STEVENS POINT – Some of the world’s best golfers have come to Stevens Point in the past few weeks for what for most was their first look at SentryWorld.
The Sentry-owned golf course — which was designed by Robert Trent Jones, opened in 1982 and has been renovated several times since — is hosting its third USGA Championship and by far its biggest event ever with this week’s US Senior Openwith practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday and the 72-hole championship Thursday through Sunday.
With so few of the 156 players in the field having any experience playing the par-71, 7,177-yard park course, no one really knows what to expect.
Perhaps no one has a better idea of what challenges lie ahead for the players than a veteran golf analyst Mark Rolfingwho has walked the course a number of times in recent weeks to prepare for his role as on-course commentator for NBC and the Golf Channel, and who also has a long-standing relationship with Sentry Insurance.
“I’m just wildly confident that this is going to be a much tougher test than anybody expected,” Rolfing said. “I can’t remember a course for any championship in a long time, whether it’s majors on the regular tour or really anywhere, I can’t remember a course where accuracy of driving was more important than it’s going to be here.”
The length of the rough has already become a story as players who have come in to survey the course have been sharing photos and texting with other competitors. The rough will likely be trimmed somewhat for the tournament, but there’s no doubt it will be a big focus for the players during their practice rounds.
“It really becomes a thought process about what to do,” Rolfing said. “I could see practice rounds taking six hours or seven hours. … I think you will see a different atmosphere early in the week than usual. I think there will be a lot more work that the players have to do because they never have played it, and because it will be such a different strategic course than what they are typically used to.”
Rolfing went so far as to predict that courses like SentryWorld will be the kind of course that championship golf is played on for years to come.
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“I think this is kind of the trend for future championship golf because we’re going to run out of land and run out of water, and 50 years from now they’re going to build more courses this size,” he said. “You have to run it and hit the other shots. What’s interesting about this place to me is that the focus is always on the ‘Flower Hole’ and aesthetics and beauty and condition and all that. And it’s all great and important.I get it.But shot values are really underrated here.
“There’s a better chance of making it up if you’re behind on this golf course than any other I’ve seen in a long time, simply because of this roughness. You can have two- or three-shot swings on any given hole out there.”
Rolfing believes that four holes – Nos. 5, 9, 13 and 17 – will be the most decisive during the championship and could lead to the biggest swings in the rankings.
Here are Rolfing’s thoughts on the holes that will make this US Senior Open special.
514 yards, par 5
Rolfing called this hole the best par-5 he’s seen since Augusta National.
“I’m just fascinated by it,” he said. “This is instantly my favorite hole on the course.”
A lake to the left of the fairway is the first obstacle players see from the tee, so they will have to play away from it. However, they cannot go too far to the right due to two large bunkers protecting the right side of the fairway. If they drive straight into the thick rough, they can forget about going for the green in two. If the wind is in their face, they will probably have to put up as well.
The front of the green is protected by a tree, another factor in the decision to go for the green in two or take the conservative route.
“On Thursday, I think you take a big chance to go for that green,” Rolfing said. “You say, ‘So what, it’s only the first round.’ But if you make a 7, you can shoot yourself out of it. You can’t win the case on Thursday, but you can lose it. I think you’ll see more conservative play early.”
Rolfing expects most players to hang up all week. While the opportunity to come home in two and putt for eagle is there – especially for players who need to make shots on the weekend – he doesn’t think the reward will be worth the risk for most.
“I see some players like (Steve) Stricker who will say, ‘I don’t care where I drive it, it doesn’t matter where I drive it, I’m going to put my second shot right off the sprinkler there. That’s 88 yards from the center of the green,” Rolfing said. “I think they will do it every day.”
Rolfing believes No. 5 will be the best hole for spectators.
“I’d go straight out and stand a little bit at the corner of the dogleg, up above the two bunkers on the right,” he said. “Up on that hill, you can see the tee shots coming at you. More importantly, you’ll be right there where they’re making the decision about what to do next. And I think the spectators will be close enough that they might even be able to hear what the players are saying. But I think the dilemma that each player is going to go through there to figure out what to do is going to be very exciting.
“So you’ll be able to see the tee shots land, and then you’ll be able to see what they’re doing. If they try to go for that green, buckle up. So I think the right of 5 will be a great place to see.”
456 yards, par 4
Rolfing called this the “most demanding tee shot on the course.” And the hole only gets tougher from there.
It was designed as a par-5 but will be a par-4 for this championship.
“If I had any concern about how a hole is going to play out here, the one I would have the biggest concern about is No. 9,” Rolfing said.
The shallow green is protected in front by a creek and behind by two bunkers. Because the hole usually plays as a par-5, most amateurs play a short iron onto the green for their third shot. The pros will attack the green with a longer iron on their second shot, provided they hit the fairway first.
Rolfing believes it will be the USGA’s duty to have the tees out so players can get their tee shots down the fairway far enough to allow their approach shots to hold the green.
“They have not made the green more receptive. They haven’t deepened it,” Rolfing said. “The back bunker is still going to be a terrible place to be. I’m hoping and I think the USGA is going to do this and keep the tee up far enough that everybody in the range can get the ball up there because it’s a difficult green and it is built to receive a short iron shot, not a long iron shot.”
419 yards, par 4
Water will come into play for anyone who pulls their tee shot or approach shot to the left, and a large bunker in the middle of the fairway will give players something else to think about from the tee.
The bigger problem will be if the wind blows, as it is usually in the face of players. That was the case when Rolfing did one of his walkthroughs recently with local pros hitting the shots.
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“Almost couldn’t get the ball over the lake. It was a really tough tee shot,” he said.
Rolfing believes that the hole has the potential for large scoring fluctuations.
“I think you’re going to see some big numbers at 13. I think you’re going to see some 7s. I think you’re going to see some triples and more there,” he said.
366 yards, par 4
Rolfing believes the penultimate hole, a downhill dogleg right, has the potential to decide the winner on Sunday.
Players will not be able to be too aggressive off the tee due to the thick rough to the right of the fairway and two bunkers on the left edge.
“You can very easily get a two-shot swing on 17 if you just drive the ball down the middle of the fairway and the other player hits it into the rough to the right or the fairway bunker to the left,” Rolfing said. “You can easily go 3-5 there.”
Although players find the fairway with a conservative tee shot, the relatively short approach is still difficult due to the sloping green and a pond behind the green waiting to swallow any shot that goes far.
“If you play out of the rough against a green like that, it’s so hard to control the distance and the water comes into play everywhere up there,” Rolfing said. “So I could see wild swings of shots on a hole like that. If you’re two shots short of getting to the 17th tee here, you can still win.”
And don’t forget No. 16
202 yards, par 3
Known throughout the golf world as the “Flower Hole,” it will no doubt garner a lot of attention from national media and first-time spectators.
Rolfing believes the hole will likely play as one of the easiest during the tournament, but depending on what the USGA does with pin placements, it will play more difficult with a right back pin position. He also believes that it could provide some fireworks in the form of an ace if the stick is in the middle of the green.
“There’s a hole on the right side of the green that’s very difficult. It’s a really tough one over the front right, greenside bunker. It’s going to be hard to get to,” Rolfing said. “Twenty feet from that hole, right in middle of the green, is a hole location where I would predict a very good chance for a hole-in-one. There is a sideboard to the left of the hole. There is a sideboard to the right of the hole and there is a backstop on the green.
“So if they decide to put the hole there — which I hope they do — you can easily get a hole-in-one.”