The International is a Tour event like no other for a major reason
besides its modified Stableford scoring format, in which a golfer
counts points instead of strokes: It's played at an elevation of
6,400 feet, at Castle Pines Golf Club outside Denver, and at that
altitude a ball flies farther and spins less. So when a golfer
shows up for the tallest tournament on Tour, he knows he's going
to have to make plenty of adjustments.
This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2003 issue
The International, won easily this year by Davis Love III, is all
about the long ball. Because the air at that height is thinner
than a chain-smoking supermodel, the ball flies up to 15%
farther. When Tiger Woods made his first appearance in the
tournament, in 1998, he made a hole in one, but what really gave
the fans a Rocky Mountain high was the 419-yard drive he launched
on the 623-yard 14th hole. "The ball goes like a rocket here,"
says Keith Schneider, the club's head pro. It goes so far that
the Tour does not include tee shots hit at the International when
computing the players' seasonlong driving stats. Last week, for
example, only a handful of players failed to average more than
300 yards a drive.
Ball go far? Yes. But what also makes the International the
Tour's most challenging tournament is that golfer walk far.
Castle Pines, which features a 300-foot drop in elevation from
the clubhouse to the lowest point on the course (the 5th
fairway), is the toughest walk on Tour. Nearly every hole on the
7,559-yard course is either uphill or downhill, making club
selection doubly difficult. For example, there is a 150-foot drop
from the tee to the green on the 644-yard 1st hole, making it
reachable in two. The par-3 11th hole falls 80 feet to a green
guarded by water, while the par-5 17th, Eagles 'R' Us at a mere
487 yards, rises 130 feet from tee to green. "This is the
trickiest course on Tour," says Lee Janzen, the two-time U.S.
Open champion who won the International in 1995. "Only Augusta
National is close."
Playing at altitude is an acquired skill, and the learning curve
starts as soon as you step on the 1st tee. "I worked for Ronnie
Black in my first International, and on the 1st hole he hit a
driver and a five-iron," says caddie Andy Martinez, who was on
Tom Lehman's bag last week. "That was quite an introduction to
golf at altitude for me."
That 1st tee, with a 100-foot drop to the fairway and a
spectacular view of the Rockies to the west, is the Tour's
ultimate grip-it-and-rip-it destination. "Kirk Triplett teed off
in a practice round and hit a drive that went, like, 340," says
journeyman pro Pat Bates. "We were waiting on the tee, and Ben
Crane says to Kirk, 'That's the longest drive I've seen you hit
all year.' Kirk didn't get the joke. The 1st hole here is where
everybody hits their longest drive of the year."
Bates pulls a yardage book out of his back pocket. "Look at
this," he says, pointing to a tiny circle on the diagram of the
1st hole. "It says you have 404 yards off the tee at this spot.
You'll see 280 or 305 off the tee in a lot of yardage books but
not 404. This is the only course where anybody can hit it 404 ...
Local knowledge is also crucial at Castle Pines. Even though he's
an East Coast guy, Janzen has become an expert on the place. He
has entered the International a dozen times since 1990, making it
to the final round (the field is cut after 36 and 54 holes) on
six occasions--although not last week, when he made the 36-hole
cut but failed to advance on Saturday.
"When Lee told me he was flying in on Monday, I said, 'Why would
you do that?'" says Janzen's caddie, Mike Hicks. "He said he
wanted to get acclimated to sleeping at altitude by Thursday. How
many guys think of that?" Janzen learned that lesson the hard way
the year he won the tournament. He brought his son, Connor, along
on the trip, and the 22-month-old child had difficulty sleeping.
"I don't know how I won," Janzen says, "because I went almost
without sleep that week."
Janzen keeps meticulous notes in the Castle Pines yardage book he
uses every year. "I can see why Lee plays well in this
tournament, because he analyzes everything--sometimes a little
too much," says Hicks. "He knows exactly how much to factor in
for altitude or for a downhill shot. A lot of guys will get up on
a tee and guess right, but then forget the next day. They'll say,
'Did I figure 10 or 15 yards yesterday?' Lee is more prepared
Golf at altitude is a math game. During a practice round last
week, Janzen reached the tee of the 11th hole, the signature
par-3, and flipped open his yardage book. "It's 182 yards from
the back tee, but the pin is back--that's another 20 yards--so we
have 202," he said. "The longest it plays is 210. Take 10% off
for altitude, you've got 190 to the back. I've decided over the
years that it plays 20 yards less being downhill, so that's 170.
Not counting the wind or the air temperature, that's a big
eight-iron. There are calculations like that to be made on every
single hole. This course can wear you out."
Ball trajectory must be factored in too. The higher the shot, the
better the carry. Phil Mickelson says he tries to hit the ball
higher on uphill shots and lower on downhill shots to compensate.
Because low and short hitters don't get the full benefit of the
altitude, the gap between long hitters and short hitters is
widened at Castle Pines. "I don't know why Corey Pavin keeps
coming back," Janzen says. "Jose Maria Olazabal is a great
chipper and putter, but he's a low-ball hitter. He won here once
[in 1991], which was surprising."
Most of the veterans at the International know better than to hit
drivers or long irons on the practice range. It's so uphill that
shots hit with those clubs look anemic. "You start trying to help
the ball up in the air there," Janzen says, "and it can ruin your
swing." For serious practice Janzen makes the short drive to the
nearby Country Club at Castle Pines, which has a relatively flat
practice area. On the Tuesday morning of tournament week this
year, Janzen was scheduled to play a practice round with Bates,
Crane and International first-timer Cameron Yancey. He found
Bates hitting driver on the main range. "I'm hitting it so low,"
Bates said. "What's wrong?" Janzen grabbed a three-wood, handed
it to Bates and said, "Hit this. It'll make you feel better."
"What if I can't get this airborne?" Bates said before
intentionally topping the three-wood. Janzen broke up in
laughter. Bates teed up another ball and hit it flush. "Now
pretend that's your driver," Janzen said.
You can ask any pro at the International: Playing at altitude is
an uphill struggle, except when you're going downhill.
HERE'S HOW far Lee Janzen's ball carries at sea level, when he's
home in Orlando, and at 6,400 feet at Castle Pines, outside
CLUB ORLANDO DENVER
Driver 270 300
Three-wood 250 280
Utility club 230 255
Three-iron 218 240
Four-iron 205 225
Five-iron 192 216
Six-iron 179 197
Seven-iron 166 185
Eight-iron 150 170
Nine-iron 138 152
55-degree wedge 108 120
60-degree wedge 91 100
*Says Janzen, "There are no level shots at Castle Pines, so these
yardages are like everything else at the International: a good