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Three Holes That Could Decide the Ryder Cup

The outcome of the 43rd Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits could boil down to a trio of par-4 holes on the Straits course — and their position during the matches may come as a surprise.
The Straits' par-4 1st hole will set the stage for each of the Ryder Cup's 28 matches. 

The Straits' par-4 1st hole will set the stage for each of the Ryder Cup's 28 matches. 

Independent of the event’s outcome in Paris, the 2018 Ryder Cup was somewhat disappointing if only because the closing stretch of holes at Le Golf National, strewn with water hazards, minimally impacted the matches. 

Leading up to the event, those holes were talked up for their inherent drama and the excitement that they would inject into most — if not all — of the matches. In reality, almost one-third of the event’s 28 matches were decided by the 15th hole or earlier, and only four of them made it to the 471-yard 18th.

Whistling Straits promises a different outcome when the U.S. and European squads battle again for the Cup this week. Water rarely comes into play across the 7,790 yards that the Straits course consumes. Instead, native areas blanketed by thick and gnarly fescue rough, as well as treacherous, sometimes cavernous bunkers are what swallow errant shots. In the process, those hazards occasionally produce lies so penal that golfers are more likely to wish they never found their balls in the first place.

As proof, Mike O’Reilly, the director of golf for Destination Kohler, points to the greenside pot bunker on the 6th hole. “Depending on the lie,” he said, “even the best players in the world are going to have trouble getting out of there.”

Before a single competitive shot is hit during this year’s Ryder Cup, it’s safe to say that the event will make good on the unfulfilled promise of risk-versus-reward drama upon which the 2018 Ryder Cup failed to deliver. This time around, however, the dichotomy between conservative strategies and aggressive shot-making will play out across many of the holes on the course, not just the final few.

“There’s a lot of risk-reward out there,” said Mike Aschenbach, the head golf professional at Whistling Straits. “Even if you hit the ball straight down the fairway on all of these holes, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a flat lie for your approach shot. The way that the golf course plays, it sets up for someone who is creative and good off of awkward lies.”

Although many holes on The Straits course are likely to create compelling match-play scenarios, three stand out for being the most pivotal.

Premier Pressures: Hole 1

With thousands of exuberant fans surrounding the tee box on the first hole, chanting and cheering in a manner which only the Ryder Cup can produce, it’s safe to say that the first tee shot will be a noteworthy development in every match. Aschenbach, however, looks at the entirety of the opening par-4 hole — a gradual dogleg left that won’t play any longer than 370 yards during the event — as one that could have a pivotal role in the upcoming matches.

“If the players catch the right wind direction, I think we’ll see some of the bigger hitters trying to take a crack at it,” he said. “If a right-handed golfer can swing in a huge, high draw, there’s potential to get it up near the front edge of the green. I think we’ll see a lot of them try to take that risk, especially in the four-ball format.”

The reward for successfully pulling off that shot is self-evident: it’s the opportunity to be chipping or hitting a short pitch to a relatively welcoming green where a short putt for birdie likely awaits.

The risk?

“Anything could happen, especially if they miss left,” Aschenbach said. “It’s all fescue and pot bunkers to the left, and the green is going to be elevated from where they’re going to have to try to hit a pitch shot or a flop shot. Their lie is going to dictate everything that they can do.”

It may seem counterintuitive to consider the first hole a pivotal point in a match, especially considering that an entire round of golf essentially remains. But Aschenbach believes a lot can be gained (or lost) based on how the first hole plays out. “To get off to a fast start right there,” he said, “it’s a perfect formula to gain momentum into a match.”

Driving For More Than Show: Hole 13

According to O’Reilly, when the Ryder Cup matches make the turn, that’s when the players will begin encountering pivotal holes. “The drama in the Ryder Cup really unfolds on the back nine,” he said.

In particular, the 13th hole is one that O’Reilly flags as possibly being influential in the matches. The par 4 isn’t long, at least not by PGA Tour standards — it plays only 402 yards from the tips — yet O’Reilly believes it could play as short as 350 yards if U.S. Team Captain Steve Stricker wanted to push the tees forward. That would make the hole drivable, since the final 100 yards of fairway trundle downhill toward the putting surface, and it could conceivably give the American team’s longer hitters an advantage. “He hasn’t said anything like that to me,” O’Reilly clarified back in July, “but that could be something he could tinker with.”

Aschenbach agrees that the 13th will likely be a pivotal hole for much the same reason. “If you catch a south wind,” he said, “the hole is set up to where they could get it over that top hill and the ball will run out toward the green. But it’s risk-reward, so if they miss left off the tee they’ll have a blind shot to the green, and on the right side they’re at the mercy of the fescue and the bunkers.”

Even if players choose to lay up, Aschenbach believes low scores on the 13th hole are in reach. “You give those guys a chance from 100 yards out on a perched up fairway, there’s a pretty good likelihood they’re going to be hitting wedges awfully close to the hole and making birdies.”

Accelerated Gains: Hole 14

Much like the hole before it, the 14th gives Stricker the option to move the tees up to create a drivable par 4, at least if the wind for the day is blowing from the north. (If Stricker should want to implement such a strategy, only one of the two holes could be configured as drivable each day. The 13th and 14th holes run in opposite directions, so one would inevitably play into the wind).

At its longest, the 14th hole plays 396 yards, but its layout — a late, sharp dogleg left — and the potential for it to play significantly shorter if the tees are moved up means that the big bunker and berm that guard the left side of the hole are mostly out of play. “Those guys are long enough that if they catch the right wind direction they could carry that and get their tee ball very close to the green,” Aschenbach said.

O’Reilly is quick to point out that not every Ryder Cup match is destined to reach the 18th or even the 17th holes, so the location of these two short par 4s is critical in the progression of the matches, given that some may hang in the balance at or near that junction.

In all three cases, the holes that O’Reilly and Aschenbach believe will be difference-makers this Ryder Cup are ones that could encourage aggressive play and are likely to produce low scores. “Those are the three holes where players can try to put the throttle down to make a birdie,” Aschenbach said. “On hole one they’re gaining momentum, and on holes 13 and 14, they may be thinking of trying to close their match out.”