Review: Changes to the National are more good than bad

[photopress:National10.jpg,full,alignright]Review: The National Golf Club of Canada

Designers: George and Tom Fazio

The changes to the much vaunted National Golf Club of Canada have been the subject of some debate. The course, created by Tom Fazio and his uncle, George, has long been held up as the pinacle of modern golf design in Canada. It is also tough as nails. I respect the National a great deal, but I find it hard to love.

Over the past few years there has been discussion within the club about making changes — alterations to the course and the clubhouse. It took some time, but the changes to the clubhouse — specifically holes 10, 16 and 18 — went ahead last fall and were completed this spring. Now, if you didn’t know what had been done, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick it out — the conditioning is that good.

The alterations led golf columnist Lorne Rubenstein, a former National member, to question why anyone would change such an esteemed course. His take was quite strong:

Fazio’s changes over the years, and the latest ones, have put even more of a premium on accuracy. His bunker complexes are getting increasingly more onerous, and some of them, I think, are over the top. That’s the case on the right side of the par-5 12th, where a bunker complex squeezes an already narrow, bottleneck fairway in the lay-up zone. The complex is so deep that it’s usually not possible to go for the green 100 to 125 yards away on the other side of a stream.

I can appreciate Lorne’s take on the changes that have been done over the past two years, but I don’t think they’ve altered the fundamental elements that make up the National. In fact, they probably accentuate it, and if that’s what the club wants, then so be it.

The most recent changes are among the most drastic undertaken by the club. The 10th, formerly a downhill par three where one could catch their breath before heading out onto the meat of the back, is now more than 200 yards from the tips with a pond wrapped in front of the green. It is an all-or-nothing shot that asks players to fly a ball into a tricky, nasty green. It isn’t that difficult a hole now — it is just harder than it was previous.

The 16th is a bigger question mark in my mind. Fazio’s team, led by [photopress:National16.jpg,full,alignleft]Andy Banfield, have move the fairway dramatically to the right so the approach to the green has been fundamentally altered. The new bunkers are more pronounced on this hole and the scale seems out of place with everything but the new bunkers on the closing hole. Now playing just under 400 yards from the tips, the hole is still best played with a mid-wood and mid-iron combination. However, the fairway is now sloped hard towards the left bunkers. This means most approach shots from 160 yards off the green will be hit from hanging lies, not the favoured shot of many. It is hard to understand why the fairway wasn’t graded more gradually. In the end, the hole was among the most marginal at the National and remains such.

The best alteration Fazio made was to the 18th. The hole is notorious — forcing players to hit a downhill tee ball into a narrow stretch between bunkers and water, and then hit a hard uphill approach. It is hard to imagine Fazio would build this hole now. Once a par five that became a difficult long four, Fazio regraded the hill leading to the green, making parts of the green visible now, even if the player is hitting from 200 yards out. The green was also made more receptive to a long approach and in most ways the hole is a vast improvement over what the club had previously.

Is the National, with its focus on difficulty, out of step with the [photopress:National18.jpg,full,alignright]times? Most certainly. Have the changes made it harder? In some instances and from some tees. But now more than 30 years after it opened its focus remains the same — to challenge the best players and to make everyone else bend to its will. That’s not the type of course I’d want to play day in and day out, but apparently there are many that do.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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  • Augusta National is the nicest golf course I’ve ever stepped on; The National is the nicest golf course I have ever played on.

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