BMW Championship 2017: Conway Farms, hole by hole


PGA Tour pros and the attentive public watching at home probably know that a metro area the size and population of Chicago has a lot of fine golf courses. Conway Farms Golf Club is gradually edging itself into that list. The course has been dutifully serving as home to various championships since opening in 1991. Chalk up the 1997 NCAA Division I Championship, the 2009 Western Amateur and the 2012 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship in 2013, 2015 and now 2017.

That first FedEX Cup event four years ago was won by Zach Johnson at 16-under 268, though it was perhaps more famous at the time for being the scene of Jim Furyk’s second-round 59. Two years later Jason Day won at 22 under while in the midst of a stellar late season run that had just seen him with the PGA Championship. Let’s just say that out here, birdies abound.

This Tom Fazio design is a private club, arrayed as a core routing, with modest real estate in pockets off to the side and out of play. It occupies 209 rolling wooded acres in the leafy suburban enclave of Lake Forest, 35 miles north of downtown Chicago, three miles inland of Lake Michigan and just east of the Tri-State Tolway (I-94).

At par-71, 7,208 yards, the course will play short by modern tournament standards for the BMW Championship. The 70 starters leading the FedCup points race hoping to be among the 30 who move to the finals at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta the following week will have to deal with a course that is receptive to players on their game yet brutal to golfers who are off even a bit.

Since the 2013 BMW here, Conway Farms’ management has undertaken a lot of upgrade work. There’s been a dramatic expansion of its practice grounds and short game area; a regrassing of the greens from Penncross to a tighter, more uniform bentgrass variety called 007; and introduction of greenside chipping areas to create more options for recovery.

With only 24 acres of modestly contoured fairway and landing area widths varying from 22 to 35 yards wide, Conway Farms is somewhat restrictive – not a bomber’s paradise. Most of the trouble is greenside – convex kick outs on the perimeter make for maddening recovery. And yet the whole site has a soft look thanks to 60 acres of wildflowers and native grasses.


Hole No. 1

Par 4, 360 yards

Your proverbial “gentle handshake” of an opening hole, one they’ll play with less than a driver off or whatever it takes to steer clear of twin deep bunkers on the right that are 220 yards to reach and 270 to clear. If they steer clear and drive it straight or a bit left, another bunker comes into play 280 yards out. There’s no real advantage to a driver over a fairway-metal since it’s only a wedge for these players to a green well protected up front and narrow from left to right.

The hole sets a clear tone for the presentation of issue at Conway Farms: closely cropped, lush but tight Penncross bentgrass fairways, a modest intermediate perimeter band of rough cut at 1 and 1/4 inches, and a thicker stand of 3-inch deep Kentucky bluegrass as primary rough. The modestly sized (6,000 square foot average) greens, cut to 1/10th of an inch, will roll about 12-12.5 on the Stimpmeter. All of which makes for a fair if manageable set up by golfers who keep the ball in play and that will stress those who don’t.


Hole No. 2

Par 3, 196 yards

An elegant par 3, slightly uphill, with a densely bunkered kidney-shaped green that gets more elusive the farther back the hole is cut. The back-left hole location is especially tough since the narrow putting surface there starts to fall away and is protected by sand on both sides.


Hole No. 3

Par 4, 402 yards

A bit of a traffic jam at the tee – the price paid for returning to the front door of the clubhouse. The hole is straightaway and plays through a chute of trees that appears narrower than it actually is. There will be a lot of lay ups here off the tee, since the ground short of the bunker on the right (265 to reach, 285 to carry) is much wider than the ground past it. The difference between hitting an approach from 140 yards out (short of the bunker) or from 90 yards (past the bunker) is not enough to make the majority of pros risk a driver.


Hole No. 4

Par 4, 505 yards

A big hole with an open prairie look. The right side is restricted by a line of oak trees 315 yards off the tee on the right, which tends to squeeze drives over to the left and near a looming fairway bunker. That’s also the better line of approach, since the steadily sloped green is tipped high right to low left.


