When it wasn't having to defend itself against criticism from Justin Thomas and other PGA Tour pros, last week the USGA announced its slate of Sectional Qualifying locations for this year's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links.
The most intriguing of those 12 "Sectionals" sites is Streamsong Black, the newest of the three courses at the mold-breaking Streamsong Resort in remote south-central Florida. The 36-hole qualifier on June 3 comprising between 40 and 70 players (depending on how the more than 100 Local Qualifiers play out) has the potential to be one of the most fascinating - and potentially controversial - episodes of competitive golf all year.
Why such expectations? Because this is not any old golf course, never mind a course for high-level competitive golf.
All about the greens
The Gil Hanse-designed Black will make for an unfamiliar, unconventional test in a few different ways. The biggest (literally) of these will be the greens, which are the largest, most complex and potentially confounding of any golf course I've ever played. Measuring some 11 acres, collectively, the surfaces maintained at green height average about 11,000 square feet each. They grew considerably during construction, as Hanse's team discovered that the shaving down outlying slopes around the original surfaces would make for exciting and unique potential short game recovery shots, particularly with one's putter.
I happen to think they make the course an absolute blast, but knowing competitive golfers, there might be some big complaints about "fairness." There are a number of blind and semi-blind shots at Streamsong Black, including the approach to the now-famous ninth, whose massive Punchbowl green is so sunken in the middle that the only way to tell where the hole is located is to consult a sign by the tee or the day's pin sheet. There is no flagstick long enough to be visible from the fairway, and given that pros tend to praise courses that are "all right there in front of you," they will have to overcome some mental and psychological hazards at Streamsong Black. Players will be wise to conscript the resort's caddies to guide them past all the pitfalls.
Firm and fast
Unlike recent Florida Sectionals sites like Timuquana Country Club (2016) outside Jacksonville and The Bear's Club (2015, 2018) in Jupiter, Streamsong sits on hundreds of vertical feet of pure sand, meaning that the soaking rains that spring storms can produce are not likely to take too much fire out of the normally very firm fairways and greens. Those fairways measure upwards of 75 yards wide, meaning long hitters may be tempted into making overly wild swings. The contouring of the fairways at Streamsong Black tends to pull off-line tee shots into the bordering sandy waste areas faster than one might think, making them play narrower than they look. This is anything but typical Florida golf, and unprepared competitors may find themselves struggling to post the kinds of scores they'd like to.
This is not to say the Black is not scoreable at all. Depending on the hole locations the FSGA (running the event for the USGA) sets, players will be able to use many of the slopes on the greens to work shots toward the hole, resulting in good birdie looks. Furthermore, the course is a par-73 layout with five par 3 and a couple short par 4s, which can offer up birdies and eagles...as well as bogeys and doubles for those who get out of position. Because of the way the course challenges the player, scoring will likely be more volatile here than at most other Sectionals sites. I plan to catch some of the action on June 3. If you're in the area and want to be entertained by some great golfers' triumphs and trainwrecks, I'll see you there.
FYI: You can receive a $100 travel credit for your next trip to Streamsong if you're a member of GOLFPASS.
The Hanse factor
In just a few short years, Gil Hanse has become the high-profile tournament venue's architect of choice, both for renovation and original work.
In 2020, the U.S. Open will be held at Winged Foot Golf Club's West Course, which Hanse restored in 2016. In 2023, Los Angeles Country Club's North Course, which was a smashing success during the 2017 Walker Cup matches, will get its first U.S. Open turn. Hanse and his team have been restoring the George Thomas masterpiece since 2006.
The USGA's recent all-at-once announcement of upcoming U.S. Amateur host sites included two courses where Hanse is working or has worked: Ridgewood Country Club (2022 U.S. Amateur host) and Merion Golf Club's East Course (2026). Though he didn't work on the recent restoration to Pinehurst No. 2, this year's main U.S. Am host course, Course No. 4, which Hanse completely redesigned in 2017 and 2018, will be the second course used for the stroke-play qualifying rounds of the tournament.
Hanse is tight with the PGA of America as well. He has been tapped to design one of the organization's two new courses at its new Frisco, Texas headquarters over the next couple years, and it seems likely that it will get on the PGA Championship and/or Ryder Cup schedule before long. Meanwhile, Hanse's ongoing renovation work at the Perry Maxwell-designed Southern Hills Country Club is being done with an eye toward a PGA Championship sometime in the 2020s, and Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia will host the 2027 PGA. Not to be forgotten, Hanse's two-year renovation of Oakland Hills Country Club's South Course, outside Detroit, should put the historic Donald Ross design back in consideration for a major championship as well.
Hanse's ability to both restore classic designs and execute a bold, form-pushing vision help make him one of the most in-demand architects alive.