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Dave played East Lake on Tuesday, November 1, 2011

East Lake Golf Club

The [Ten] Million Dollar Man*

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#1 - This relatively simple opening hole is guarded by a sloping green
#2 - A small target at this long par 3. The runoff area on the right will catch many a tee shot.
#3 - I really liked this short par 4. Lay back for a longer approach...
#3 - this well-bunkered and severely sloped green.
#4 - The bunkers on this difficult par 4 pinch you left on your tee shot.
#4 - But the green favors an approach from the right.
#5 - This three-shotter plays as a par 4 in the Tour Championship
#6 - A popular TV shot. The island sixth green with the clubhouse in the background.
#6 - Gives you an idea of how small the target looks from 213 yards...
#6 - A view from the mortal's tees.
#7 - The shortest hole on the course features an uphill approach shot
#7 - This runoff area to the right of the green can take you 10-15 feet below the putting surface.
#8 - There's plenty of room to miss on the right here, but it will leave you with a much longer and more difficult approach.
#8 - It doesn't look it from the fairway, but this green slopes severely from left to right.
#9 - If you can manage a long poke down the left side, you may catch a speed slot that can make this three-shotter reachable.
#9 - Another great view of the clubhouse. Second shots in to this par 5 will have to navigate through well-placed bunkers.
#10 - The opening hole of the back nine plays uphill the whole way.
#11 - This one-shotter enjoys a quaint setting in the corner of the property. Avoid the especially deep bunkers here.
#12 - Many a wedge and short iron have been played in to this short par 4. Watch your spin...
#13 - The field goal tee shot at the long and difficult par 4.
#13 - This green is one of the more difficult to hold on the course, especially with a long iron in your hand.
#14 - I really liked how this hole played. The firm conditions allowed me to land a pitching wedge short of the green and run it up perfectly.
#15 - A cut is preferable from the tee at this par 5. The fairway will feed right.
#15 - It's all uphill from here.
#16 - I think this is the most beautiful hole on the course. Atlanta can be seen in the distance.
#16 - The green pitches right and back to front. Up-and-downs from the left are quite difficult.
#17 - The walk...
#17 - To the tee...
#17 - At the 17th. Don't go left...
#17 - Extremely penal bunkering along the right side can be seen here.
#18 - Unfortunately the sun had already set, but it didn't stop us from finishing up our round.

*Adjusted for inflation.

Steve Austin: Astronaut.  A man barely alive.  "Gentlemen, we can rebuild him.  We have the technology.  We have the capability to make the world's first bionic man.  Steve Austin will be that man.  Better than he was before.  Better, Stronger, Faster."

In the 1970's TV show "The Six Million Dollar Man," Steve Austin is an astronaut who has lost an arm, an eye, and both his legs in a horrible accident.  Thankfully, the technology existed to rebuild him better than before.  Tom Cousins must have been a fan of "The Six Million Dollar Man," because he seems to have followed pretty much the same approach in rebuilding East Lake Golf Club and the surrounding community - and when it comes to the bionics, Rees Jones was his engineer. 

For those of you not familiar with the Atlanta area (or 1970's pop culture), let me rewind.  Way back in the first half of the 20th century, the golf course at East Lake was owned and operated under another name you may have heard: The Atlanta Athletic Club.  Before moving to what is now John's Creek in 1966, the AAC was stationed at East Lake, and was the home club of a young man who had a profound impact on the game of golf - Bobby Jones. 

After the AAC moved, the club was bought out and renamed East Lake Golf Club.  Soon after, a public housing project was built adjacent to the course, and the community around the club began to fall into disrepair.  Crime skyrocketed and home values plummeted.  It wasn't until 1995, when Tom Cousins founded the East Lake Foundation, that the area (and the golf course) began to turn the corner toward prosperity.  Very few individual memberships are given out at East Lake; only corporations can apply for membership.  The caveat to that is that the companies must donate roughly the equivalent of their entrance fee to the East Lake Foundation.  Because of this stipulation, $20 million has been raised for the East Lake community.  Decades of crime and squalor were finally being slowly erased, making way for education programs and championship golf. 

