Players Learn to Adapt Fast in ‘Season of New’ on TOUR

The fifth hole at Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, N.C. (Scott Kunath/PGA TOUR)

WILMINGTON, N.C. – No learning.

Seinfeld fans remember that as one of only two guiding principles for the show’s creators. (No hugging was the other.) But on the ever-changing PGA TOUR in 2017, players are learning as fast as they can.

“It looks stunning,” Rafa Cabrera-Bello said of Eagle Point Golf Club, the little-known host for this week’s Wells Fargo Championship, after he arrived at the course Tuesday morning. “But I haven’t played a single hole yet.”

That was a popular sentiment among the wide-eyed best players in the world as they prepared to play in the first Wells Fargo Championship held away from Quail Hollow Golf Club since the tournament’s inception in 2003. Eagle Point is hosting while Charlotte’s Quail Hollow — 220 miles to the west — preps for the PGA Championship in August.

Who knows what to expect this week? Hoping to soak up some course knowledge, Davis Love III asked to play in the Monday pro-am and had the club set him up with its best caddie for the round. William McGirt, who grew up 90 minutes from here but hadn’t played Eagle Point, said he planned to see nine holes Tuesday, “and the rest of ’em before the sun comes up Wednesday.”

At least players and caddies are used to adapting on the fly, what with this being the Season of New on TOUR. It’s not just that we have a new No. 1 (Dustin Johnson), or that we’ve had to come up with new expert analysis (“Sergio Garcia will never win a major”) and with it a new Best Player Never to Win a Major (insert your favorite player here). It’s not just that we’ve had to come up with a new Best Player Never to Win on TOUR. (Congratulations, Kevin Chappell, now go to the back of the line.) More than all that, it’s new countries. New courses. New formats.

 

Then again, maybe they’re not the real favorites. Eagle Point, a 2000 Tom Fazio design, is being compared to Augusta National. Will Masters winners like three-time champion Phil Mickelson have an advantage this week?

“I feel like I’m in Augusta, North Carolina,” said Damon Green, who caddies for Zach Johnson, another Masters winner.

Steven Bowditch was so struck by the Eagle Point/Augusta National similarities he went on Twitter with the mashup hashtag #augustapoint.

More than anything, Eagle Point demands to be seen, so defending Wells Fargo champion James Hahn was trying to play as many practice holes as he could. He said seeing a course anew can be helpful on some courses, but this isn’t one of them.

“I’ve played golf courses that I have seen for the first time and played well,” he said. “It’s target golf. You see the fairway, hit the fairway; you see the green, hit the green. And then it’s just trust your eyes on the green.

“But a course like this,” Hahn continued, “I feel like the more knowledge you have about the golf course and the more times you play it, that you will play better. It’s the kind of golf course that you can play it a hundred times and still not know every little intricacy of the greens, fairway, the wind, and how to play certain holes.”

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The seventh hole at Eagle Point Golf Club. (Scott Kunath/PGA TOUR)

Ignorance is bliss? See no evil, score no evil? Forget it. Not this week.

“It’s like the Masters in that you can’t spend too much time on and around these greens,” Bob Estes said as he worked on his putting. “Especially with as windy as it’s supposed to be Thursday and Friday.”

“I just hope it doesn’t blow too much,” Pettersson said. As for the course record holder’s two cents on Eagle Point, Pettersson added: “The greens are slopey, and if you miss them it’s very difficult to get it up and down. It’s a pure place.”

Hahn went even further, calling Eagle Point one of the top five courses he’s seen on TOUR.

Now comes the hard or at least time-consuming part of getting to know it.

“We’re all afraid of a bit of change, aren’t we?” said Colin Byrne, Cabrera-Bello’s caddie. “Golf has to reinvent itself, and a new venue is like a reinvention. The thing about the PGA TOUR is the standard is so high, you really have to do something special to stand out.”

The early reviews are in, and in this, the 2017 Season of New, the Wells Fargo Championship and Eagle Point are the latest to do exactly that.