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Hotel Fitness aces revamped course, overall experience

Trevor Immelman’s winning score at the Hotel Fitness Championship last year was 20 under. Bud Cauley’s winning score this year was also 20 under.

But don’t take that to mean that the changes made to Jack Nicklaus-designed Sycamore Hills didn’t accomplish their goal.

Yes, the scores did go slightly up. But it just played more like a championship course, or so Sycamore Hills general manager Eric Schneider said.

“We’re not measuring it by what they shoot,” Schneider said, just as Cauley was finishing off his final-round 7-under 65 on Sunday.

“We’re measuring it by what we’re hearing from the players and from the tour. We’ve got another four holes to (renovate) over the winter. It will toughen up No. 12, for example. But the whole purpose is to modernize the golf course and put it in a position to be a great championship course.”

The Hotel Fitness Championship, which is contracted for one more running at Sycamore Hills, is the first of four events in the Tour Finals that decide 25 PGA Tour cards for the following season.

Cauley, who has participated both years, said the changes were noticeable – not just those to the design, which included bringing more bunkers into play off tee shots, but also in the general playability to the course.

The course was softer, thanks in part to all the recent rain, but the state-of-the-art drainage system in the bunkers did its job. The rough was nastier. And the greens ran truer, which didn’t happen last year when the U.S. Golf Association taxed the course by holding the Girls Junior five weeks before the Hotel Fitness Championship.

“I thought the tee shots were a little tougher with the bunkering, and I felt like you had to hit it longer,” Cauley said.

And the 18th hole, which faced the most drastic redesign, was much better, in Cauley’s opinion.

“Having to come in on a hole like 18 with an iron instead of a wedge, that was a huge difference,” he said. “If it was firm like last year, 20 under wouldn’t have even been close (to the winning score).”

Schneider said the renovations were more to modernize than toughen up Sycamore Hills. And he said good players will put up low scores if the setup is right; he pointed to Rory McIllroy’s victory in the PGA Championship at storied Valhalla this year at 16 under.

“The tour setup has a lot to do with (scoring),” Schneider said. “They don’t want to punish these guys because they work for them. If the USGA were here, they’d hide the pins and do crazy stuff. We’ve got four par-5s, and two of them, they’re reaching (in two shots). So, basically, we’ve got a par-70 golf course, based on the distance they hit it, and they will do what they do. You have to be impressed with the talent they have.”

Attendance at the Hotel Fitness Championship was 28,927, up from the roughly 25,000 of last year. And this year, gates were closed Tuesday to preserve course conditions after heavy rainfall.

“We had great crowds. The tour loves the place. The players love the place. I think it’s been a home run. We’ve got some momentum from last year and just a lot of smiles,” Schneider said.

“We did a lot of things significantly better this year, like the skybox locations, how they handle the crowds and the flow around the course, the traffic and parking, all those things that make the experience better.

“And I think the awareness of the community of the tournament was much better. … We had a lot of people out here who aren’t just golfers and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to make it a community event and I think we’re on our way to that, and it’s pretty special.”

Statistical analysis

According to the statistics, Sycamore Hills did play harder this year, with the average score increasing from 70.279 last year to 71.15 this year. The cut line also went from 3 under to 1 under.

The hardest hole was the redesigned par-4 18th with an average score of 4.2. The second-hardest was the par-4 16th with an average of 4.188. The easiest holes were the par-5 second (4.324) and the par-5 12th (4.614).

Plays of the tournament

In the final round, Cauley got up-and-down on No. 16 for his par 5 and made sure he didn’t squander a birdie on the previous hole. It kept him atop the leader board, and he finished with a 65 and won at 20 under.

In the third round, Colt Knost eagled the par-5 12, hitting a light 5-wood from 222 yards, then sinking an 11-foot putt. He shot 67 to take the lead, then finished one back of Cauley for the title. He had another pivotal shot on the final hole Sunday, when he lipped a 10-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff.

In the second round, Bill Lunde had a hole in one on the par-3 4th, en route to a 68. He finished tied for 53rd at 3 under.