the two par-3s in PGA National’s Bear Trap. The eighth green was the hardest to hit at Aronimink in 2011 (42.3 percent).
The back nine’s two par-3s, the 218-yard 14th and 215-yard 17th, were the third- and fourth-hardest holes in 2011.
There were only 138 birdies (and one ace) made on Aronimink’s par-3s at the 2011 Quicken Loans National. Players birdied the par-3s slightly less than 9 percent of the time and hit the green just 59.3 percent of the time.
4. Attention spots: If he had to single out a few holes, Hanse circled the fourth, ninth and 18th as places where he and Wagner expanded the greens by taking out some bunkers that had been added over the years. “There will be new hole locations that should be pretty cool,” he said.
The fourth is a par 4 that can play approximately 457 yards and ranked sixth-toughest in 2010 and again ’11.
No. 9, the only par 5 on the front, also features an expanded green, as does the closing hole, now a 463-yard par 4 that will play about 30 yards longer than it did in 2010-11.
The 18th was the ninth-easiest hole in 2011, but Hanse suggests that will change and lend even more beef to a finishing stretch that will demand great care. From the 221-yard, par-3 14th through the 18th, players will likely have only one prime birdie chance, that being the par-5 16th, which ranked the easiest hole in both ’10 and ’11. (There were 11 eagles and 174 birdies there in 2011.)
The green at the back of the 515-yard, par-4 15th was also expanded, said Hanse, allowing for the longer approaches players will need into a hole that has played fifth-toughest the last two visits to Aronimink. But if one hole highlights the addition of these cluster of bunkers that Hanse and Wagner have restored, it’s the 425-yard, par-4 11th.
Arguably the best vista from any tee box, players will now look at a landing area that is guarded by bunkers left and right. Then, when you study your approach to a severely elevated green, you face bunkers left, bunkers right, bunkers to the rear of the green. In all, this hole called “Kiowea” – every hole has a Native American tribal name – has 20 bunkers.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been involved in a hole with so many bunkers,” Hanse said.
Oh, and if you safely navigate the array of bunkers, the green is another challenge. A bowl in the middle of the greens deftly defends several hole locations, so all in all, it’s unlikely this hole will play second- or fourth-easiest, as it did in 2010 and ’11, respectively.
5. The ins and outs: The PGA TOUR member with the most experience at Aronimink unfortunately won’t be teeing it up. That’s because Sean O’Hair, an Aronimink member, failed to get past the first FedExCup Playoff tournament.
Aronimink experience won’t help Nick Watney, either. The 2011 winner of the AT&T National didn’t advance out of this week’s Dell Technologies Championship in Norton, Mass. Watney wasn’t alone, however, because Charley Hoffman – who was one of two players to have made every BMW Championship since the Playoffs began in 2007 – didn’t qualify. Nor did Ryan Moore, who had played in every BMW except 2008.
Phil Mickelson is now the only player to qualify for each BMW Championship since 2007. Johnson & Johnson – as in Dustin and Zach – have made every field since 2009.
But the complexion of this year’s BMW Championship will match the restoration work – new look, new faces. Eighteen of the 70 qualifiers have never made it this far in the playoffs, a list that stretches from 42-year-old Ryan Armour to 22-year-old Aaron Wise.
Only seven competitors in the BMW Championship field played Aronimink for the AT&T National in 2010 (field average 71.18) and 2011 (70.719). Justin Rose is the most notable, the winner at 10-under 270 in ’10 and T-15 in ’11.
That might provide a sense of comfort to the Englishman. Then again, maybe not, given the multitude of changes. It is, after all, the mysterious game of golf; playoff golf, no less.