The No. 22 ranked VSU Blazer golf team will look to build off their debut performance this Monday and Tuesday at PGA National’s The Champion course, home of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic and “The Bear Trap,” arguably golf’s most challenging set of holes.
Located in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, this scenic tour layout will be one of the toughest they play this year, with water everywhere, bunkers throughout, and doglegs that demand placement off the tee and accurate approaches into greens.
“The key to success around PGA National is controlling your golf ball and avoiding big numbers,” Senior Matt Anderson said. “There are many water hazards around the golf course that present difficulties to every player. There are plenty of scoring opportunities, but the player who avoids the big mistakes is going to have a great week.”
Coach Jared Purvis will keep the same lineup from the Blazers’ last appearance at the Cougar Invitational. With that in mind, Anderson will be the only player with experience at the venue. It was three years ago when the senior made his college golf debut on these grounds as a freshman.
This, however, is not a concern for Purvis.
In addition to their usual practice round and being able to lean on Anderson for tips as far as how to play the course, PGA Tour pro Briny Baird, who has played the course “numerous times,” will be helping the Blazers in their preparation.
“It’s going to be great having Mr. Baird with us,” Anderson said. “He has lots of local course knowledge, and he is a very fun guy to be around. I’ve always enjoyed talking to Mr. Baird in the past; he is always eager to help us with anything we need.”
Baird, after transferring from Georgia Tech, was the Division II Individual National Champion in both 1994 and 1995 while playing for the Blazers.
Above all, The Champion is best known for its stretch of holes 15-17 nicknamed “The Bear Trap,” which is derived from “The Golden Bear,” the nickname of the man who redesigned this course, arguably the greatest to have ever played the game, Jack Nicklaus.
Originally designed by Tom and George Fazio, both famous golf course architects, the record 18-time major championship winner Nicklaus left a significant mark when he modified this already great layout.
With the redesign, Nicklaus, in his own words, turned No. 15, previously a “little benign par 3” and a “sort of nothing little hole,” into a “monster.”
The water sits along the right side of the hole and wraps around the back of the green, and is now more of a factor.
With winds that add to the difficulty and a tough up-and-down from the sand, this one can certainly be a demon.
No. 16, a 434-yard par four, is interesting in that it is straight off the tee. But this small, diamond-shaped green, guarded by water and a bunker in the front, is veered off to the right like many others on this golf course.
Players will often hit iron off the tee, considering the hole isn’t particularly long and accuracy is a premium with the aforementioned water to the right and bunkers on either side of the fairway.
Where you place your tee shot is vital, as your angle toward the green makes a significant difference on your approach shot.
The last of this trio of holes, the 17th, isn’t normally very long at a listed length of 172, but they lengthen it to 190 for The Honda Classic.
Regardless of the distance they decide to go with, it reminds me a little bit of the 17th at TPC Sawgrass, the famous “island green.” It’s is a par three with water on it that, more than anything, is a gut check close to the end of your round.
Unlike the 17th at Sawgrass, there is a little bailout left versus a complete island green, but getting up-and-down from that left bunker, the rough, or in that green side short grass for that matter, won’t be easy.
The green is small, but the water that every player must hit over does not hide on this intimidating hole.
When asked about “The Bear Trap,” Purvis said that he likes to have a mindset that this demanding and visually intimidating set of holes “are similar to all golf holes.”
“They have a tee box, they have fairway length grass, and they have greens,” Purvis continued. “Hit your targets, and there is no trouble.”
For Anderson, it’s “an amazing stretch of holes.”
According to “The Golden Bear” himself, “It should all be won or lost here.”
“I see it on TV, and I’m excited to finally get to play it. I’m just going to try to go out there and execute and hit shots just like normal,” said Junior Jordan Long.
An important aspect of the course setup that would have a dramatic impact on the tournament will be whether or not they decide to have No. 10 played as a par four or a par five. Normally a 545-yard par five, this hole is shortened slightly and turned into a par four for The Honda Classic.
A major storyline for this tournament will be about how the Blazers respond after their last tournament in Columbus, completed two Tuesdays ago. The Blazers, while they didn’t play poorly on Tuesday, came in third place, despite leading after two rounds. In a situation that could come with a potential letdown, the Blazers still seem to have positive morale heading into this NSU Shark Invitational.
“I think we feel good going in,” Long said. “We just want to pick up where we left off at Columbus and have another great tournament.”
Completing the field of 16 will be the GCAA Coaches Poll No. 4-ranked Saint Leo, No. 5 ranked host Nova Southeastern, No. 6 ranked Florida Tech, and No. 7 West Florida, the poll’s previous No. 1, who received four first place votes.
Carson-Newman enters play as the No. 8 ranked team after winning the Cougar Invitational.
No. 11 Indianapolis will also be making the trip down to Palm Beach Gardens, as will Montevallo, Flagler, Georgia Southwestern State, Palm Beach Atlantic, Kaiser, Wilmington, Johnson and Wales, Eckerd, and Embry Riddle.
In February, it was two-time PGA Tour money winner Justin Thomas who won The Honda Classic in a playoff over Luke List. The NSU Shark Invitational at the same venue has the potential to provide just as thrilling a finish.
Written by Bryant Roche, Staff Writer. Photo courtesy of VSU Athletics.
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