One week after winning the BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, a Willie Park Jr. jewel on the South Side of Chicago dating to 1916, Jon Rahm has his sights set on the Tour Championship and the FedEx Cup at another venerable layout, East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
“I love all these traditional golf courses,” Rahm said. “It’s always a true testament of good golf course design when it stands the test of time.”
The elite 30-man field competing this week at East Lake Golf Club must prepare to walk in the footsteps of an impressive collection of major champions. The club is steeped in history, first and foremost as the boyhood home course for World Golf Hall of Famer Bobby Jones, who later co-founded Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. His father, Robert Jones, was president of East Lake and served as director for 38 years.
The club previously played host to the 1950 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship, the 1963 Ryder Cup, and the 2001 U.S. Amateur. The Tour Championship debuted at East Lake in 1998, and became the permanent home in 2005, with a roster of winners, including Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy twice each as well as Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson.
“It keeps you on your toes on every single shot, and you need to think your way around,” Rahm said. “If you don’t happen to hit it that good, that’s how much better the putting and chipping needs to be.”
Tom Bendelow laid out the first holes at East Lake in 1907, followed by Donald Ross (1913) and George Cobb (1963). Rees Jones undertook a restoration in 1994 when it became the focus of a neighborhood revitalization project, reestablishing a wonderful flow of holes routed around a two-story Tudor-style clubhouse and a central lake with views of downtown skyscrapers. The par-70 layout has been stretched to 7,346 yards, but it remains a triumph of design over distance. The bunkering is moderate but strategic and the raised, undulating greens are considered so challenging to read that a cryptographer could be needed to crack them.
“The greatness of East Lake is that it doesn’t favor any set style of player,” Jones said, “basically, anyone of the 30 top players has a chance to win. The course has many qualities — the ebb and flow is quite varied — you have long and short holes. East Lake doesn’t favor any ball flight or movement.”
Xander Schauffele, who finished first in his tournament debut in 2017, in a seventh-place tie a year later and second a year ago in his three appearances, seconded Jones’s assessment that East Lake is a parkland course that demands full control of all shots.
“If you’re not kind of on with all aspects of your game, it’ll punish you in bad ways,” he said, especially with balls sinking into the Bermuda rough this week.
“Fairways are going to be key,” said reigning PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa, noting that long irons and hybrids might be needed to excavate from trouble on some of East Lake’s long par 4s.
In 2016, the PGA Tour flipped the nines, so that the old back nine – which featured a 240-yard par-3 as the 18th hole – became the front nine. A pivotal stretch in determining a champion Monday will be Nos. 14-16, a stretch Rahm conceded that has kept him from being in the trophy hunt in the past. The 211-yard par-3 15this one of the first ever to use a peninsula green, with a lake front and right. One bad swing and disaster looms at this hole.
“If you can play those three even par, I think you’re gaining a stroke on the field,” Rahm said.
The new finishing hole is a 590-yard downhill par 5, which offers a more dramatic and television-friendly finish, especially if one of the contenders can make a closing birdie or eagle.
“There aren’t a whole lot of birdie opportunities on the golf course for the most part unless you’re driving the ball incredibly well, and 18 sort of is one of those shots where if you can hit a good tee shot you really set yourself up for success on the hole,” Schauffele said. “It’s almost like a sigh of relief that once you get there you can kind of get one back on the golf course that’s been beating you up for most of the day. It’s a really cool finishing hole, I think, for a big tournament.”