ATLANTA, GA - As if The Masters, possibly the world's most popular golf tournament, wasn't enough.
The state of Georgia has moved to the "fore" front over the past two years as the "Tournament Golf Capital of the World," but this year it takes on an even bigger stage.
Besides the Masters in early April at Augusta National, where Tiger Woods won a fourth straight major championship, the state annually hosts the PGA Tour's Bellsouth Classic in Duluth in April and the LPGA's Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in Stockbridge in early May. But the climax is yet to come.
The Atlanta Athletic Club, a private 36-hole club in Duluth, is set to host this year's fourth and final major, the PGA Championship, on August 16-19 and the U.S. Amateur visits East Lake Golf Club, another prestigious private club in Atlanta, the following weekend on Aug. 20-26. East Lake, where the world's greatest amateur Bobby Jones grew up playing the game, hosted the TOUR Championship in 2000 and is set to host it again in 2002.
Sprinkle in the Senior PGA Tour's LiquidGolf.com Championship at the Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta (Sept. 21-23), the PGA Tour's Buick Challenge at the Callaway Gardens Mountain View Course in Pine Mountain (Oct. 25-28) and the Walker Cup, an amateur event in Sea Island on Aug. 11-12, and you can see why state tourism officials have their hands full with 3-woods and 40-foot putts.
Come late summer and fall, Georgia is the place to be for any rapid golf fan.
"This really is an incredible lineup of golf events for Georgia," Gary Stokan, President of the Atlanta Sports Council, said in a statement. "The ability of Atlanta and Georgia to host this many major golf events in one years proves we have the top quality courses, infrastructure and event support necessary to attract these events, make them successful and keep them coming back."
Despite being only 34 years old, the Atlanta Athletic Club Highlands course in Duluth is the most storied tournament course in Georgia, hosting a U.S. Women's Amateur (1950), a U.S. Open (1976), a PGA Championship (1981), a Mid-Amateur (1984) and a U.S. Women's Open (1990).
The first 27 holes at the AAC were designed by Robert Trent Jones, opening in 1967. A fourth nine, designed by Joe Finder, opened in 1970. A 1995 makeover by Rees Jones assures that the Highlands course will test the world's best players in August. Also new this year, the course has added four new tee boxes to encourage more drivers out of the bag - adding 40 yards on the 463-yard eighth hole, 20 yards on the 547-yard 12th, 30 yards on the 442-yard 14th and 40 yards on the 441-yard 16th.
If this year's PGA Championship is as dramatic as the other two PGA majors held at the Highlands, fans are in for a treat. At the 1976 Open, Jerry Pate knocked his 194-yard, 5-iron approach to within three feet on No. 18 to capture his first major. Local hero Larry Nelson was one of just three players under par, shooting a 7-under 273, to win the 1981 PGA Championship.
The Highlands 18, which will play as a par-70 from a whopping 7,213 yards, is highlighted by undulating greens, some graceful elevation changes and some testy pond-filled par-3s, with only one under 200 yards long.
The course was already in great shape in June and by closing the course three weeks before the event, the club's membership has all but guaranteed immaculate conditions for the players.
"The Bermuda rough will be thick to challenge and tease the players," said tournament director Andy Odenbach.
Odenbach called the final four holes "some of the best finishing holes of championship golf in the world."
Interestingly, two of the closing holes are par-3s over water - the 227-yard 15th and the 207-yard 17th. The 490-yard 18th is normally a par-5 for the members, but the pros must navigate the dogleg left as a par-4. The second shot will be a long iron over water to a narrow green.
"Whoever finishes with four pars will get the job done on Sunday (in the final round)," Odenbach said.
Some golf experts, including Jack Nicklaus, consider the U.S. Amateur much like a major championship. By visiting Jones' childhood course makes the event even more special. Jones is the only golfer to win the amateur five times.
East Lake, which opened in 1908, is also one of the world's classic designs, ranking among the top 100 courses in America in Golf Digest's most recent rankings. Its return to prominence is also one of golf's grandest tales. East Lake, a Donald Ross classic, hosted the 1963 Ryder Cup, but fell in disrepair for years as the Atlanta Athletic Club and its members moved into the suburbs to a new site, the 36-hole facility in Duluth.
With dwindling support, East Lake, along with the neighborhood surrounding the course, plummeted to its low-point. East Lake Meadows, a public housing development just west of the fourth tee, became known as "Little Vietnam" because of the violence, drugs and crimes committed in the area.
That's when current owner Tom Cousins bought the club and proposed not only to reinvent East Lake's golfing tradition, but the neighborhood as well. In 1994, he shut down the course, and didn't open it again for 16 months while remodeling it. He also created the East Lake Community Foundation, which has made a wonderful mark on the community. Statistics show that crime in the surrounding area is down 66% since 1994.
East Lake Meadows, the dangerous 650-unit public housing facility, was turned into 500 mixed-income townhouses and apartments, with 50 percent public-housing and 50 percent market-rate. To give the area a true sense of community, a par-64 Charlie Yates Golf Course and practice facility was designed free of charge by Rees Jones and a new elementary school, the Drew Charter School, and a family YMCA are nearing completion.
As for the changes at East Lake Golf Club, Cousins demanded it be a walking-only course, complete with caddies. No shorts are allowed, either.
The course stretches to 7,108 yards from the tips as a par-72 for amateurs, but it plays roughly 6,950 yards for the pros at the TOUR Championship. The finishing 18th hole, a rugged, uphill 232-yard par-3, is ranked as one of the world's best par-3s by Golf Magazine.
The revamped clubhouse and its many tributes to Jones will certainly be a treat to all the amateurs who visit in August. The Bobby Jones' room hails his Grand Slam, winning four straight majors, in 1930.
Thanks to Jones' legacy and the dedication of club members,golf and tournament officials throughout the state, tournament golf will continue to find a home in Georgia for years to come.