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Deutsche Bank Championship

Hole change adds a fourth dimension

A view from the fourth tee shows a clearly reachable par 4, but there is plenty of obstacles should your drive come up short. A view from the fourth tee shows a clearly reachable par 4, but there is plenty of obstacles should your drive come up short. (BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF)

NORTON -- It is just one piece of a golf course puzzle nestled into property that sprawls for more than 300 acres, but on the eve of the fifth Deutsche Bank Championship, it is the fourth hole at TPC Boston that figures to generate the most compelling storylines.

Certainly that was the case during yesterday's practice day when word filtered in from the tree-lined fairways that what had been shrunk was possibly being stretched. The long and short of it? Heck, "long" wasn't supposed to be part of the equation.

It was the latest twist to a story that is a fascinating study of the thought processes of those who are, admittedly, "inside golf" people. For several hours there was a behind-the-scenes debate to decide what many observers would consider a

trivial matter -- just where to place the tee markers. Finally, late in the day, a pronouncement was made.

"We'll play the up tees," said Mark Russell, a tournament director for the PGA Tour.

Collectively, there were sighs of relief from those who had taken it upon themselves to shrink a golf hole. Not by 10 yards, or 20, or even 40 or 80. But by a whopping 127.

Indeed, in an age when architects can't make holes long enough to suit their desires, Gil Hanse had taken the 425-yard fourth and turned it into a 298-yarder. Not only that, he didn't change par. It was still a par 4. If you get a sense that Hanse is trying to turn back the calendar to a bygone era, you have an inkling of what is at the heart of his genius.

Short par 4s, you see, get his creative juices flowing.

"You want the player to be seduced," said Hanse, who was commissioned by the PGA Tour to oversee a major redesign of a course that has seen its share of them in its six short years. But there is a school of thought that rings true in course design today: It is easier to design a long par 4; it is a challenge to design a short one.

Hanse agrees.

"There can't be so much trouble that you say you won't try [and drive it]," said Hanse, "or too easy so that you try for it every time."

To Hanse and the PGA Tour player who consulted with him, Brad Faxon, the challenge of a short par 4 is simple. "You want to force a decision. You want the player to have to make a choice," said Faxon. "You don't want it to be an automatic drive. Likewise, you don't want it to be an automatic layup."

And Hanse nailed it with his redesign of TPC Boston's fourth hole. At least, that is how Faxon has felt since the work was completed months ago. So when after several anxious hours yesterday in which Hanse and Faxon sweated out a possible back tee being employed to make the fourth play 356 yards, they breathed a celebratory gasp.

Next, the competitive test.

But first, the anatomy of change.

A 90-degree change
"It was," said Faxon, when asked why the fourth hole had to undergo a change in the first place, "an unfair hole."

He shrugs, because fair and unfair have always been matters of personal interpretation when it comes to golf holes, but in Faxon's case he had wide-spread support. Plenty of his colleagues disliked the hole and the complaints were consistent.

There was the long, forced-carry over wetlands. There was the small landing zone. There was the fairway that pitched away from the hole. There was the green tucked back into the woods, arguably the farthest and most remote point from the clubhouse. There was the fact that the fourth green took you well away from the fifth tee.

But most distressful of all? There was the 90-degree dogleg right.

Hanse cringed, and while he isn't suggesting that there's a standard measure for doglegs, he will tell you: "Ninety degrees is way too sharp."

Designed by Arnold Palmer's company, TPC Boston had in prior seasons undergone a series of cosmetic changes to alleviate problems with drainage and greens that sloped away from where approach shots landed. This time the changes were significant. But it wasn't Hanse and Faxon who forced the issue; it was the PGA Tour that initiated things.

"We had the opportunity to take something negative and make it positive," said Steve Wenzloff, the PGA Tour's vice president of design services. He envisioned a short par 4 and ran the idea past his tour colleagues. "The concept was in place and we presented that concept to Hanse."

In the Philadelphia-born Hanse, Wenzloff had faith.

"There aren't a lot of architects today who are designing short par 4s," said Wenzloff. "Players love them."

Even Hall of Famers.

"My favorite holes are short par 4s," said Jack Nicklaus. "They're the most fun to design and the most fun to play."

It's a fine line you walk to put those two in harmony. For Hanse, the challenge was to produce a hole that met his high standards and at the same time kept PGA Tour officials happy. That is a juggling act not easily navigated. The architect's view often involves different priorities than the owner's, in this case the PGA Tour. Wenzloff conceded as much.

"Part of our business is to manage the pace of play and ultimately get the competition fit within the allotted TV time," he said. "We have to strike a balance between entertainment value as well as a competitive value."

When in the spring Hanse unveiled his changes throughout the course, there were the expected debates. The cross bunker at the par-5 seventh generated some. So, too, did the rough that extended through the middle of the fairway at the par-5 18th. The par-3 16th shortened to 161 yards was another, though more mild in nature. The bulk of the other changes -- new fescue for aesthetics, bunkers contoured to present a rustic look, a few raised greens, a punch-bowl green at the par-4 ninth -- were universally applauded.

