Gleneagles GC at McLaren Park #2 & #11
A Switch From Strategic to Penal Architecture
The is the second post in a series.1
Hole 2: par 4, 325 yards.
Hole 11: par 4, 297 yards.
Gleneagles could close at the end of 2024.
Gleneagles GC at McLaren Park is arguably the most challenging course in San Francisco, but many folks in the city have never played it. Unfortunately, it may be closing if the city does not renew its lease this year. I think this Jack Fleming design is incredibly interesting. So I am writing a series on its architecture, and why a course that is less than 6000 yards is able to test the best players in the region. “The Eagle,” as it’s known by its regulars, is a nine-hole course, but with two very different sets of tees that allow it to be played as a full 18.
Due to water constraints, the fairways are often in poor condition. It’s serious enough that the club plays preferred lies in tournaments. So, those who prefer conditioning over architecture will likely not see the course’s value. Yet, despite its short length, it is one of the very few courses that has not been made obsolete by improvements in equipment. It rewards people who think hard about every shot, and more often than not, asks players to take shots they don’t want to hit. I want to share and preserve the architecture of this course, so I’ll be writing (way too much) about each pair of holes and the challenges and strategies that make them great.
I don’t want to wait until it is too late to bring attention to this course. If more people play the course or join the club this year, it’s much more likely to remain open. The course is worth a visit.
Focus On the Green Complex:
As on holes #1 and #10, the green complex should be the main focus. Two large bunkers front the green, forcing players to approach from the air, and enticing them to play to the back of the green. However, the real danger lurks behind the green, where a massive drop off can send shots tumbling 30+ yards down toward the 12th tee box. This danger zone is, at most, 10 yards off the back and as close as five yards off the right side of the green. It’s almost better to end up in the penalty area right of the green than to run down behind it.
The two fronting bunkers leave no option for players but to play the ball high. The real trouble behind the green can’t be seen. Anything that might send the ball long should be front of mind.
The main strategy off the tee is simply to leave a shot into the green where you can control the distance. The tee shot has danger on both sides, but the hole isn’t too long. Thus, players must prioritize a controlled shot, and if that’s not a driver, no worries, a hybrid should still leave a short-iron into the green. Just make sure you account for wind both off the tee and on the approach.2
The other option is just to try to thread the trees to the narrow fairway off the tee, to get as close to the green as possible. There isn’t any room for error in the air. Overhanging trees make playing for distance a fade (or even a cut), which brings risk of ending up in the penalty area on the right. A long drive will also bring the fairway bunker into play for most folks on #11 and maybe longer hitters on #2. If you have a good drive and can handle pitches from awkward distances, this strategy can definitely help get close to the toughest pin positions.
The tournament hole location is front-right. This location asks players to both flirt with the front-right bunker, and will require players to hit the ball toward the right side, the highest risk area of the hole. Hitting into this tight corner of the green might not be a significant challenge for some scratch players, but most people will have to mitigate the risk on this shot. I think the front-right is a sucker’s target; my shots have kicked down that hill enough times to convince me of that. I’m happy to play to the center of the green and just accept the testing downhill putt that results.
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Thoughts on Effective Recoveries From Unfortunate Positions:
The hole can be really tricky if you end up on the left where the fairway slopes left-to-right. If players line their shot to the center of the green here, they could push the ball right, toward the worst trouble. It’s not the most challenging shot, but missing in that direction has the potential to really cause a lot of damage.
When I end up left off the tee, there is one trick I know that helps me out, but it is only possible when the hole is on the left side of the green. The trick is to play as close to the right-side bunker as possible. Why? Well, that bunker doesn’t have a lip in that direction, so it’s possible just to putt out of the sand right toward the hole. So, I’m totally fine if my recovery shot ends up in that bunker, which lets me get as close as I can for a better chance at getting up-and-down.
The most obvious differences we see on the original design are the lack of bunkers on the left and the opening in the woods on the right. There are trees to the right off the tee, but they don’t seem to overhang as much and the most likely area to miss right is wide open. As this area is a standard miss for beginners, it would leave these players with a challenging-but-makeable play to the green. The lack of left-side bunkers in the old design also meant it was plausible to run the ball up the left side. The changes throughout the years have made this hole much more penal than it was initially.
This hole is one of the few that I will criticize for simply being pointlessly difficult for novice and intermediate players. The green complex is, at worst, mildly challenging for an advanced player, but is unnecessarily brutal for folks with folks with gaps in their game. People who struggle with their short game can easily put up double digit scores here. Access to the green is blocked by bunkers just large enough to give people trouble. The risk of players thinning shots both down the hill and back up only exists because there is nowhere else for them to play. Flop shots are hard and shouldn’t be forced on players.
One solution would be eliminating all of the left-side fronting bunkers, as in the original hole design, and possibly expanding the right side bunker and deepening it to keep the hole challenging.
Removing this bunker should give less skilled players a reasonable bail-out area short-left of the green with the possibility of running on. The ground would still pitch away from the green here, so it wouldn’t be a trivial shot. Since the tournament hole is located in the front-right of the green, this design gives people who play it safe the most challenging putts on the days when it matters. For advanced players, this change shouldn’t affect how they play at all. A high shot seeking the center of the green will take on just as much risk with a large central bunker. The only real change would be that the left side pin positions would become slightly less risky, however the running shot would still risk rolling out into the back bunker.
Another criticism of the hole is the tee shot. It effectively requires players to move the ball left-to-right. This may go unnoticed, but lack of optionality on the tee, combined with severe punishment, makes for extreme frustration for people who are still learning.3 Removing the left side bunkers would allow players to take less club off the tee while leaving a reasonable landing zone for longer shots. These longer shots to the green won’t be easy, but they are at least an option.
Finally, I just think the hole would be much more fun if the entire right side were a waste area. The original layout seems more playable with all the extra room right, and I suspect that opening it up nearly all the way to the green would allow players to miss right while leaving a wildly difficult, blind shot in. A sandy waste area, with footprints and native grasses, is much more difficult than a bunker, so there’s still plenty of risk involved. The red stake penalty area on that side makes little sense anyway. So if I had the ability to change the course, I’d at least restore it to its original condition if not expand that open area to the right all the way up to the greenside bunker.
These two holes are definitely a change of pace from the first and tenth. This section of the course demands players attention with risky but straightforward task, while allowing them to relax from all the strategies involved on the previous hole. Though the hole might not be too challenging for folks who can both play well off the tee and are confident with a wedge in their hand, I still think it’s a worthwhile hole and can be devastating when played poorly. There’s a reason I won’t attack a right-side pin, and that’s because this hole scares me, which is fairly unique for a short par four.
Other posts in this series:
#1 & #10: a deep dive into the architecture that makes this intimidating opening hole so interesting.
An adjustment for wind here is extremely important later in the day. Mistakes are more likely on #11 because the winds are stronger later in the day, and the hole is just shorter. The trees can cause a wind tunnel effect when it’s blowing just right, but that’s okay because it affects the tee shot as well as the approach. If the winds are blowing, and you’ll know from the headwind on #9, and your tee shot plays noticeably farther than it should. Just adjust for the approach. It’s better to be in the front bunkers than over the hill (in my opinion at least).
Most beginners’ standard miss is a left-to-right slice, which plays the way the hole does. However, left-handers with a beginner’s slice have effectively no chance at par. I realize that this is just the way it is sometimes, but this type of penal architecture just seems a bit harsh. If the left side were opened up a bit short of the landing area, I think it would give players who move the ball right-to-left more options.