Tournament Tough: Number-Crunching the New Poppy Hills
July 14, 2014
In the 10 years since the NCGA Amateur Stroke Play Championship had been restarted, every champion finished under par.
By the second round of this year’s championship at the newly renovated Poppy Hills, it was clear that the 11th edition wouldn’t be so kind.
“With the course playing so tough, it felt like a mini major, like a British Open,” said eventual champion Bobby Bucey, who finished at 6-over 219, four shots higher than the next toughest championship.
The rebooted Stroke Play has been played at Poppy Hills every year except 2013, when it moved to Bayonet during the renovation. Erick Justesen shot a 1-under 215 back in 2006, while Kevin Lucas set the championship record with an 11-under 205 in 2010. Ben Geyer also tied that 205 total at Bayonet last year. The average winning score at Poppy Hills during the previous nine championships was 5-under 211 — or eight strokes lower than this year.
It’s obvious that this new Poppy Hills is very different.
Three players broke par the first round of the championship: Skyler Finnell shot 2-under 69, while Junior Tour of Northern California players Brandon Wu and Cody Riecks both finished with 70s.
That was it for the championship.
Jeremy Sanchez shot what is being considered the new course record at Poppy Hills on Saturday, when he posted an even-par 71 from the tipped-out Jones Trail, which stretched out to its full 7,002 yards.
But even that “record” round featured some unbelievable golf. Sanchez began his round 5 over through the six five holes, going bogey-bogey-bogey-birdie-(double-bogey)-bogey out of the gates. Sanchez didn’t make his first par until the 11th hole, then made four in a row before a hole-in-one on the 223-yard 15th hole. Sanchez followed up his ace with a birdie on No. 16 to get back to even par for his round. He finished with just six pars, throwing in five birdies, five bogeys, an eagle, and a double-bogey.
The low for the final round, which featured a course 283 yards shorter than Saturday, was just a 72, shared by Sunny Yan and Ryan Knop. It took 3-over 74s from co-leaders Bucey and Wu to get into a playoff. Sanchez finished one back with a closing 75.
It would have only taken a par on the first playoff hole (No. 1) to win, but that turned out to be a big ask. The first hole was the toughest hole of the championship, as the par 4 played to a stroke average of 4.902. After bogeys tied the first playoff hole, Bucey won it with a birdie on No. 2 — just the fourth of the day. The par-3 second hole played as the second-toughest hole of the championship at 3.702.
So what did we learn about the new Poppy Hills after watching the best players take it on?
1. Poppy Hills is tough no matter what tees you play.
Even when the tees were moved up 327 yards the first day of the championship, the scoring average for 145 of the best amateurs in Northern California was 79.452. When the place was tipped out Saturday, that score swelled to 80.764. For the final round, which included the 44 players who made the cut, the scoring average was 77.409, although no one managed to even shoot par, let alone break it. The tees for the final round were set at 6,719 yards, or 44 yards longer than the first round (and 47 yards longer than 4 Poppies). The scoring average for all three days was 79.703.
2. Poppy Hills has one of the toughest opening five holes you’ll find.
Four of the six toughest holes are in the opening five holes. The numbers:
- No. 1 – 4.902 (1st)
- No. 2 – 3.703 (2nd)
- No. 3 – 4.608 (6th)
- No. 4 – 5.386 (14th)
- No. 5 – 4.667 (4th)
The first hole played as one of the four toughest holes each day, and to a stroke average of 5.133 in Round 1. For the championship, No. 1 surrendered the fewest birdies (6), fewest pars (111), most bogeys (126), most double-bogeys (44) and most others (19).
Poppy Hills was a rough greeting to players on Day 1, as No. 1 played the toughest, No. 2 played the second toughest, No. 3 played the third toughest and No. 5 played the fourth toughest.
When the tees were pushed all the way back Saturday, the 478-yard fifth hole played the second toughest at 4.843. Only the new 421-yard 12th, with four waltzing bunkers in play from 200 yards to 340 and out-of-bounds right, played tougher at 4.945.
