Sunday, August 5, 2018

Firestone Country Club - South Course Review: Front-9 (2018 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational)

The South Course at Firestone Country Club is as much a part of the PGA Tour's fabric as any course in history.  South has hosted a Tour event in 64 of the last 65 years, including PGA Championships, World Golf Championships, and the World Series of Golf.  Giants of the game have played here and won here - which speaks to the integrity of and respect for this iconic course. 


I played South the week prior to this year's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and it's classic, timeless design is challenging to both professionals and amateurs.  I can also tell you right now - South deserves to, and should host a future U.S. Open (more on that later). 

Originally designed by Bert Way, South was redesigned in 1960 by Robert Trent Jones, and then updated in 1985 by Jack Nicklaus. The result is a 7,400 yard, par-70 course that's an absolute thrill to play - if you play it correctly.  If you play it incorrectly or poorly however - your misery will be profound and enduring. 

Some have argued Firestone is a simple, boring course with holes that merely run back and forth, and fairways that only run up and down.  After playing here it absolutely boggles my mind how anyone could say that with a straight face, unless of course they've just never played here before or have some ax to grind. 

To play South well you have to hit good drives, good approach shots, good wedges, and putt well.  It's a complete test of your entire arsenal from tee to green, and you need a strategy and goal for every single hole. 


First let's start with driving.  This isn't a bomber's paradise.  Fairways are narrow and hard to hit, and when you miss you'll pay a big penalty.  The rough is thick and sticky, and trees will more often than not obstruct shots into the green when you don't find the short grass. 

Merely finding the fairway isn't enough on South however.  You have to shape shots and work the ball into the fairways to the right spots and positions.  Doglegs left and right dictate which side of the fairways give you better angles into the putting surfaces.  Even on straight driving holes, bunkers are strategically placed that require you to move your ball around.  

The course will show you what shots you have to hit.  Fades, draws, starting shots on one side and peeling them out on the other is an absolute must.  Navigate the long, narrow, tree-lined fairways well and you'll be rewarded.  Do it poorly and you'll find yourself in headache spots with no way to attack on second shots. 


If you find yourself in the right spots off the tee, hitting greens becomes easier, but not necessarily easy.  Many putting surfaces are small with rises that won't allow shots to roll up into them.  The green speeds are consistent and many surfaces are relatively flat.  However others have significant undulations, with false fronts and strategically placed greenside bunkers that can make surviving more critical than scoring. 

There's an old-school charm and challenge to Firestone South that makes this revered landscape one of the finest golf designs anywhere.  It  should be on every golf lover's ultimate bucket list.  Playing here is an undeniable one-of-a-kind thrill and the lasting golf memory is priceless.  Let's get into my South Course review - the Front-9. 

Par-4, 399-Yards 
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is our 8:00 AM starting time.  First on the tee, from Cleveland, Ohio, and no danger to break the course record - Pete Pappas" (applause?).  It was time for me to discover firsthand what's made Firestone South a favorite to legends like Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, and of course Tiger. 


The first hole is a slight dogleg right with a fairway that narrows in the landing zone.  One enormous bunker on the left and three smaller ones on the right are always in play.  The bunkers sit between 175 and 100 yards out - making them a challenge to avoid for both long hitters and players who use less than driver off the tee.  The bunker on the left is particularly evil, as finding it means you're probably blocked from the green by the group of large trees. 


The green has a pretty serious back-to-front and right-to-left slope, and is protected by two bunkers on each side at the opening.  The right bunker is larger and more shallow, while the left bunker is smaller and deeper.  Trust me however, there is no lesser of two evils between them. 


Par-5, 526-Yards 
This might be a birdie hole for the pros, but the first of only two par-5s on the course presents challenges right off the tee for everyone.  A  narrow fairway with a series of bunkers and overhanging trees on the right side makes a high draw the ideal shot off the tee.  Once again the fairway bunkers are positioned to menace both long and shorter hitters - sitting 260 to 200 yards out. 


The dogleg-left tee shot is downhill, but your second shot is going to be uphill - making it a bit more difficult to go for it in two.  Laying up with your second shot should favor the left side of the fairway, as it gives a cleaner look into the green.  Missing too far left (or right for that matter) will make your third shot problematic.  On the left the rough is extremely nasty, on the right a large tree can block you from the green.  Decisions, decisions. 


Whether you go for it in two or are hitting a third shot into the green, a cluster of bunkers on the bottom left and right protect the putting surface.  The green slopes back-to-front and is even smaller than the green on No. 1.  Missing long is no bargain either with thick greenside rough that can make for a delicate up and down. 


Memorable Shot: Jason Day 2016 
There have been some memorable WGC-Bridgestone shots over the years on just about every hole on the South Course, and before my round started I decided I was going to re-enact as many of these gems as I could.  On No. 2 I tried chipping in from the same spot Jason Day chipped in from for eagle in 2016.  I got it to "makeable-putt" range, but the back right rough is generally not the miss you want - it can quickly turn this hole into a misadventure. 


Par-4, 442-Yards 
Downhill tee shot, somewhat wider landing zone, and no fairway bunkers?  This seemed promising - until I realized the fairway slopes left to right, and a large tree can block your approach if you're too far right in the fairway.  On the other hand too far left and the rough is a jungle of thick stuff, so it's basically pick your poison. 