Hole No. 5

Par 4, 469 yards

Awkward, very hard: reverse camber dogleg right whips around a tree-lined bend that’s also protected by a yawning bunker. The fairway funnels down in the landing area and makes it hard to contain shots left of the bunker from running into deep rough – and a thick stand of trees. The ideal approach is a mid- or short-iron played left-to-right to a slightly elevated putting surface. It’s simply a disorienting hole that requires a lot of discipline to maintain one’s playing lines.


Hole No. 6

Par 3, 217 yards

Very difficult-looking shot. The forced carry over marsh won’t be an issue for these players, but the green falls away steeply up front and left into a bunker so that anything not flighted well into the putting surface can easily run off. A chipping area back right will leave a tough downhill recovery for those who go long.


Hole No. 7

Par 4, 352 yards

Options abound off the tee on this short, tempting dogleg left par 4. OK, it’s the tiniest green on the course, perched up above three deep bunkers and with very tough recovery from behind that includes a nasty bunker. The hole presents an attacking golfer with safe and risky paths. The key is to avoid a right side bunker 238 yards out as well as a mid-fairway bunker that’s 225 yards out. An iron off the tee to the fat of the fairway leaves a wedge approach in. There’s also the half bail-out option right of or just past a mound over the left bunker, 270 yards to carry the bump, leaving a clear line in from very close. Finally, there will be those with a full-bore approach who can reach either the front of the green or those protective bunkers at its entrance. The prevailing wind off Lake Michigan – from behind –will help here. All of which should make for a good mix of strategies for spectators on site and viewers at home.


Hole No. 8

Par 5, 600 yards

Every once in a while, a bunker grabs your attention and simply mesmerizes you – or, in the case of a particularly deep greenside bunker on this long par 5, powerfully affects how you play the hole every step of the way. An expansive pond is in play the length of the left side, from the inside of the landing area on the tee shot to well past the landing areas of second shots. It’s enough to make most players steer cautiously to the right and play the hole the long way, reducing to a handful the players who can risk two full-bore shots to reach this elevated green. But the real imperative here is to avoid five front bunkers at the base of the green – one of those hazards being so steep and sheer-faced that it seems the bunker floor never sees the light of day. The look of the shadow trapped within it determines one’s strategy playing the hole. There’s a lot to behold here: the scale of the par 5, the apparent safety of the right side, and the trouble posed by anyone seeking to take a shortcut.


Hole No. 9

Par 4, 405 yards

What used to be the least complicated hole on the course got tighter off the tee and more demanding into the green thanks to much enhanced bunkering. The left-to-right putting surface opens up perfectly to a tee shot down the left side that shaves the tree line and brushes up against the two left-side fairway bunkers that have been moved back to catch anything slightly adrift.


Hole No. 10

Par 4, 458 yards

Here’s a very demanding par 4, with a creek running the length of it along the right side and very much in play for wayward drives and approaches hit just short and/or with too much rightward drift. In steering clear of that stream and a steep fairway bunker 295 yards out, it’s easy to end up hitting it left, through the fairway into rough.


Hole No. 11

Par 3, 170 yards

A very Florida-like hole, with the green set diagonally on the far side of a big pond and a forced carry all the way. A small bunker front right creates the appearance of two different putting greens, one on each side of it. Anything hit on the far right side of the putting surface could readily roll off into the water. And there’s a back-left bunker that will get plenty of play; golfers are prone here to taking a half-club more than needed or simply to stepping on their iron shot with special urgency – leaving themselves a very difficult downhill recovery back to the green.


