Change Proved Difficult for Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Last year’s tournament was the first at a new course, Yas Links, and it proved to be a challenge, especially when the golfers played in high winds.

For professional golfers it’s not familiarity that breeds contempt, it’s change. Thomas Pieters, the defending champion of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, said he was surprised by his win last year at Yas Links in the United Arab Emirates, which will host the tournament for the second straight year.

“Although I won, at the beginning of the week, it wasn’t really a course I fancied or that stood out to my eye,” he said. Pieters, from Belgium, added that the previous venue, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, was a “beast of a golf course,” and that it took a “a proper ball striker to win there,” implying the opposite is true of the new venue for the championship, which begins on Thursday.

The transition to Yas Links was compounded last year by strong winds during the second round of the tournament, with gusts up to 40 miles per hour, which wreaked havoc on golfers and their scores. After he finished tied for sixth last year, the defending champion, Tyrrell Hatton, told reporters on site, “I would love for a bomb to drop on it and blow it to oblivion, to be honest.”

Much of Hatton’s fury was aimed at the course’s 646-yard par-5 18th hole. The long par 5 utilized the back tee box in the adverse conditions, leaving golfers no way to reach the green in two shots. “I hit a really good tee shot and still had 290 [yards to the] front,” Hatton said after the tournament. “It would be a much better finishing hole if you’re actually rewarded for hitting the fairway, which as it stands, you’re not.”

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Pieters said what made the course difficult was that it didn’t exactly play like a true links course, where firm conditions allow for players to use the ground to run the ball up onto playing surfaces.

The modern professional game rewards aerial mastery, high soaring shots that land to precise yardages — a style of play that doesn’t exactly fit the design of Yas Links. Yet neither does playing it as a traditional links course, Pieters said. “It’s like playing funky links golf. You can’t really run it up on most of the greens — you have to fly it on, which makes it extra tricky.”

Miguel Vidaor, the DP World Tour tournament director, said the goal for the course was to be “tough but fair.” Last year, he said, because of the wind conditions, the tournament organizers adjusted their original plans to make the course play firmer and faster.

“We were on the limit all day long,” Vidaor said. “We backed off green speeds from high elevens [on the stimpmeter, a device that measures green speeds] and dropped the speed down to the mid tens. It’s an exposed golf course, and we need to be careful because there’s no shelter at all.” Vidaor and his team slowed the speeds by cutting the greens less often than usual, and watering them to allow the grass to grow overnight. Typically, tournament golf is played at a minimum speed of 11 to test players. The reduction of the speeds at Yas Links last year was a reflection of how severely the wind was blowing, which could cause balls to drift from their paths once putted.

Barring conditions like the ones last year, Vidaor said he didn’t expect to change much in this year’s setup. Citing Hatton’s criticism last year, he said, “Eighteen is most unusual, but I think it’s a great par 5. It’s a three-shotter, which in the world of tournament golf, you don’t get very often these days.” He added that the course’s designer, Kyle Phillips, intended for it to play this way. Vidaor, who is a fan of Phillips’s work, said “I love a par 5 where par is a good score. Nothing wrong with that.”

One of the real differences at Yas Links compared with most DP World Tour courses is its strain of grass, paspalum. Often used on seaside courses or in hot climates, it’s a drought-resistant turf that can thrive in adverse conditions, such as when sea mist falls on it. Bermuda grass, which is also often used in hot climates, can often get “grainy,” Vidaor noted, which affects shots on and around the greens, as that grain can have a grabbing effect on the ball. Paspalum, by contrast, lacks that.

Also unique to Yas Links is that paspalum is the only turf grass on the property, which is slightly unusual in today’s modern agronomy at golf courses. Most courses have one type of fairway grass to account for the wear and tear of golf carts, while the greens will feature another type of grass to account for the best pure roll, as well as for the climatic conditions. The uniform quality of the course makes for a beautiful presentation, but also a uniform playing surface. “The consistency throughout the course was stunning,” Pieters said.

Vidaor said that also came from controlling the mowing heights, where the grass on the greens was cut to 1.6 millimeters and the grass on the tees was cut to 3.5 millimeters. Fairways were at 6.5 millimeters. All this means that even in the desert in winter, the balls are going to move very fast and the course will have an immaculate appearance.

Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

Pieters said that the undulations on the greens could be difficult for players to handle, and with greens running in the mid 11s, the slopes could also prove for difficult putting rounds. And even though it’s the second year for the tournament at Yas Links, Pieters added there still wasn’t the same comfort level as players had at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

“I mean, it caught everybody off guard,” he said. “We were so used to starting on the same course. We’d done our homework in past years and all of a sudden, we were given a completely different golf course.”

Despite the criticism and tough conditions last year, Vidaor and the course manager, Corey Finn, will try to make the course harder. “Overall, our goal is to have firm greens as this presents a tougher challenge for the players,” Finn wrote in an email. “This year, having 12 months to prepare, we have performed more work on the greens over summer to try and achieve firmer surfaces.”

Despite loving Yas Links a “little less” than the old course, Pieters said he will enter the week with “lots of good memories from last year” and feels good about his preparation, coming off a competitive layoff. “I’ve put in the work over the winter. I’m really fresh and my second daughter was born a couple months ago. So, I’m buzzed to go,” he added.

Vidaor said his hopes were simple for the second year at Yas Links. “I’m really hoping that the more the guys play the course, the more they will like it,” he said. “Change is difficult for everybody. Nobody likes change.

“After 16 years in the same place, it was, like, ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ But I think the more they play, I think the more they will enjoy it. And, you know, it’s a challenge. We have the best players in the world, and we want it tough.”

Source: Golf -


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