Edison, NJ—Bubba Watson remained at the top of the leaderboard after 36 holes at The Barclays—the kickoff event for this year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs. The one-stroke margin is over a quartet of golfers—Henrik Stenon, Tony Finau, Zach Johnson and Jason Dufner. No less than 13 players are within three strokes of the lead. With 36-holes to go anything is indeed possible.
World number-one Jordan Spieth will have some free time this weekend. He missed the cut by five strokes with a 147 total. In addition to dropping out of action for the final two rounds here, Spieth also moved back to the number-two position in the world golf rankings which Rory McIlroy had held since late last year.
The hidden story for this year’s event has been the strength of the layout designed by legendary architect Donald Ross. Plainfield CC was toasted the last time it hosted The Barclays in ’11 when Dustin Johnson torched the course with a 19-under-par 194 total for the rain-shortened event. That year it took a two round total of 138 just to make the 36-hole cut. This year’s cut line was five shots higher—143.
What’s the difference between ’11 and this year’s event? In simple terms—dry weather.
Plainfield CC is known for its demanding putting surfaces. Ross provided for tilted surfaces with a myriad of subtle breaks and false fronts. On first glance they appear quite predictable but they have proven this week to be anything but, to the world’s premier players.
Many wondered whether a course that’s just over 7,000 yards would be capable in testing the finest golfers in the world. Through two rounds the answer is clear—Plainfield when dry is a far different course than the one saturated with water four years ago when The Barclays was last here. And the weather forecast for the remainder of the event calls for continued dry weather and that will provide for increasingly firm and fast conditions allowing golf balls to run out after striking the ground and calling for even more shot and distance control with iron play into the putting surfaces.
In addition to the vexing greens, Plainfield provides for rolling terrain—shots can be blind from certain hitting areas and players who attempt to be bold with their approaches had best be mindful in being too aggressive. Recoveries around many of the targets is anything but automatic. The rough is also quite penalizing. Club officials made it a point to grow rough long and thick through the ’15 playing season—only a few weeks prior to the event was the rough cut to a more realistic height. Nonetheless, players finding the rough are then having to deal with awkward lies and stances.
Amazingly, just two weeks ago the winning total for the PGA Championship—the final major of the year—was an astounding 20-under-par by winner Jason Day. Clearly, the winner at The Barclays this week will not be anywhere near that number. If someone had said the four round total at The Straits Course would be considerably lower than what the winner will shoot this year at Plainfield given what happened in ’11, the odds would have been staggering for anyone wishing to wager.
Plainfield CC came on the scene during the classic period of American course design in the 1920’s. There are no island greens with water surrounding them like TPC Sawgrass in Florida or roads set near a putting green, like the 17th hole at The Old Course at St. Andrews. Plainfield CC calls upon a high degree of shot-making execution. Players of varying abilities—such as long hitting Bubba Watson and precision playing Zach Johnson—are both fully capable in doing well here as their position on the leaderboard attests.
One of the virtues in coming to the New York / New Jersey metropolitan area is the usage of classic designed courses. The original host site for many years for this specific event was the Westchester CC—a Walter J. Travis design in Rye, NY that resurfaced this year as host site for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Last year The, Barclays was played just a short ride north—also in New Jersey in Paramus—at Ridgewood CC, a A.W. Tillinghast design that tour professionals raved about for its old style charm and playing challenges. Next year, The Barclays returns to the famed Black Course at Bethpage State Park on Long Island—another superb Tillinghast design.
Finding the right venues to provide a level playing floor for the varied skills of those in the field this week is no easy matter. Mother Nature plays a leading role in determining so much of what happens. In ’11 when Johnson won, the course was easily had—in ’15 the tide has tilted back the other way. With 36 holes yet to be played the end result for this year’s event will certainly prove most interesting.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.