View of the 18th green at The Club at Nine Bridges
History will be made this week as the newly minted CJ Cup marks the first time a PGA Tour event is officially sanctioned in South Korea, and the high-profile Club at Nine Bridges is ready for its close-up. Few tracks have garnered more acclaim in advance of their Tour debut than this golf fantasyland situated in magnificent forest highlands that rise up from the beaches of Jeju Island. Hosting the second of three tournaments on the Tour’s annual Asian Swing, its debut shows just how far the Tour has come and where it’s headed. This region is a fertile frontier for the sport.
The CJ Cup’s no-cut, limited 78-man field includes 10 of the Top 30 Players in the OWGR, and is headlined by World No. 4 and reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year Justin Thomas, World No. 9 Jason Day in his season debut, and World No.21 Patrick Reed who’s looking to rebound from a disappointing T-51 performance last week at the CIMB Classic. Twenty-one players will be making their third consecutive start to the season, including Kevin Na, Ollie Schniederjans, and Harold Varner III, which depending on your perspective could mean they’ll be firing on all cylinders or leaking oil from the more than 11,000 miles already logged in travel. Sixteen Koreans including Sangmoon Bae and reigning THE PLAYERS champion Si Woo Kim hope to become homegrown champions in this inaugural event.
Set in its natural volcanic surrounding under the 6,000 foot shadow of Mount Halla, Nine Bridges cost more than $100 million to complete and is known as the “Taj Mahal of Golf.” With towering Japanese maples and Cryptomeria evergreens, awe-inspiring 20-foot Korean azaleas, and dazzling natural streams running throughout the forested terrain, this immaculately conditioned, par-72, 7,196-yard course takes an aesthetic backseat to none. Unlike other Asian courses that reside in urban environments and tend to be quite flat, Nine Bridges has a Scottish Highland flavor that in many ways is reminiscent of Gleneagles. Its namesake comes from eight bridges built on the course, with a ninth imaginary bridge as a metaphorical representation to symbolize the close relationship between the club and its members and guests.
Rated in the world’s top 100 courses by GOLF Magazine and Golf Digest, Nine Bridges features Bent-grass fairways and greens with two distinctive nines. The front-nine Creek Course is brimming with rambling creeks and mesmerizing trees, while the more open back-nine Highland Course boasts lush meadows, crystalline lakes, and sublime bunkering. Players seeing this David Dale designed course for the first time will find a strong variety of doglegs, elevation changes, and uneven lies to test even the best ball-strikers. A healthy mix of long and short par-3s, par-4s, and par-5s contribute to Nine Bridges’ well-designed and memorable routing. Putting surfaces will run fast without much grain which will simplify reads, and with only moderate undulation on most greens expect to see a lot of putts dropping this week.
The 411-yard 4th hole is considered one of the best par-4s in all of Asia. A wide fairway offers multiple strategies off the tee, but an ideal drive will favor the left corner of the severe 90-degree dogleg for the best angle into a two-tiered green. The green is long and narrow, and protected by three deep bunkers in the front, left, and back-right, with a cluster of trees long and right. Pins positions tucked on the right side will ratchet up the challenge as the putting surface features a severe fall-off on that side down into a stream and out-of-bounds area.
View from behind the 4th green at Club at Nine Bridges
No. 8 is a slightly uphill, 353-yard par-4 hole that provides a sense of constant danger from tee to green. It’s basically a straight shot off the tee, but pinching tree lines effectively narrow the fairway making it a two shot hole for most players. The two-tiered green is pitched steeply from back to front, and is protected by four daunting pot bunkers on the front-left and front-right putting a premium on hitting an accurate second shot. The green is called an “Infinity Green,” because of the design illusion that makes it appear as part of the skyline.
Playing slightly uphill off the tee, the 13th hole is a devious 218-yard par-3 that packs a punch. Scoring here will be challenging as three distinct areas of this putting surface demands precision into the green regardless of hole location. Pins tucked above the large bunker on the front-right will be hellacious to hit but also the most rewarding.
No. 14 is another drivable par-4 measuring only 353 yards. Playing 30 feet downhill off the tee, everyone in the field will be able to reach in one, but wind is a factor and could wreak havoc with distance and direction. The putting surface is 50-feet deep so hitting greens won’t be a problem. Find the wrong side of this green with two distinct areas however, and players could be looking at a three-putt or worse. Two deep greenside bunkers are ghastly tough to get up and down from, but will only gather the most errant of shots.
GPS View of the 18th Hole from the 18Birdies App
The signature 568-yard, par-5, 18th hole will provide some compelling moments this week with its risk-reward options off the tee. The aggressive line of play will carry two pot bunkers 280 yards out on the left to a lower landing zone that propels drives downhill. Fearless players who successfully take a bite out of this dogleg-left hole will have a great chance to get home in two for an eagle opportunity. Shorter hitters can stay in their comfort zone by hitting their drives right, but they’ll be left with a ticklish, downhill lay up short of the water before an approach into the island green. The putting surface on No. 18 features the most complicated undulations of any green on the course making a potential putt to win even more daunting.
Players To Watch
Four months ago Xander Schauffele was ranked No. 352 in the world and was coming off seven missed cuts in his last 12 events. Fast forward to this week and the Rookie of the Year is now ranked No. 32 in the world with two victories under his belt, and showing off a complete game that proves he has all the tools to win, and win often. Schauffele bombs it off the tee and hits tons of greens in regulation, and on a course with wide open fairways and greens receptive to low scoring that’s obviously a huge advantage. Along with Jason Day and Thomas Pieters, Schauffele is one of the best Bentgrass performers in the field. Everything points to Xander in contention this week, and I expect him to finish inside the top-5.
You have to love the “honey badger don’t give a damn” style of play Pat Perez beings to the course every time he plays. Perez will hit driver even when it’s not the safe play. He’ll fire at pins even when he doesn’t have the best angles. Last week as he won the CIMB Classic in convincing style, Pat was a fairway and green finding assassin. With Perez however, you live by the sword and die by the sword. One week Perez is hitting 80-percent of the fairways and greens on the course, and the next week he’s spraying shots all over the place. On top of that inconsistency, Perez comes into Nine Bridges as one of the worst performers in the field on Bent-grass courses, suggesting this might be a die by the sword week for Pat. Perez will be a popular pick this week because of the way he dismantled Kuala Lumpur at the CIMB, but look for Perez to finish outside the top-20.
Ollie Schniederjans T-17 and T-31 finishes in two events this season don’t jump right off the page and say it, but Ollie is just one or two swings away from picking up that elusive first Tour win. Schniederjans swing is built to last. He’s powerful off the tee, is a solid ball striker, and has even come around with the short game. The problem for Ollie is he hasn’t put it all together over four consecutive rounds. One round he’s driving like a champion and hitting textbook irons at tough pins, but he looks like a lost child in the mall on the greens. Another round he’s figured out the flat-stick and continuing with strong iron play but problems emerge off the tee. Maybe I’m just stubborn and will keep picking Schniederjans to win until he actually does win, but it’s only a matter of time before Ollie shows total control of his game. Keeping it in the fairway at Nine Bridges shouldn’t be a problem for most players in the field, and the greens are pretty straightforward without much trickery. Look for Ollie to be sipping the good stuff in a teahouse somewhere on Nine Bridges after his breakthrough victory this week.