By Adam Schupak
When former Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne was asked his thoughts on the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur to be played ahead of the Masters in April, he made the boldest of predictions.
“I think it will be the most-watched women’s golf event in history,” he said.
With apologies to Babe Zaharias, Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam and the current stars of the LPGA, Payne may very well be right. Such is the anticipation for the 54-hole tournament announced on the eve of the 2018 Masters, which will have an international field of 72 players, with a cut taking place after 36 holes.
The first two rounds will be contested over two days (Wednesday, April 3 and Thursday, April 4) at Champions Retreat Golf Club in nearby Evans. The course, which is woven into stately Georgia pines, mature hardwood and wetlands along the Savannah River that separates South Carolina and Georgia, opened for play in 2005, featuring three nine-hole loops. Initially, it was planned to be a Gary Player design, but as Player explained, “We pivoted to make a one-of-a-kind experience that had never been done before.”
Player chose the 1999 Masters Champions Dinner as his setting to recruit Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to share in building the private golf club. The three nine-hole courses at Champions Retreat inhabit a former untouched timber plot and are built around an island, a bluff and a creek. With three distinct properties to choose from, Player decided to divvy up the land “scientifically,” and wrote Island, Creek and Bluff on the back of three index cards. Palmer was granted first pick as the senior member of the group. He drew the “Island” card, and landed the most scenic of nines. Nicklaus went next since he had won more green jackets than Player and pulled the “Bluff” card, leaving Player with the “Creek” property.
For the ANWA, the Island nine will serve as the front nine and Bluff nine as the back.
Palmer’s loop begins with a pair of par 4s and then beginning at the third hole the next five and a half holes are played on an island created by the confluence of the Savannah and Little Rivers, with the tee shot at No. 8 struck over water from the island to a green back on the mainland. Many of the Island’s fairways have been raised to take advantage of the vistas out in the rivers. Expect the views to get their share of TV time.
The fourth on the Island nine starts from the creek and opens up to the majestic Savannah and an approach around a giant oak guarding the green. It is considered the signature hole of the 27-hole complex, and it’s easy to see why. This is a stout par 4 measuring 400 yards, where the caddies will advise aiming for the broccoli-shaped tree in the middle of the fairway. In general, the Island nine tends to be more forgiving off the tee.
Prior to the start of competition, competitors will enjoy taking part in a Champions Retreat “tradition unlike any other” of trying to hit a tee shot from the back tee of the par-3 sixth hole across the Savannah River, which acts as a border between Georgia and South Carolina some 230 yards away. It’s the beginning of what could be a pivotal stretch with a pair of challenging par 3s bookending the drivable, straightaway par-4 seventh, which likely will be set up one day at 245 yards and the other at 270 and entice players to go for it. Expect it to yield a few eagles, but the putting surface is guarded by a fortress of bunkers that could penalize players.
Nicklaus moved little dirt in making The Bluff because he found the holes fit nicely with the existing rolling terrain and surroundings. The sharp doglegs, uneven lies and undulating putting greens on his loop will give competitors fits, beginning with the “gnarly” false front at the par-3 11th, which led my caddie to shake his head and say, “These greens will make you dyslexic.”
The front-left and back-right hole locations will be the most challenging at the par-5 fifth hole, which requires two good shots if you’re going to attack with the third.
One hole later, the ladies will face the Bluff’s signature hole, a risk-reward par 4 bending right with a creek guarding the right side of the hole and the green. The smart play, Champions Retreat’s general manager Cameron Wiebe mused, may be to play conservatively to about 120 yards and take your chances at going after this skinny green.
The finishing hole is a par 5, where the tee likely will be moved up one of the rounds, creating decision time on whether to go for it in to two. A lake protects the left side of the hole and the tiered green is large and undulating with balls tending to gather in a bowl. There will be heroes and others left feeling like zeroes.
“There is a great deal of variety in the routing, with this nine featuring uphill and downhill shots as well as a balance of right-to-left and left-to-right holes,” Nicklaus said.
The course has undergone renovations in recent years that include better bunker systems, more efficient drainage, and tree removal for improved sight lines throughout its 27 holes, but only some extra TLC to improve course aesthetics in light of hosting the ANWA.
Champions Retreat is designed to play fast and firm, but Augusta has experienced a rainy winter season more suited for the tropics. It left the course playing unusually spongy, but a drier February has helped and a typical March should bring out the Augusta flowers just in time for the tournament.
The playoff loop—should it be required—will be Nos. 10-11-17-18 on the Bluff, and only the top 30 (no ties) advance to Saturday’s final round at Augusta National, which could potentially produce some great drama come Thursday afternoon. A chance to play the home of the Masters just days before the men compete for a Green Jacket—it doesn’t get much better than that.
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