COMMENTARY | Its brutal 18th hole aside, the Blue Monster course at Doral has been a scoring paradise for most of its recent history.
Tiger Woods won for the seventh time on the Miami track last year with a 19-under total and every winner since the WGC-Cadillac Championship moved here in 2007 has been double figures under par.
That’s about to change thanks to the comprehensive redesign of the course by Gil Hanse, the architect of the course in Rio de Janeiro that will host the Olympic debut of golf in 2016.
This is more than just a restoration deal to bring back the integrity of the old Dick Wilson track. Hanse, with the full support of resort owner Donald Trump and the PGA Tour, has put the bite back into the Blue Monster with an emphasis on the blue water of the lakes that are now in play on nearly every shot.
“It’s definitely a different Doral,” 2012 WGC-Cadillac winner Justin Rose said earlier this week. “This is essentially a new golf course. There are elements you recognize but the shots, the lines, and clearly the reads on the green are completely new.”
Water, Water Everywhere
Hanse and his team have attempted to put up defenses against the modern PGA Tour player who can carry a drive 300 yards. Trees have been removed along the fairways of several holes – most noticeably the now drivable 341-yard par four 16th – to more clearly expose water hazards. Tees have been moved back and bunkers added in strategic locations to frame landing areas and force longer carries to clear trouble.
Several greens have also been moved to bring water into play – the highlight being the 153-yard par three 15th hole which now features a peninsula green with water on three sides. A hole-by-hole summary of the changes is available on the tournament website.
Hanse’s changes will be apparent right off the bat as he transformed Doral’s par five first hole from one of the easiest on the PGA Tour – stroke average of 4.1 – into a formidable test that will challenge the pros both laying up and those going for a green in two shots that is now guarded on the right by water.
“Coming out of the blocks on No. 1, we think golfers will immediately be hit with, `Wow, this is a different ball game,'” Hanse said in explaining the complete revamp of the opening hole. “We tried to strengthen the golf hole but still have to make them think about options.”
Star Power in Miami
Despite being one of the easier tracks on the PGA Tour, Doral has historically identified high quality champions. In fact, 13 of the last 14 winners here also own at least one major. It will be interesting to see if a course that now demands greater precision will continue to bring out the best in the game’s best.
Woods has made a mini-career out of dominating on his favorite courses. In addition to Doral, he’s won seven times at Bay Hill, Firestone and eight times at Torrey Pines.
Woods won twice at Torrey after the South Course was renovated for the 2008 U.S. Open so he likely retains some home field advantage at Doral. However, Tiger’s balky back and less than stellar work from tee to green in limited 2014 action could be exposed by a more hazardous Blue Monster layout.
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the changes is Bubba Watson. A runner-up here in 2012 to Rose, Watson has a win and a second in his last three starts and is in the top 10 in total driving and greens hit. Bubba’s length and ability to work the ball will come in handy on a course that has been lengthened nearly 200 yards to 7,481 yards.
Another player with a hot hand – Dustin Johnson – also figures to contend. DJ is off to one of the best starts of his career and has finished no worse than sixth in four stroke-play events this season. Johnson is known for his power but also leads the Tour in greens hit. Like Watson, he was a runner up at Doral in 2011 to Nick Watney.
Whether the architectural changes lead to a winning score around par will really depend on the wind. One variable that won’t change this week is a memorable finish as Hanse left intact the Blue Monster’s signature 467-yard par four 18th hole that is guarded from tee to green by water left and towering palms right.