Historic Baltusrol Golf Club Adding to its Major Resume This Week
To walk around Baltusrol Golf Club is to stroll through the endless halls of time. Why, on a wall just inside the clubhouse entrance, there’s a picture of Willie Anderson, who won the 1903 U.S. Open here, the second of his four, with his arm wrapped around fellow Scot Alex Smith, who would win two U.S. Opens himself.
Baltusrol pays homage to Jack Nicklaus, who won not one, but two U.S. Opens here, 13 years apart. In fact, there is a plaque in the 18th fairway from where he ripped 1-iron onto the green from 238 yards, uphill, to seal one final birdie in a five-shot victory over Arnold Palmer. Along with his final 22-footer for birdie came a scoring record (275) previously held by Ben Hogan.
This week, a new chapter will be written into the annals of Baltusrol’s great history as the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship tees off for the first time on Thursday morning. The best women players in the game want their piece of history, too. Sure, they have played a part (Mickey Wright won a U.S. Women’s Open on the Lower in 1961, and Kathy Baker won a U.S. Women’s Open on the Upper in 1985. Wright’s 1961 victory marks the last time a women’s major was staged on the Lower.)
Since creating a forward-thinking partnership with the PGA of America nine years ago, KPMG has been all about empowering women. And this is one more step forward, doing so at one of the most storied clubs in America.
“The biggest thing for me,” said Stacy Lewis, a two-time major winner, U.S. Solheim Cup captain and KPMG ambassador, “is you walk through that clubhouse, and you see the winners of all these past champions that have won big events here, and it's guys, it's guys, it's guys ... and then there's maybe one here of a U.S. Am or something like that.
“But to just start a history here of women being on those pictures and being around that clubhouse, that's the biggest thing for me of what's changing in women's golf, because we're doing this every year.”
Baltusrol’s Lower Course, returned to its A.W. Tillinghast roots by architect Gil Hanse, certainly is ready. It will be a complete test for a field that includes 98 of the top 100 women’s players in the world. The Lower features narrow fairways, difficult rough, demanding approaches, and challenging opportunities to scramble for those missing greens.
The course does not wait to get after you. The opening hole is a 440-yard par 4 that plays as a par 5 for the members. The second hole is tricky, pitched at awkward angles to fit shots into the fairway and green, with a cross-bunker to avoid. The par-4 third is 439 yards, downhill, to a green well-protected by bunkers. The fourth is a par 3, Baltusrol Lower’s signature hole, playing 162 yards over a daunting lake. Anyone getting to the fifth tee level par will have played some great early golf. Add to this start the fifth and sixth holes, which are stout par 4s that offer little letup. Adding to the challenge this week is a forecast calling for 60 percent or more chance of rain on each of the tournament days. As if things weren’t already challenging enough.
“Talking to some caddies,” Lewis said, “you may not legitimately have a good birdie opportunity until (No.) 7 (the Lower’s first par 5).
Adds World No. 2 Nelly Korda, the 2021 KPMG champion at Atlanta Athletic Club, “The first four holes are pretty crucial, but overall, I think the golf course is very strong. The par 3s are pretty long, and it's going to be a pretty interesting test this week. It's an amazing golf course.”
If it is an exciting stage at the finish that makes for a strong championship layout, players will get it in a pair of par-5 holes stacked back-to-back at the end of the round. No. 17, at 550 yards, will be a true three-shotter, with players required to hit two long and accurate shots just to get a short iron in their hands for a third. The 18th should be more player friendly. Water protects the left side of the hole, and it plays uphill to the green, but the hole is far more manageable for players at just less than 500 yards (498).
“It's certainly unique,” said Kerry Haigh, Chief Championships Officer for the PGA of America, said of Baltusrol's finishing kick. (In three-plus decades of setting up championship courses, Haigh could recall another double par-5 finish.) “Baltusrol is pretty much a very long, challenging 17th hole with is a Sahara waste area, great hazard there sort of challenging you on the second shot, and then likely or hopefully a reachable par-5 18th. So much history has come down on those two holes.
“You've got to wait a long time before you get to the two par 5s. There is one on the front nine (No. 7) which is certainly reachable and gettable. But 16 (210 yards) is a tough par 3 for sure. But I think the back-to-back par-5s certainly calls for a lot of potential movement coming down on Sunday of the final round. Two birdies, birdie and eagle, or you get a little off-kilter and (make) a bogey, and who knows? That's the fun, and that's the excitement, coming down the stretch.”
In the last few years alone, the KPMG PGA Championship has visited such major venues as Sahalee in Washington; Olympia Fields and Kemper Lakes in Illinois; Hazeltine National in Minneapolis; Aronimink in Philadelphia; Atlanta Athletic Club in Georgia; and Congressional last year in the nation’s capital, where In-Gee Chun prevailed. All these venues have played host to big tournaments through the years, be it PGA Championships, U.S. Opens, U.S. Women's Opens or a Ryder Cup. The KPMG Women's PGA Championship returns to Sahalee next June, and heads to Fields Ranch East, at the PGA’s new home in Frisco, Texas, in two years.
“The golf courses we continue to get are pretty amazing, to be honest,” Lewis said. “This golf course is the ultimate major test. You've got tricky greens. You've got firm, fast greens. You've got rough. You've got doglegs and trying to keep the ball in fairways.
“Every part of your game is going to be tested this week, and the golf course is in amazing shape.”
And one champion is bound to get a photo or two on the clubhouse walls, becoming a permanent part of this club’s great lore.