Greens of Dreams: Difficulty increases for closing stretch

September 20, 2018

We’ve all started to fade a little bit late during a round of golf.

It’s inevitable, and it can have a variety of causes. Maybe you’re just tired, either mentally or physically. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you’re thirsty. Maybe you’ve over-quenched your thirst. Maybe the round isn’t going so well and you’re ready for it to end. Maybe the round is going really well and you’re trying your hardest to maintain your focus.

This is no time for a stretch of boring golf holes, especially not in our Greens of Dreams series. So, in order to keep you on your toes and attentive before the final three holes, we’re making Nos. 13 through 15 our toughest three-hole stretch on the course.

The last three holes weren’t terribly easy, either, but we’re coming off a nice birdie opportunity on No. 12, the par-3 16th at The Aiken Golf Club. To play the next three, all par 4s, in even par will be no gimme.

Hole No. 13 — the seventeenth hole at The Aiken Golf Club

We stay at The Aiken Golf Club to play No. 17, a par 4 measuring 382 from the medal tee and 344 from the mid. It looks straightforward enough from the tee box, yet it’s anything but – it’s rated the second-toughest on that course for good reason.

Part of that reason is the green, which should come as no surprise at The Aiken Golf Club. This one, though, is perhaps the course’s most unique feature. It’s a double green shared with No. 1, and just like the others it’s full of undulation that isn’t always easy to decipher.

There’s out of bounds, tricky rough and bunkers down the left, and a tee shot to that side is bound to find one of those spots. Go slightly to the right, and there’s a large tree blocking out any realistic chance of reaching the green.

So let’s just say the tee shot goes right down the middle – if only it were always that easy – and you’ve probably got a short iron in hand hitting uphill to the green. Ordinarily, that means we’re thinking birdie. Good luck.

“It’s literally a 3- to 4-yard spot you can land the ball,” said Bo McCullough, who’s played a key role in a variety of ways at the City of Aiken Amateur Championship. “If you don’t land in that, you’re coming back off the green short. If you land past it, you’re going over the green into some really bad rough.

“I mean, it’s just a demanding – I’ve heard people say they believe it’s the hardest short par 4 in the state of South Carolina. I’ve heard a lot of people say that. Mostly because of that second shot, because you have no idea what’s gonna happen with it.”

The 17th has been an imposing figure at the City Am, as it can be a late stumbling block or a key rare birdie. Or, in McCullough’s case, it was a missed opportunity at the title in the epic playoff at the 2012 tournament. And it started with a tee shot to the right.

“In fact, in the 12-hole playoff for the City Am that I lost (to Brian Quackenbush), in the playoff I was blocked out by the tree,” he said. “I make bogey, we end up going to another hole, and we just keep going. If I had parred that hole, it would’ve been over with, basically.”

Hole No. 14 — the third hole at Cedar Creek Golf Club

Greens of Dreams makes its way over to the recently renovated Cedar Creek Golf Club for another tough test. We’re moving this hole from early in the round for a late challenge. Measuring 434 yards from the back, gold tees – the blues and whites are both in the 400-yard range – No. 3 ranks as Cedar Creek’s toughest from the longer tees.

The tee shot has to be on the mark, and there’s a pond on the right – which is reachable from the up tees – between the fairway and green as the hole bends in that direction. The approach shot covers a lot of water and can’t go long. Come up short and right, and you’ll get a good view of the stone wall fronting the green.

“No. 3 is about as good a hole as you’ll ever play,” said Brooks Blackburn, director of golf at Palmetto Golf Club and a member of USC Aiken’s Hall of Fame. “Longer hitters will have to lay up a little bit to avoid going through into a hazard. But then to flight your ball over the hazard coming into a green that’s – if you hit it pin high or a little bit long left, you’re done. You’re gonna kick over into the trees. You know, we played our national championships out there when I was at (USC) Aiken, 95, and it was a great test of golf. It was in great condition.”

The third hole played the toughest on the course at the 1995 NCAA Division II Men’s Golf Championship. The stroke average was 4.63, according to a story in the May 21, 1995 issue of the Aiken Standard. Blackburn and his teammates finished second by 10 shots behind national champion Florida Southern and USCA’s Brian Kassel, also a Hall of Famer, tied for second individually behind future PGA Tour pro Briny Baird of Valdosta State.

Hole No. 15 — the fifteenth hole at The River Golf Club

So this current three-hole stretch has already covered two holes with prominent ties to championship tournaments. Let’s add a third.

North Augusta’s The River Golf Club hosted the Kandy Waters Memorial Classic, a staple of the Hooters/NGA/SwingThought Tour, and has been traversed by scores of professional golfers. One of those is two-time major champion Zach Johnson, who nearly erased Elliot Gealy’s seven-shot, 54-hole lead before finishing two back in 2002.

Australian Jamie Rogers won the inaugural event in 2000, and former University of Georgia golfer Justin Bolli won in a playoff the next year. Those were both nice paydays, each north of $20,000, but both had opportunities at an additional $20,000 after the round.

They just had to birdie the 15th hole, a par 4 billed at 461 yards from all the way back that rates as the course’s toughest.

Neither one did. Rogers hit his approach into the water, and Bolli missed a 45-footer for birdie.

For that kind of money, it makes sense to pick a hole that even the pros can’t turn into an easy 3.

“We’ve got a back tee on that hole that’s pretty long, and that hole is often into the wind, also. And that was also during the winter,” said Chris Verdery, the director of golf who’s been at The River Golf Club since before it opened in 1998 just in time for the Masters rush. “That hole, the breeze in your face, it’s 465 or 470 into the wind over water, so there’s not a lot of cutting corners. Birdie, even for an extremely impressive professional player, was probably a 10 percent chance or something.”

There’s water in front of the tee box and rough and bunkers down the right side, so hitting the fairway is a must. From there, it’s still a mid-iron into the green.

“The 15th hole is a phenomenal par 4,” said Blackburn. ”... If you leak it right, you’re probably gonna hit it in the water so you’ve got to keep it down the left side a little bit. And then you’re gonna have a long shot to a green that’s pretty brutal – it’s got a little spine in the middle of it.”

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve survived the toughest stretch in our Greens of Dreams series. I promise it will get easier from here – it can’t get harder. So how are we setting up the finish? You’ll have to check back next Thursday for the conclusion of our six-week round of the area’s best golf holes.

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