I escaped Alcatraz with a birdie and other tales from playing 36 at PGA West after the American Express

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Adam Schupak
·8 min read
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Patrick Cantlay has nothing on me.

Sure, he shattered the course record at PGA West’s Pete Dye Stadium Course on Sunday, shooting an 11-under 61, and I made my 61st stroke on my approach to 14, but at Alcatraz, the course’s infamous par 3, he hit a safe but unspectacular shot to 34 feet and made par. Yours truly? Well, I thought you’d never ask. Stuck it to four feet and rolled in the birdie putt less than 24 hours later. What Cantlay wouldn’t have given for that shot. One more birdie and he likely would have been in a playoff with American Express champion Si Woo Kim.

I woke up at Zero-Dark-30 on Monday morning for probably the earliest official tee time in my 40 years playing the game – 6:45 a.m. to be exact – and was first off the tee at PGA West. Same course, same hole locations, same slick greens. I’ve been fortunate to play several major championship sites the day after the pros, and there’s nothing more thrilling than playing under virtually the same conditions they faced (minus the pressure of a seven-figure winner’s check) and seeing if you can emulate their great shots just once or twice.

No disrespect to Cantlay or Kim, who shot a bogey-free 64 to clip Cantlay by a stroke, but no way either of them would have gone as low as they did had they been playing on Monday. The temperature was mid-40s, spitting rain and someone turned the fan from off to the high setting. It was as if Dye, who passed away just over a year ago, had whispered into Mother Nature’s ear and said, “Hey, can you do me a solid. I built the hardest course ever designed and these modern-day gladiators in Soft Spikes are playing video game golf on one of my masterpieces.”

Indeed, when Dye built his Stadium Course in the desert and the pros played it for the first time in competition at the 1987, they pitched a fit like never before. Players signed a petition refusing to play there again. The PGA Tour is a “player-run” association, but this was the ultimate player mutiny. Unwilling to risk losing the Tom Watsons of the world from the field, the tournament relented and it took nearly 30 years for the course to return to the course rota at what is now formally known as the American Express.

The snow-capped Santa Rosa mountains loom in the distance at the par-4 ninth hole at PGA West’s Pete Dye Stadium Course (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

For the masochistic types like myself that want to see if this crazy game can bring us to our knees, being told that Dye’s course was too tough for the pros and had the highest course rating/slope in the country, made it all the more appealing. As golf writer Brian McCallen once wrote of Dye’s Stadium Course, “It’s a bermudagrass Colosseum with 18 hungry lions poised to devour out-of-towners.”

It was born in the 1980s in what today feels like a bygone era where hard equaled “must play.” It also didn’t hurt the course’s reputation that it hosted the Skins Game, including in 1987 when Lee Trevino made an ace at 17 and leaped into caddie Herman Mitchell’s arms in celebration. In other words, I’ve always wanted to play it.

Dye’s diabolical course has been softened over the years – maybe too much for the best players in the world – but it remains a great test for us mere mortals. I needed to sink a 10-foot comebacker at the first hole just to save bogey after underestimating the speed of the greens. At No. 2, I thought I hit a beautiful approach about 10 feet below the hole until the false front sent it rolling backwards off the green. My high-school buddy, Evan, laughed as he informed me that I was away. Fortunately, I made a good two putt or I might have been in need of therapy for the next six months.

These opening holes are just a warm up for the stretch from Nos. 5-7, which are outstanding. The fifth hole is a par 5 with water lining the left side off the tee and the right side on the second shot all the way to the green. Somehow neither of us lost a ball and we both made par. The challenge gets tougher at the par-3 sixth hole, a 244-yard hole from the tips over water with a bit of a bail out left. Named Amen, my prayers went unanswered as my 3-wood into the wind took a swim. That led to my only double bogey of the day.

If you haven’t puckered up yet, the par-4 seventh will send the fear of Dye, especially with the wind playing mind games with us. It is a short hole played over the same man-made lake as the sixth hole. I had 80 yards to the flag but with the hole located just a few steps on to the putting surface and with water guarding the front of the green it didn’t feel like I could attack – I used caution and settled for par.

Hole after hole the flags were tucked just over a bunker, near a watery grave (back left on 13) or no more than four paces from an edge. Dye was a master illusionist and he often points you at a hazard rather than a safe landing area.

Golfweek’s Adam Schupak tried to take bite out of one of PGA’s West most devilish holes and lived to tell about it.

The similarities in strategy and layout to the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, home of the Players Championship, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, are uncanny. On the back nine, the par of each hole is the same at both course. Both have water left on the par-3 13th and end with three of the best holes you’ll ever play. The par-5 16th at PGA West is called San Andreas Fault for its 19-foot deep bunker. As the story goes, when developer Ernie Vossler, a former Tour player, got his first look at the two-story high bunker nearly surrounding the left side of the green, he declared that Dye had gone too far and demanded he make the crater less penal. Dye refused to give in, so they made a bet. If Dye could splash out within 10 feet of the hole in three attempts, the cavernous bunker would remain as is. Dye needed just one attempt, lofting a shot to two feet. I managed to avoid hitting into the bunker but ventured down into the sand for giggles to see if I could match Dye’s efforts to clear the steep slope. After three attempts rolled back to my feet, I conceded as former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had done years before in the pro-am, eventually throwing his ball out.

Playing to the 15th green at the Nicklaus Tournament Course is the quintessential risk-reward challenge. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)

And then the hole we’d been waiting for all day. Alcatraz is a desert version of Dye’s famous island green. This one plays downhill to a green surrounded by jagged rocks and water. The pros played it from 146 yards on Sunday – c’mon, let’s see these guys sweat from the back tee at 168 yards on payday – so that’s where I took dead aim and planted my 9-iron four feet from the hole. (Did I mention that yet?) It was my only birdie of the day, but if there’s only going to be one that’s the one you want to do it on.

No. 18 is almost a replica of the finishing hole at TPC Sawgrass. One more rugged challenge before you get to add them up and weep. I made a pretty nifty up and down to post 7-under 79. That’s a good day for this 6 handicap with a fragile game and psyche to match. Plus, I beat Russell Knox’s prediction. After he shot 64 on Saturday, I asked him what a player of my caliber would score on Monday under tournament condition and he said mid-80s.

“It’s not an easy golf course if you don’t hit it where you’re looking,” he said.

It wasn’t even 10:30 a.m., the liquid sunshine had stopped and it was warming up so we took on the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West, which the pros played during one of the first two rounds. The Jack Nicklaus design felt like the equivalent to the Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass: it’s a really good golf course in its own right, but it’s not the Stadium Course. It’s like being Gal Gadot’s sister. She’s not Wonder Woman.

The Nicklaus Tournament Course typically surrenders lower scores but the putting surfaces were re-done last year and firm greens mitigated some of the difference in scoring this year. It’s a bit more playable, especially off the tee, but there still are some potentially penal forced carries over water at par-3s and a peninsula green at the par-5 15th that makes for a great risk-reward hole. The finishing holes on both sides share a green and a lake that can ruin a good round. I deposited a sleeve at 18, which was good because my bag was going to be over the weight limit. At least that’s what I told myself afterwards.

I’m still not sure how Patrick Cantlay and Si Woo Kim shot their rounds on Sunday, but I sure enjoyed trying to match them.