Preparing Highland For Mackenzie Tour Finale Walk In The Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reed On The Greens September 13, 2018
by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, Jeffrey Reed

On paper, the cozy confines of the Stanley Thompson-designed Highland Country Club (est. 1922) appear ready for the taking by the 59 Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour professionals here this week for the Freedom 55 Financial Championship.

Measuring just 6,584 yards and playing as a par-70 track, Highland is an old-school layout with mature trees and small, undulating greens – and this week, heightened rough not seen before by this tournament. It’s the only defense available during the bomb-and-gouge era.

Highland’s par-3 No. 12.

As I reported in my previous story here, in 2015, ’16 and ’17, the overall scoring average was 68.33, just 1.69 strokes below par. But there are always going to be hot golfers ready to tear the place apart. Case in point: last year’s winner, American Rico Hoey, shot rounds of 66-66-62-67 – 261 (-19), a one-stroke victory over fellow American Jordan Niebrugge.

Highland head golf professional Rick Pero said while the greens will roll from 11 to 11.5 this year, the already punishing rough will be even thicker in order to toughen the course.

“We can’t let the greens get away from us, especially if it dries up and especially at the par-4 No. 5 and par-3 No. 12 holes,” Pero said of the holes boasting greens with dramatic slopes. “The greens will roll fast enough during the Freedom 55 Financial Championship, given that we’ll have interesting pin placements, and that the rough is going to be very tough to play out of this year.”

With an exceptionally hot, dry summer, Highland’s golf superintendent Greig Barker had his hands full not only pleasing members with a pristine golf course, but also in making sure the course remained in tip-top shape for the Mackenzie Tour field. During the weeks leading up to the tournament, heavy rains meant more work trying to keep a regular cutting schedule, and concurrently maintaining the bunkers which will soon undergo a restoration project under the guidance of golf course designer Ian Andrew.

It was Andrew who oversaw a reno of Highland’s bunkers in the late-1990s. Prior to Andrew, late course architect Rene Muylaert handled a makeover of the club’s bunkers.

“It’s a restoration of my own 20-year-old work,” Andrew said. “A few changes, but the bulk of the work will remain the same. It was always one of my favourite projects where I remained happy with the results years after.”

Said Mackenzie Tour vice president Scott Pritchard, “(The bunker restoration) will be good for the members, and good for the players in the Freedom 55 Financial Championship.”

Mike Kutcher. Photo: Jeffrey Reed.

Prior to every Mackenzie Tour event, a week in advance, the tour’s coordinator of tournament operations and administration, Mike Kutcher, visits the host club and familiarizes himself with the land while exploring every possible rules decision. At Highland, that means meeting with Barker, discussing green speed, rough height and tee boxes, as well as out of bounds areas, hazards and everything that may call for a ruling.

But according to Kutcher, he’s on automatic pilot during his advance work at Highland, which he called the best-conditioned golf course on the Mackenzie Tour.

“Coming back to a place where we’ve been before, and knowing what Greig Barker does from previous years, we know what we’re getting even before we get here,” Kutcher said.

“It’s an easy job for me here. And the golf course lends itself to that. It’s easy because Greig keeps it in good shape. And Rick Pero and his team do everything they can to make sure the golf course is run right from a management standpoint,” Kutcher said.

“The course only has two ‘lakes,’ two water hazards (ponds at No. 7 and No. 10). It’s very straight forward as far as boundaries go. There are fences around the course, and where there aren’t fences then we put stakes in. But for the most part the golf course is the golf course. There’s not a lot of stuff going on out there. Not a lot of gardens or fountains, not a lot of paths that might be dirt baths or gravel paths,” Kutcher explained.

“When we get together as a group, with the rules committee, we need to look at every scenario and decide what it is and how to rule, But this golf course, if you look at the local rule sheet, there’s nothing on it. It explains how we mark the boundaries. And all year long we play stones in bunkers as movable obstructions. And that’s it.”

Highland Country Club’s signature hole No. 10.

When a player praises a golf course and its turf maintenance crew following a tournament, clichés are thrown around as easily as a flop shot out of a fluffy lie. But when this week’s field praises Highland’s layout and conditions, they’re not just teeing up hot air, according to Kutcher.

“Highland is in line with some of the other golf courses we play – old-school layout, established, everything mature and maintained. And the players love these old-school golf courses. At some of the others, they try to stretch out some length which, in my opinion, doesn’t do anything to make the golf course more difficult for these guys. They all hit it really far. There aren’t any short or average hitters anymore. The guys at this level can bomb it, and they all have very good short games.

“The nice thing about this golf course – and the players like this – is the greens are small, but if you do hit it in the rough, even if you do have a clear shot onto the green, if the greens firm up, they’re not going to be able to control it much. And the chances hitting these small greens out of that rough go down considerably. And if you miss a green on the wrong side, now you’re in the deep rough again and you have a very delicate chip shot. If you get behind any of these greens, you’re hard pressed to get up and down,” Kutcher said.

By Kutcher’s explanation, the field of 59 at Highland appreciate the pristine Stanley Thompson-layout and the challenges presented by small greens surrounded by punishing rough.

Every golfer appreciates great conditions. But only the crème of the crop appreciate ultra-tough turf challenges because they know that is what separates the men from the boys – or in the case of the Freedom 55 Financial Championship, a chance at grabbing the brass ring: a Web.com Tour card for 2019.

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Jeffrey Reed is a long-time member of the London sports media and one of Canada’s leading golf writers, with seven national and international writing awards. His third book, chronicling the history of the Canadian Seniors’ Golf Association 1918-2018, was recently published by the CSGA. He’s currently writing his fourth book a biography of one of the all-time great amateur golfers, Sandy Somerville. Contact him at jeff@londonontariogolf.com.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989.

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