View from the tee of Hole No. 7 at Albany Golf Club
Fall isn’t normally the time of year when golf fans lose their minds with excitement about a PGA Tour event, let alone one that’s unofficial and doesn’t award FedExCup Playoffs points, but this week’s Hero World Challenge will be anything but normal. After a 307 day absence, Tiger Woods returns to competitive golf in a no-cut, 18 player field that includes World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, World No. 2 Jordan Spieth, World No.3 Justin Thomas, and five other players inside the top 10 in the OWGR. This year’s field is the strongest in Hero history, and Woods’ first appearance on Tour since the Farmers Insurance Open means dramatic tension won’t be lacking, television ratings will soar to some of the highest of the year, and deep philosophical discourse on twitter about whether or not “Tiger is back” will undoubtedly deteriorate into spittle-flying venom fights to ramp up the drama.
For the third consecutive year, Hero will be played at Albany Golf Club, a 7,302 yard coastal layout designed by Ernie Els that features five par-5s and another quintuplet of par-3s, making it one of the most distinctive par-72 courses anywhere in the world. Albany is an exposed, flat, desert links-style track with plenty of bunkers and waste areas from tee to green on most holes. Many holes are angled so players will face a variety of semi-blind shots over dunes into tucked away greens. Fairways are firm and fast with generously sized landing areas, however, the tall, native rough can be extremely penalizing for tee shots gripped by Bahamas’ notoriously breezy conditions. Bermudagrass green complexes are generally small, and some are perched into sand dunes making them appear even smaller.
With five par-5s and a few drivable par-4s, it’s easy to think Driving Distance is all-important at Albany, and Par Breakers will definitely be a key metric. However, better indicators of success the past two years have been Ball Striking and Scrambling around the greens. Players who contend this week will do so because of a great short game more than anything else. Early weather forecasts suggest the winds won’t be too severe, so you also want to keep your eye on Bogey Avoidance and Strokes Gained: Putting. Players will need to limit their mistakes and putt well with a leaderboard that won’t surrender ground easily, and will likely be exceptionally low.
Reminiscent of the 13th at Muirfield Village in Scotland, No 2. is one of the shorter par-3s on the course at 187 yards, and it’s also one of the more difficult. There’s a fine line between glory and shame here as the well-guarded and elevated green cuts into a dune making accuracy and club selection off the tee crucial. Players will be rewarded for hitting the green, but missing it means bogey or worse is lurking.
The 340 yard, par-4, 7th hole plays left-to-right off a dune, with strategically placed fairway bunkers that present a risk-reward option off the tee. Aggressive players who attempt to reach in one must thread their drives between a fairway bunker on the right, and three greenside bunkers on the left. Missing the green will leave a very challenging up and down. Laying up on No. 7’s wide fairway also presents its challenges however, as the long, narrow green features a severe drop to the right, and slopes sharply from front to back. A precise approach is required to hit and hold this bedeviling putting surface.
18Birdies Caddy+ view of the 11th hole at Albany Golf Club
No. 11 is a unique, 589-yard, double-dogleg par-5 that offers players two generously sized fairways to hit at off the tee. A monster drive over two small fairway bunkers on the left side sets up the easiest approach and best angle to attack the green in two. The putting surface features a false front on the left side that will funnel miss-hits off the green, while two demanding bunkers on the right side will collect all other errant shots.
Depending on the wind direction, players can be very aggressive off the tee on the 298-yard, par-4 14th hole, or lay off a bit to avoid potential disaster. Missing the fairway left is unmitigated disaster with a waste area lying in wait to claim its victims. Missing right of the fairway brings a mound into play making for a daunting second shot. The green itself is very small, and features a false front that can leave players with a delicate chip back up to the putting surface if they miss short off the tee or on approach.
Players to Watch
None of us really knows the extent of Tiger’s discomfort, both mentally and physically over the past three years. Horrors on and off the golf course, public humiliations, and various surgeries left many wondering not too long ago if Woods would even ever tee it up again. However Tiger is a guy made of incredibly stern stuff. You don’t win 79 times on Tour and 14 majors if you’re not. It’s also why Woods keeps fighting back. Tournament reps are the most important thing for Woods right now, and early indications suggest he’s hitting the ball well and has even recaptured his power off the tee. So that means it’s all systems go for Tiger’s comeback actually sticking this time, right? If Tiger plays well that has to mean we’ll be seeing Sergio put the Green Jacket on Woods in the most preposterous Butler Cabin ceremony ever come April, yes? Someone’s going to pick Tiger to win this week just so they could say “I told you so,” however expecting Woods to finish in the top-half is sentimental wishful thinking. Just getting through all four rounds will be a positive sign for Woods. It will take a few tournaments where he’s actually in contention before anyone should believe Tiger is on the prowl again, and this week I see him finishing between 12th and 16th place.
If you were wondering about Dustin Johnson’s form to start the season, his T-2 finish at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions should have put any concerns to rest. Johnson’s final round performance was lackluster certainly, and it probably cost him the tournament, but there’s nothing to suggest anything more sinister than D.J. just didn’t have it that day. It’s golf. It happens. Johnson destroys par-5s (and I’d like to point out again, there are five of them this week), he makes tons of birdies (currently ranked second in Birdie Average), and his aggressive play off the tee will give him better looks into the green than anyone in the field this week. Johnson will contend, but have to settle for another second place finish.
It feels dumb honestly and seems wrong to say this, given how many impossibly talented and athletic players currently populate the PGA Tour, but there’s really no other player who can do all the things Justin Thomas can do on a course right now. You know it’s the truth, you saw some of those shots D.J. hit at the CJ Cup. Thomas has become noticeably better every season he’s been on Tour. There has been no backsliding or stalling of the sort you see when a young player is still finding his footing, and Thomas is still, somehow, just 25 years-old. It’s been a relentless climb towards stardom for J.T. In his last eight starts, Justin’s picked up four wins, one solo-second, and one T-6. In other words, Thomas has discovered a new gear. Coming off a five-win,major championship season, Thomas showed he has every shot in the bag from tee-to-green, and if it isn’t clear already, a win this week should make it crystal – we’re moving into The Year of Justin Thomas. And oh by the way, in case you were looking for more fireworks? Justin and Tiger go head-to-head, paired together for the first two rounds. Imagine if they’ll also be paired together in the final round.