Austin C.C.'s recipe for great match play

“That course is a such a great match play course.”

You hear this expression thrown around by golfers all the time, but rarely does the conversation touch on what the phrase actually means. I had the opportunity to cover this week’s WGC-Dell Match Play and saw why Austin C.C. is such a great match play venue.

Variety

Off the tee, Austin Country Club doesn’t favor a specific ball flight. Its fourteen tee shots are a dead split, with seven favoring a right-to-left ball flight and seven favoring a left-to-right shape. Likewise, there is an even split in approaching the greens, with nine favoring right-to-left shots and nine favoring left-to-right shots.

The holes also have considerable variety with distance. The par 3s all require distinctly different shots with different clubs, and similarly, the par 4s and 5s are unique with a good mix of short, mid-length and longer holes. It’s also routed so that holes rarely play in the same direction, which plays a pivotal role particularly when the wind kicks up.

A look at all the different directions ACC's holes move.

The great variety of Austin Country Club from tee to the green allows for many different styles of player to succeed. Look at the different types of players who advanced to the knockout round of 16. Short, strategic hitters like Zach Johnson, Kevin Na and Søren Kjeldsen were mixed in among bombers like Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka and finalists Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson. That’s not an accident. It’s the reflection of a well-designed golf course.

The greens

An aspect of the golf course that gets dulled by television is Austin CC’s undulating green complexes. The small targets possess numerous humps, bumps and shelves and give a clear advantage to stellar approach shots that find the correct position on the green, punishing those that miss.

True risk and reward

The nature of Austin Country Club’s design that I find most fascinating is how perplexing it can be to determine the “correct strategy” on many of its holes. The match play format diminishes the consequences of big numbers and allows players to play more aggressively at the hazard-filled setup. The numerous short par 4s (5,10,13,18)  beg players to attack them with drivers to reap the reward of reaching the green or having a short pitch shot. But these plays aren’t always the correct move because the holes are well-guarded with obvious hazards that penalize poor shots. There are also many subtle and unique challenges that confront players, even when they do pull off the aggressive play.  

To showcase this, let’s take a look at the finishing par-4 18th, a hole where you see a drastic variety in strategy and play. The short par 4 measures 360 yards and features a steep valley in the fairway that starts about 275 yards from the tee box and bottoms out at about 300 yards before running back uphill to the undulated green about 320 yards from the tee. The fairway and valley slope from left-to-right and funnel balls to a grove of trees on the right side. The hole presents two distinct strategies: Lay back with a long-iron at the top of the hill and leave yourself a full wedge shot into the green, or pull out the driver and take a shot at the green.

An aerial of the 18th at ACC. The hill starts just after the fairway bunker.

A look at the big fairway slope from behind the tough 18th green.

The grove of trees and two bunkers on the right side provide an “obvious hazard” for the aggressive play. The subtle challenge is the ground slope that greets players whose shots come up short and right of the green, leaving them with a blind 20-40-yard pitch shot from a steep upslope to a severely undulated green. This is a shot that players rarely see or practice. It’s one that consistently led to lackluster attempts and players walking away from the short par 4 with disappointing pars.

This year, the pivotal hole saw 60 players reach the hole with 24 laying up and 36 going with the more aggressive play. Only one player, Zach Johnson, hit the green with his tee shot (and he did it Thursday when the hole was playing significantly downwind). When you exclude Thursday’s downwind round, the split was nearly even with 21 players laying up and 23 going for it.

Using the near even split, laying up led to 52% of players halving the hole, 24% winning the hole and 24% losing the hole. Meanwhile, going for it yielded 61% of players halving the hole, 17% winning the hole and 17% losing the hole.

Surprisingly, the numbers beared out that laying back gave players a better chance to win the hole, likely because of the subtle challenge they faced in that awkward pitch shot from the upslope. The 18th is just one example where playing the aggressive shot isn’t  necessarily the right play when you need to win the hole.