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Atlanta Athletic Club Awaits 93rd PGA Championship
Following a thorough renovation by Rees Jones, the Highlands Course at Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga., north of Atlanta is poised to host the 2011 PGA Championship from August 11-14.
Home of legendary golfer Bobby Jones, the Atlanta Athletic Club, steeped in history and tradition, is the only club in the southeast to have hosted both the men's and women's U.S. Opens as well as two previous PGA Championships, in 1981 and 2001.
Rees' father, Robert Trent Jones Sr., designed the club's Riverside Course and nine holes of the Highlands Course, completing work in 1967. The club then hired Joe Finger to add nine holes to the Highlands Course in 1971. Both courses are located on rolling land accented by water features.
Rees Jones first redesigned the Highlands Course in 1994-95. At that time, all greens, tees and bunkers were rebuilt. A limited amount of fairway grading was done. Minor drainage improvements were also made.
In 2003, the club brought in Rees Jones to revise its Riverside Course. With three holes on the back nine reversed to bring the Chattahoochee River into play and view, and four new holes built within the routing, the layout's original design concept was greatly enhanced. In addition, all greens, tees and fairway features were rebuilt.
"The tailor cut the cloth well," Jones said of his father's handiwork shortly after the Riverside Course reopened. After drainage and irrigation issues were addressed, Jones supported a plan by Ken Mangum, the PGA of America's Director of Golf Courses & Grounds, to resurface the fairways in a new cultivar of zoysia grass, providing superior color contrast and resulting in firmer, faster playing conditions.
After the revised Riverside Course reopened to acclaim in 2003, the club did not hesitate to bring back Jones to elevate the stature of the Highlands. The case for remedial work became apparent in 2002, when heavy rains overwhelmed the drainage system on the Highlands. Jones, who's been intimately involved in the redesign of the club's two courses for nearly 20 years, said he was given "complete freedom" to make any improvements or changes to the Highlands Course that he saw fit in the wake of the 2001 PGA Championship. (Both the Highlands and Riverside courses will be used to host the 2014 U.S. Amateur).
Subsequently, the club in 2006 hired Jones to rebuild the Highlands Course along the lines of the Riverside Course, which by then had become well received by the membership based on its design improvements and new playing surfaces.
The scope of the work completed five years ago on the Highlands Course was extensive. All tees were leveled, and several new championship tees were added. Major grading was done on and off the fairways. Significant drainage improvements were made, and a new irrigation system was installed. The greens were for the most part left intact, but the greenside bunkers were reshaped, repositioned, strengthened and shifted closer to the putting surfaces. Finally, Jones and Mangum changed the grassing types for the entire course. (The Highlands now has Champion Ultra Dwarf Bermuda greens, Diamond Zoysia fairways and Tifton 10 Bermuda rough). Atlanta Athletic Club will be the first venue to host a major championship with this combination of grasses.
Perhaps Jones' most dramatic improvements come on the sixth hole. Ranging from 425 yards (back tee) to 295 yards (front tee), the 6th hole can play as a mid-length or a short par 4. A pond was created to the left of the fairway down to the green so that players must contend with the water on both the tee shot and on the approach to the green.
In assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the Highlands Course as a championship venue before construction began, Jones noted that the fairway bunkers were shallow and easy for the game's top players to escape from. Many of these bunkers were repositioned to offset the increased length of most Tour players. "The idea was to create more resistance to scoring," Jones said. "The club wanted to tighten the screws a bit and put forward a firmer, more complete examination of skill. They also wanted more pin-able areas on some of the greens, so we added several tongues on the surfaces."
These concerns were addressed on the par 4, 507-yard 18th hole, where Jones expanded the front section of the green surface, allowing for a front pin position. He also fortified and reshaped the greenside bunkers, making the 18th a tough finishing test.
With the addition of new tees and the lengthening of existing tees, the course has been stretched by 273 yards. For the 2011 PGA Championship, the Highlands Course will play at 7,467 yards as a par 70. The added length gives Kerry Haigh of the PGA many options to play holes differently each day.
A strategic, well-balanced design that places a premium on accuracy and asks players to shape shots in both directions, the Highlands Course will present a firm but fair test at the season's final major.
"It will be interesting to see how (the world's best players) do on hard, fast and firm Champion Bermuda greens," said Jim Thorne, a member of the club's executive board. "The goal," he added, "is to produce an interesting championship with the proper balance of difficulty and excitement. Judging by the modifications made by Rees Jones to strengthen the original layout, the Highlands Course will strike that balance."
In addition to his extensive overhaul of the Highlands Course, Rees Jones has reworked courses in advance of five previous PGA Championships held at Baltusrol (Lower Course), Hazeltine National, Medinah (No. 3 Course), Oakland Hills (South Course), and Sahalee.
Jones, known as "The Open Doctor" for the many courses he has redesigned in preparation for major competitions, has prepped facilities used to host seven U.S. Opens, four Ryder Cups and one Presidents Cup.