Hole No. 12

Par 4, 419 yards

Here the course enters a four-hole stretch on its southern edge that feels tightened down by trees and perimeter framing that fend off the outside world. The tee shot here is a bit disorienting due to the offset angle that mismatches the landing area from the teeing ground – and it’s not a bad thing to force strong players to commit to a line that their eye doesn’t settle on. The ideal line is right center, but with trees down that side and the tee oriented toward a nasty bunker complex on the left 265-305 yards out, golfers are fighting their instincts here. The landing area leaves a slightly uphill shot that has to skirt overhanging trees on the right. The putting surface is well bunkered up front, which tends to promote stronger-than-needed approaches. Anything hit behind the hole leaves a very quick, downhill putt.


Hole No. 13

Par 4, 465 yards

Power draw off the tee goes a very long way – a fade, that is, for Brain Harman and Phil Mickelson this week. The green here is very deep but also very thin across its waist and basically two-tiered. Getting the ball to the back pod is very difficult given the elevated target and the deflective nature of the contouring (and bunkering) in that deeper section of the green.


Hole No. 14

Par 5, 585 yards

Plays downwind, but tight all the way and to a well-protected green that’s hidden from view from the approach zones following both the drive and most second shots. Most drives will land short of the left-right bunker complex that’s 325 yards off the tee. From there, some 275 yards out, a protruding knob with deep bunkering cuts off a view of the green and forces golfers to decide to lay up with a mid-iron or hit a full-bore fairway metal. The green has enough of a rise and a false front to make it unreceptive to a run-up. But there’s also no great hazard to face here; merely deep bunkers or consistently lush, dense rough grass around – not enough to deter players of this caliber from having a whack at it in two. This is one of those holes that really separates mid-handicappers from Tour players. They’ll have little problem with it.


Hole No. 15

Par 4, 334 yards

Here’s the real action hole at Conway Farms; short enough to tempt bold players and perched close enough to water and so tightly protected by sand that trouble looms on every shot. And the best thing is that none of it is hidden. It all starts with a pond down the left side that laps both the fairway and the green. There’s no problem off the tee when the club of choice is a long iron to the fat of the fairway; the risk on the drive comes with a longer club that, if pulled even slightly, gets wet very fast. And with the left side of this thin green tipping towards the water, the lake comes into play for any approach (especially from the fairway safe zone) that is ever so slightly left of target. The front left hole location is by far the hardest to get close to because it brings sand into play up front and water both left and immediately behind. For players trying to drive this green, the prevailing wind, slightly helping and from the right, will aid in their effort to find the little neck of approach fairway. The front bunkers are not a bad bail out – certainly better than the rough or bunker right of the green, which leaves a delicate downhill recovery with that water looming. A new front tee allows the hole to be played at 290 yards, bringing the combined temptations of trying to drive the green within reach of everyone in the field. And there’s just enough of an open ramp on the left front of the green – near the water – that players will be tempted to have a go. This hole will be fun to watch.


Hole No. 16

Par 4, 465 yards

Tough, long, demanding and uphill all the way. A very deep fairway bunker starting at 280 yards out grabs anything hit left of center. The better position is right of center, leaving 165-185 yards to a dangerously tight green across its axis that appears to offer no support when viewed from the approach zone. It will be interesting to watch player after player struggling with their third shot from low left of the putting surface that has been transformed into a massive low-cut chipping zone.


Hole No. 17

Par 3, 223 yards

Great theater from the highest ground of the back nine, where the tee looks down upon an unusually wide, receptive green. There’s a cove of putting surface on the extreme right that is extremely hard to get to – an ideal hole location for Sunday. Most shots here will be played safely left to the fat of the green.


Hole No. 18

Par 5, 575 yards

Let there be 3s and 7s here. All of the elements of good risk/reward are present, thanks to a creek that starts on the right of the drive landing zone, crosses the fairway, laps the left side of the second-shot landing area and crosses back again in front of the green. The fairway is wide enough to encourage bold play. Anyone approaching from more than 260 yards will have to decide whether to risk carrying the last creek crossing or lay up safely to 85 yards out. This will be a fun concluding hole to watch, especially Sunday as players worry not only about their finish in this event but also finishing among the top 30 in FedEx Cup points so they can move on next week to the Tour Championship at East Lake.

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