Then, there was the fourth. Wenzloff liked it, and so, too, did Faxon. Unpretentious as they come, Hanse seemed satisfied, but always at the heart of his discussions was this reality: So much would depend on what happened at the Deutsche Bank Championship.

Seductive ploy
Hanse had done away with the dogleg. He added a new tee, straightened out the hole, put in some new bunkers, and threw in a series of "chocolate drops" to the right of the green -- little mounds of dirt covered in thick, gnarly rough. Bottom line: He had offered an invitation to the player to swing away, without a shred of concern that lots of birdies will be made.

He expects that to be the case.

So, too, does Wenzloff, who isn't offended in the least by people who suggest that the 298-yard fourth "is a par-3 1/2."

"I don't have an issue with half-pars," said Wenzloff, who shares the same thought process with Hanse and Faxon, that giving the player a breather at the fourth makes sense given the reality of TPC Boston.

"Look what's coming," said Wenzloff.

"The fifth [466-yard par 4], sixth [465-yard par 4], seventh [600-yard par 5], eighth [213-yard par 3], and ninth [472-yard par 4] is the toughest stretch on the course," said Faxon.

Which is where the seduction comes into play in Hanse's minimalist world of course design. Where some architects employ bulldozers and waterfalls and man-made lakes and bunkers the size of California to make golf holes, Hanse calls upon strategy and the gentle tussle of land to create deception. There is a demanding stretch of holes ahead and you've got a 298-yard par-4? You lick your chops knowing you can make birdie.

"If you don't make birdie, it will gnaw at you and you could carry it to the fifth tee," said Faxon, who said that psychological wear and tear is sometimes more damaging than a really hard hole that you bogey.

Once the Deutsche Bank Championship commences tomorrow morning, plenty of players will record birdies at the fourth, but so, too, will it cause havoc. Of that, Brett Quigley is sure, brushing off fears that it could be too easy.

"Not with that green it's not, not when you're under the gun," said the Rhode Islander. "I love it. It's such a great risk-reward hole now."

It is because of the green, a virtual small shower blanket in this age of 7,500-square foot putting surfaces. Hanse figures the green is, at the most, 3,500 square feet, but what presents the greatest challenge is the angle at which it sits -- north to south, which means there is a small opening onto which you can deliver a tee shot. Is it a smart play? Ask Hanse and he'll smile. So will Faxon. And Wenzloff makes three. Players? They'll smile, too, because the truth is: Where there is a chance, there is many a PGA player willing to take it.

"We're going to go for it," said Jason Gore. "A lot of us, anyway."

He did so Tuesday, during a pro-am. Slammed a 3-wood to the front, two-putted for birdie and thought all was well with the hole.

"I think it's pretty good," he said. "You don't see a lot of good, short par 4s these days. I think it's great that they did it. If you miss it left and the [hole location] is left, you'll be hard-pressed to make a par."

Yesterday, Gore discovered that another tee box was being used. Now it was 356 yards. Longer, yes. But guess what?

"To be honest with you, from there it's an easier hole."

Why?

"It takes the question out of play. You don't go for it."

No seduction.

Just a lot of frustration with Hanse and Faxon.

Tee and jam issues
They heard about the possible change and lobbied to thwart it. Discussions were held, players were consulted, and new criticisms unfolded. Aaron Oberholser disliked the 356-yarder. He told Hanse he could only hit a 2-iron to carry the wetlands and Gore did, too. "But if you hit it slightly thin," said Gore, "trouble."

Oberholser found that trouble and expressed his dismay. Hanse and Faxon did, too. PGA Tour officials, citing a concern for pace of play, felt the tee box at 356 yards would work better for Rounds 1 and 2 when 115 players were being shuffled throughout the course. Others countered that pace of play doesn't make officials alter the tee boxes at the famed short par-4 10th at Riviera, nor the favored short par-4 17th at TPC Scottsdale.

How it unfolded is anyone's guess, but late in the day came word that the redesign of the fourth would go on as planned. There wouldn't be the long and short of this hole story. Only the short. It will play at 298 yards every day.

It's a popular choice, apparently.

"They've done a good job," said Gore. "Every golf course should have a [short par 4] like that. It's a lost art."

Even if it means that there will no longer be a shuttle ride for players from the green at the par-3 third to the tee at the fourth, thus forcing players to walk upward of 200 yards? It's apparently a way to help alleviate the expected jam at the fourth tee while so many players take aim, but Gore hadn't heard of that part of the puzzle.

"They did?" he asked. Then he laughed and shook his head.

"Damn. I'm withdrawing."

He was kidding, of course. He wouldn't dare turn down a chance to walk -- then try and drive -- the fourth.

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