3. Poppy Hills has some fun flexibility in its setup.
The first day of the championship, No. 12 was setup as a drivable par 4 at a downhill 351 yards. It played as just the eighth toughest hole at 4.489, yielding 11 birdies.
The 629-yard fourth hole was actually the fourth easiest Saturday, as the true three-shotter yielded 18 birdies and played to a stroke-average of 5.370. Only Nos. 9 (22) and 18 (34) allowed more birdies on Day 2. No. 4 played as a 572-yard par 5 the rest of the championship.
The par-3 second moved up 39 yards from 202 to 163 for the final round, although it still played as the second-toughest hole Sunday.
The par-4 fifth went from the second toughest to the 12th toughest when the tees were moved up 57 yards (478 to 421).
The par-3 sixth played very differently each of the three rounds: 175 yards (9th toughest), 185 (11th) and 141 (15th).
4. There are some eagles out there.
The par-5 ninth hole was the closest to playing to par for the week, finishing with a scoring average of 5.042. It also produced an exciting 13 eagles — including 10 the first day — and 61 birdies. The par-5 18th hole played the second easiest at 5.095, yielding more birdies (72) than any other hole. There were four eagles on No. 18 and three on the par-5 No. 10, which played as the third easiest hole. The par-5 fourth ranked No. 14 in difficulty (the only non-par 5 that played easier was No. 8), but did not yield an eagle. Holes than had more eagles included the par-3 15th (two aces) and Nos. 14 and 16 (par 4s with one each).
There were 34 birdies on No. 4 — one more than No. 8, and a total bested by No. 14 (41), No. 10 (44), No. 9 and No. 18.
5. The five par 3s more than hold their own out here.
No. 2 was the second toughest hole all week, never ranking out of the top five on any given day. No. 6 was the ninth toughest, and surrendered just eight birdies in three rounds — second only to No. 1’s six. The new No. 11 breaks into the rankings as the seventh toughest hole, and it gave up just three birdies in the first round, and 14 for the championship. No. 15 was the fifth toughest hole, and the second toughest on the back nine. While there were two aces recorded in the three days, there were also just 10 birdies. No. 17 was the 11th toughest, producing the most pars for the championship.
6. The difficulty of the par 4s has been juggled.
A ranking of the par 4s:
- No. 1 – 4.902 (1st)
- No. 3 – 4.608 (6th)
- No. 5 – 4.667 (4th)
- No. 7 – 4.513 (8th)
- No. 8 – 4.369 (15th)
- No. 12 – 4.690 (3rd)
- No. 13 – 4.454 (10th)
- No. 14 – 4.435 (13th)
- No. 16 – 4.444 (12th)
What stands out? The opening stretch at Poppy Hills is a brute, and it even extends to the underrated No. 7, which played as the toughest hole of Round 3, giving up just two birdies. Only No. 12 was stingier, allowing just one birdie. (No. 15 also allowed just one birdie.) No. 12 is a lot more fun played from 351 (Round 1 ranking 8th toughest) instead of 421 (Round 2: 1st; Round 3: 4th). And No. 16 isn’t as imposing as the No. 2 handicap once was — it played as the second easiest par 4 on Sunday.
Of course, not everything can be summed up by numbers. The course was playing firm and fast, and the greens were running at an 11 on the stimpmeter — plenty slick enough. The hole locations were spread out over three days, with some much more accessible than others. Throw in the unfamiliarity many players had with a course that requires significant local knowledge and an understanding of what kind of shots can and can’t be hit. (Flying a mid-iron to the middle of the green and watching it bound long or into the hazard on the first hole was no doubt an unwelcome way to meet the new Poppy Hills.)
The conditions were very similar to what the Champions Tour will encounter the last week of September. It will be fascinating to watch how the best players in the world (and their caddies) tackle the new Poppy Hills.