There are a lot of opinions about East Lake Golf Club in the golfing community.  Some think it is one of the best courses in the world.  Others hate it.  This New York Yankees love-em-or-hate-em attitude was kind of lost on me, though.  I didn't fall in love with East Lake.  I didn't hate it either.  I had a top-notch experience due in large part to my friendly and generous host, but I would have to say that the golf course fell slightly short of my very high expectations.  It's getting to the point these days that you can tell that you're on a PGA Tour golf course, and it's not because of what a shining example of design it is.  It's more because the course is extremely long, and plays very hard and fast.  East Lake is no exception.  As a matter of fact, it is the best example I've seen yet of a course that is set up for the pros.  Golf balls make a different sound when hitting the greens at East Lake - more akin to a rubber ball on hardwood than a golf ball on turf.  Playing a course like East Lake is a great experience and a lot of fun for a player like me who likes to hit different shots and test out the playing surfaces, but it's not the kind of place I would want to play every week. 

The clubhouse at East Lake is expansive and elegant, filled with memorabilia from bygone eras in golf; all with a fitting and distinct Bobby Jones theme.  The practice facilities aren't huge, but the driving range is interesting in the sense that you have to hit your range balls over about 80 yards of water.

Like I said, I didn't fall in love with East Lake.  I liked a lot of things about the course, but I felt as though it was (surprisingly) missing the x-factor that special places have.  There were very few things that stood out to me.  The bunkering was good, and in looking over the pictures again I would say they were very well placed in most cases.  But they didn't stand out to me when I was playing.  The shot quality is also very good, as you are urged to play different shot shapes in order to take full advantage of certain holes.  There were multiple spots where you were forced to stop and observe the beauty of your surroundings.  The greens were immaculate, complete with severe slopes in some cases and subtle breaks in others.  But these were all things that didn't really stand out.  They were great, and looking back on them, I realize that, but I didn't feel it when I was there. 

There were three things that really stood out to me at East Lake.  Firstly, the property out here is excellent.  It moves beautifully.  With the lake in the center, the rest of the land forms a kind of bowl around it.  The westward edge of this bowl runs through the front nine, splitting the eighth hole and giving the second, fifth, and ninth their major elevation change.  The front nine doesn't utilize this movement nearly as well as the back, however, which has a series of holes that run up and down the hill in succession.  The elevation change adds a very unique sisyphean feel to the inward nine, which I really loved and thought was the most interesting part of the golf course. 

The second standout is something I already touched on.  This place screams PGA Tour stop.  Whether this is good or bad is really up to you.  I enjoy it in the sense that as a good player, I can get a feel for the conditions under which the greatest players in the world compete.  On the other hand, the course is set up so difficult that there is not a lot of room for design features that can make golf courses great.  The greens were rock hard.  The margin for error in some places was wafer-thin.  There were multiple areas that you could tell were cleared for grandstands and patron foot traffic.  Some of the best views of the golf course were blocked by grandstands during the tournament, blinding patrons to the true beauty of the property. 

Lastly, and I only came to realize this after my host pointed it out, the final holes on this golf course are awesome for match play.  A lot has been made of the course ending with a par 3 - I wasn't sure how I felt about it myself - but after playing the course and watching the playoff at the Tour Championship, I am convinced of it: the last two holes make for some great down-to-the-wire golf.  And contrary to popular belief, you don't have to hit it in to the water next to the green on 17 to make it interesting...

East Lake has gone through hard times and has emerged not only back to its former self, but greater than anyone could have thought.  What was once a beaten down course in the middle of a bad neighborhood is now the annual host of the PGA Tour's final stop - a tournament with a small field but a whole lot of pressure and a whole lot of money.  Each year one man walks away from East Lake with $10 million.  I was more than happy to walk away with great memories of an excellent experience. 

Much like our hero astronaut Steve Austin, East Lake was a standout in its own right.  Then came the fateful day that changed it all.  There was an accident.  A downfall.  A man crippled by a fiery crash.  A club strangled by a community in disrepair.  The solution would come at a cost, no doubt, but it didn't matter if the cost was six, ten, or even twenty million dollars; what was really needed to emerge from these dire straits was the belief that it wasn't over.  The realization that it could be rebuilt.  The trust that one day, it would be better.  Stronger.  Faster. 


Special thanks to MP for the invite.  I admire your love of the game and knowledge of its history.  I look forward to our next round. 

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