PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Showing up to the first tee huffing and puffing wasn't the best way to start a recent round at Poppy Hills Golf Club on California's Monterey Peninsula.
After using the restroom, I had forgotten that I wouldn't be teeing off on No. 10 right next to the clubhouse like I did for a media day of the 2018 U.S. Junior Girls' Amateur. I had to rush to catch my playing partners at No. 1, which was a good hike up a hill away.
You can't blame me for being confused. Poppy Hills recently returned to its original routing after a four-year experiment flipping its nines in an effort to improve pace of play. Poppy Hills, the home of the Northern California Golf Association, is just the latest example of a highly regarded golf course to tinker with its front and back nines. Maybe you've heard of East Lake or even Augusta National?
This issue of flipping nines pops up more than you might think at courses around the country, both big and small. It's usually when a club hosts an important tournament or when management sees a flaw in its operation or the routing. The dynamics of the change can be made with the best of intentions - to improve the playing experience - but it also can create negative reactions from members, old-timers and especially the architect.
Tom Doak actually approved the flipping of the nines of his new links, St. Patrick's at Rosapenna in northwest Ireland, during the early stages of construction after a recommendation from associate Don Placek. But Doak did it before the course's scheduled June opening. He's not a fan of switching after the fact.
"I do think renumbering holes is a bad move to make after the course has been open for a while, unless you are doing a significant redesign," he said. "Golfers remember the holes by number, and once you change the numbering, they are always confused as to what hole goes where."
Flipping nines for tournaments is often no big deal. It's usually just for one week a year, except for those rare cases like Augusta when the change becomes permanent.
The PGA Tour required East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta to famously flip its nines in advance of the 2016 Tour Championship to move away from finishing on a par 3, a change the club has embraced for good. Likewise, the USGA was the driving force for altering the routing of the Olympic Club at Golf Mountain in Washington state prior to the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur. USGA officials wanted the drivable par-4 ninth to become a risk-reward finishing hole for match play. They were rewarded with a proper champion in Jordan Spieth and a new routing that's loved by all.
Most other tournament flips involve clubs only changing for the event. The Waialae Country Club on Oahu switches its nines every year for the Sony Open, but goes back to normal for members once the PGA Tour pros leave Hawaii. So does Austin Country Club, which flips its nines for the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play so all those holes on Lake Austin provide thrilling splashes and turns of momentum. The Olympia Fields Country Club's North Course outside Chicago flipped nines for the 2003 U.S. Open won by Jim Furyk, as did the Papago Golf Club in Phoenix for the 2009 J Golf Phoenix LPGA International won by Karrie Webb.
Tournament officials are just as likely to tweak the routing for spectator purposes as they are for strategic reasons. When preparing for a Futures Tour in 2005, the Eagle Bend Golf Course in Kansas flipped nines, so the aspiring LPGA Tour pros could finish on the ninth green, which is much closer to the clubhouse and with fewer trees for better viewing.
Poppy Hills, which hosts dozens of NCGA events and tournaments, had flip-flopped its nines a couple years after a Robert Trent Jones Jr. redesign, hoping it would result in faster rounds. General Manager Steve Schroeder said any incremental gains were not worth the operational issues the change created.
"If there was any difference (in pace of play), it was only a matter of minutes," he said. "The playing experience and operations, the way we set up, those factors outweighed any possible pace of play gains. We’re much closer to the main putting green and pro shop versus where our back nine starts. We can see right out of golf shop to the first tee and 18th green, which we couldn’t do before. We can see our main clock and groups going off the first tee. Our starter is visible to everybody. There is just a lot more clarity in our operation."
It helps that No. 1 is a par 4 and No. 18 a shorter 503-yard par 5 that can yield big swings in a match. The routing flows better.
"It partly comes down to logistics and a little to aesthetics," Schroeder said. "Now you play 18, and everybody can see what's going on from a tournament standpoint. It is all right in front of you. That has some value when folks come off the course. When you stand on putting green and look down on the first hole, you see it in front of you. It gives you the wow (introduction)."
Flipping the First or the Last
For most courses, flip-flopping nines is often a matter of logistics for the first or finishing hole.
Both the Lake Murray State Park Golf Course in Ardmore, Okla., and The General at the Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena, Ill., made the switch to bring the 18th green into view after new clubhouses were built in 2012 and 2020, respectively. "The completion of this clubhouse, restaurant and lounge elevates the entire golfing experience at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa,” said Ryan Brown, director of golf. “We have flipped our nines so guests of Highlands Restaurant and Lounge 289 can dine and cheer golfers on as they approach the clubhouse.”
Flipping nines can be a complicated decision, though. Like Poppy Hills, both Great River Golf Club in Milford, Conn., and Rio Secco in Henderson, Nev., flipped once, then flopped again. Rio Secco changed its front and back nines around in 2006 in an effort to improve pace of play but went back to the routing Rees Jones intended when he returned for a renovation in 2017. Great River originally flipped nines so its first hole could be next to the clubhouse. The correct move, right? Except that the new No. 1 was a par 3. That didn't sit well with customers. "It was a terrible idea and way to start your round," wrote user 'Matthew3304221' in a 2016 review. "Maybe it made it easier for starters and/or pro shop because the true 10th hole is right near starters and pro shop. Finally back to the way it should be."
When Calderone Farms in Michigan flipped its nines, it unfortunately altered architect Bill Newcomb's original vision for the course, making the opening five holes tougher than they probably should be to start a round.
“I worked with (famed designer) Pete Dye,” Newcomb told Mlive.com, “and one of his philosophies was that 10 through 14 should be the hardest holes on the course, because in match play that’s where matches were often won and lost.”
Nobody likes to get their butt kicked right out of the parking lot. Me included. I'm not a fan of the flip that occurred in 2017 at the Golden Eagle Golf Club in northern Minnesota. The new owners wanted the 18th to finish adjacent to the clubhouse, but the change created a daunting first tee shot, a 170-yard carry over a marshy area. Of course, I tanked one in the junk.
I also believe some courses are ripe for a flip. When I first played Tobiano in Kamloops, British Columbia, I started the day with a dreaded double on the difficult first, a par 5 playing straight uphill. (Sensing a theme here?)
By the end of the round, I was sold that flipping the nines would be better for the routing, although admittedly not for the logistics of the setup. The first tee is steps from the range. In this case, a flip doesn't make sense. Or does it? I'm still confused ... much like that day at Poppy Hills.
Should your course flip its nines? Let us know in the comments below.