At Atlanta Athletic Club, a dedicated membership awaits a new chapter of history to be written
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Championship golf is in the DNA of the members at the Atlanta Athletic Club, which has hosted just about every major championship in golf. The sense of care, and history, is such that members willingly made the sacrifice to hit shots off grassed mats, not fairways, for the better part of the last two months.
“I can't recall another tournament that's done that for us before,” said Stacy Lewis, a 13-time winner on the LPGA. “It just makes you feel like they want us here, and they want us to be here. They want to show this place off. I just feel really welcome this week.”
Starting Thursday on Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course will be the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, the seventh edition of a partnership between the PGA, LPGA and KPMG that has elevated the second oldest major championship in the women’s game. Formerly the LPGA Championship, this tournament’s history traces to 1955, when Beverly Hanson beat Atlantan Louise Suggs in a match-play final in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Hanson won $1,200 of a $6,000 purse. Different times, yes, but this week, the winner takes home $675,000 of a $4.5 million purse. Familiar with the phrase “raise the bar?” The KPMG Women’s PGA has done that.
“It's a very unique relationship to have three organizations like this all come together, and really, leaders in their field,” said PGA of America President Jim Richerson. “I think, when we all got together seven years ago, we had the shared mission of really trying to create opportunities for women both on and off the golf course. Specifically with this championship, we really wanted to elevate it to make it one of the best golf championships in the entire golf world.”
Venues have played a huge role in that. This championship moves from AAC this week to Congressional Country Club in Maryland next summer, and Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey the year after that. All three venues own deep histories in serving as stages for some of golf’s biggest moments.
The Highlands Course measures 6,740 yards and will present a thorough test. There are several greens protected by water and rains leading into the championship have produced dense, sticky rough. There are a handful of greens that run back to front and will leave treacherous putts for anyone hitting approaches past pin high. Kerry Haigh, Chief Competitions Officer for the PGA of America, is excited about the many options he has in setting up the Highlands Course for the best players in the game.
Drivable par-4 holes? Reachable par 5s? A quartet of par-3 holes that can be tougher than a $3 steak? The Highlands Course, which has hosted three PGA Championships as well as men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, offers all of that and more.
“In some ways,” Haigh said of his strategy in setting up the golf course, “we’re sort of spoiled for choice, because there are three, four or five holes where you can do it (move tees forward to present risk/reward opportunities). I think you don’t want to do it all in the same round, or the same day.”
The par-5 18th hole, for instance, measures 530 yards from a back tee, guarded by water along the left side of the fairway that wraps to the front of the green. It’s a solid three-shot hole from the back tee box. With tees moved up, it could increase the possibility of swings and momentum and great drama, especially on the weekend.
“I have a rule actually for 12 (another par 5) and 18 this week,” said competitor Mariah Stackhouse, who is getting to play a major in her home city this week. “If I’m a yard outside of 200 yards (on the approach) I’m not even considering it. ... I think that’s one you go for in two if you have a nice, smooth swing.”
This is the third major of the season on the LPGA schedule, and the first two have captured by first-time winners. Thailand’s Patty Tavatanakit won the ANA Inspiration, and 19-year-old Yuka Saso from the Phillipines won the U.S. Women’s Open. Already accomplished players such as sisters Nelly and Jessica Korda, Australia’s Minjee Lee and Japan’s Nasa Hataoka are LPGA winners and highly-ranked players who have yet to win a major. Hataoka lost in a playoff to Saso at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Nelly Korda arrives to AAC having won last weekend in Michigan, where she shot 25-under par. American players also are looking to end a major drought that dates to the 2018 Evian, which was won by Angela Stanford. Nelly Korda is 22, and plans to win many majors. When she breaks through, will the emotion be more joy ... or sheer relief?
“I'm guessing joy. I would hope joy,” she said, smiling. “Not really relief. I wouldn't say relief. At the end of the day, anyone can win here. It's definitely something on my bucket list in the sense as a professional golfer, but it would be a lot of joy.”
All the pieces are in place for a great major championship at a storied golf course that has seen so many.
“It's a great venue. It's a rich purse. It's an infrastructure in staging that our players respond to,” said Roberta Bowman, Chief Brand and Communications Officer for the LPGA. “It's the ability for those players to be on television and to share their talent with viewers around the world.
“When you do that, the best players in the world will do their job, and year after year, this event has delivered great drama and great players and great champions.”
And by Sunday evening, they will have one more. Only then will the dedicated members of Atlanta Athletic Club be able to hit shots off their own fairways once more.