This was the hole in 2014 where Sergio Garcia drove it in the left rough and knocked the diamond out of a spectator's engagement ring.  She later found it - but Sergio surrendered his final round lead with a bogey and never recovered as Rory McIlroy took the title. 

Again it's worth pointing out right here - there's a strategic variety and nuance to each hole on the South Course that's not readily apparent just watching the WGC-Bridgestone broadcast.  Positioning is king on South and here on No. 3 some big hitters would probably do well to just use a long iron off the tee. 

Your approach shot is over water and clearly that means it's better to be long than short - especially with the green sloping back towards the water.  Two bunkers at the bottom left of the green and one near the middle right protect a deep but skinny putting surface. 


Memorable Shot: Hideki Matsuyama 2017 
In 2017 Hideki Matsuyama chipped in for eagle from the right greenside rough on his way to a record-breaking course record 61 and blowout WGC-Bridgestone victory. 


Par-4, 471-Yards 
The fairway on the last hole sloped left to right.  On this hole it slopes the opposite way - right to left, with a bunker on the right side 205 to 180 yards out.  Aim too far away from that bunker and you risk hitting your drive through the fairway on the left side because of the slope.  You'll be left with an approach shot blocked by trees. 


Two bunkers low right and left protect a slightly elevated green that's tough to hold if you're not coming in high.  The left bunker is deeper with a higher lip making that the more difficult up and down.  Anything long and you're in tree trouble.  No. 4 is probably the hole that required the most precise tee shot and approach shot to this point in my round.  Toughest hole so far, but also most rewarding for playing it well. 


Par-3, 200-Yards 
There's no safe miss on this challenging par-3 and things can get  ugly in a hurry if you're not careful.  The green is wide but shallow, and swarmed by three bunkers in the front and left.  Find any of them and you wont have much green to work with. 


Thick rough surrounds the bunkers and it's a major challenge - you'll almost always have your ball partially or completely obscured.  And if you miss a little further left?  A native area will pretty much guaranty you lose your ball. 


Don't try bailing out right either.  Mounding and trees on that side will challenge your short game with a daunting pitch onto the putting surface that slopes right-to-left.  Catch it thin or hot and Whammy!  You're over in the rough or bunkers you were trying to avoid in the first place.  This hole is four letter word formidable. 


Par-4, 469-Yards 
There's no way around this one: you really need two precise shots on this hole - off the tee and on approach, or you'll be looking a huge number. 


There aren't any bunkers in the fairway, but it's a narrow shoot with the driver, and probably a good idea to even consider a fairway wood if you're a longer hitter to help stay in the short grass.  Miss just a little bit on either side and you'll be blocked by trees or hitting out of some gummy rough into a green that's very tough to hold. 


The green is deep but extremely narrow, and three bunkers protect it on both sides (two on the left and one on the right).  The putting surface makes this green even trickier as it slopes right to left and back to front.  If your approach isn't landing soft or coming in with Tour level spin there's no chance to hold the green. 


Par-3, 219-Yards 
This is one of those good news, bad news kind of holes.  The good news is the green is the largest on the course.  Pick the right club and fire right at the heart. 


The bad news is a cluster of four bunkers protects the front left and right and entire back of the green, and if you find yourself in any of them, it's a tough up and down - particularly the long bunker on the left. 


I found the back bunker, which I think is the easiest to escape from - but then you have to deal with that pesky back-to-front putting surface slope. 


Par-4, 482-Yards 
The tee shot here is a great example of how the course lets you know what shots to hit.  This is a slight dogleg right hole with a fairway that also slopes left to right.  If you shape your drive to catch that slope you'll be rewarded with huge downhill roll.  I'm taking about the difference between a long-iron or mid-iron into the green. 


Five bunkers of varying shapes and sizes protect the green - three on the right, one in the back, and one on the left.  The bunkers on the right are deeper than the others and built into mounds - the penalty for finding them is severe.  And if they weren't evil enough?  The putting surface slopes right to left and back to front. 


Par-4, 494-Yards 
If there's a hole you want an accurate drive on more than any other, this is it.  The fairway slopes left to right, and two bunkers are strategically positioned between 230 and 190 yards out.  One on the left and two on the right capture mishits in either direction.  As you can see - your chances of hitting the green from one of these hazards becomes significantly impaired. 


Even assuming you've split the fairway off the tee, your second shot needs to be extremely precise as the elevated green is the smallest on the front-9, and severely sloped with two bunkers guarding the right side and one larger bunker hugging the left.  Aim small, miss small has never been more true than it is on your final approach before the turn. 


Memorable Shot: Tiger Woods 2006 
In 2006 Tiger Woods was in the right rough, 167-yards out, when he pulled out his 9-iron and hit the ball... over the clubhouse.  Forget how ridiculous it is that Tiger's ball actually bounced off the roof, to the other side, and then into a kitchen staff pie cart.  Standing in that same spot as Woods it tragically dawned on me that Tiger hit his 9-iron that far - accidentally.  I can't even hit my 9-iron that far on purpose. 


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