Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 7, 2015

Fowler Overtakes Stenson As TPC Boston Bites Back

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be traveling to the Bronx later this week for the final time this (regular) season.  Thursday’s scheduled post may be delayed.

TPC Boston sprawls over a vast acreage in Norton, Massachusetts, forty minutes south of the city from which the course draws its name. It is one of the nearly three dozen Tournament Players Clubs, a chain of courses operated by the PGA Tour that are equally divided between resort or daily fee links and high-end private clubs. The Boston layout is in the latter category, with a 34,000 square foot clubhouse that Golf Magazine named the #1 new private clubhouse in the country when it opened a dozen years ago.

But like all TPC courses, the New England links was built for the express purpose of hosting events for the PGA Tour or its ancillary developmental and Champions senior tours. So every year over Labor Day weekend the gates swing open and thousands of golf fans from all around the region walk the grounds during the Deutsche Bank Championship, the second of the Tour’s four FedEx Cup playoff tournaments.

Those fans get plenty of exercise, especially on the front nine, which meanders through the countryside with long hikes between the 3rd and 4th holes, and again between the 7th and 8th. The back nine is more compact, with the 12th through 15th, four consecutive par-4s, running parallel to each other. But the constant intent of the course’s design is to provide fans with a multitude of good viewing opportunities. The Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, home to the Players Championship may be the archetype of the TPC concept, but all the layouts in the chain are designed with spectators in mind.

The green at the short par-4 4th draws plenty of fans, each waiting to see if their own favorite will have the power to put his tee shot on the putting surface. The 5th and 7th greens as well as the 6th tee sit in close proximity to one another, and the added bonus of a full-service concession stand make the junction a popular stopping point. On the back nine the par-3 11th plays sharply uphill to a green set in a natural amphitheater which is packed with spectators throughout the tournament. The 14th hole, the longest par-4 on the course, is laid out in opposite fashion. There fans gather behind the green to watch their heroes’ tee shots bound over the top of the distant hill, followed shortly by the golfers themselves, ready to launch their 7 and 8 iron approaches down the slope to the waiting putting surface.

For PGA Tour professionals TPC Boston is by no means the sternest test on their annual calendar. In the rather short history of the tournament the winning score has been 20-under or lower five times, and the highest finishing total relative to par was the 14-under triumph of Olin Browne in 2005.

Much of that is by design. The course is long, even by today’s Tour standards, but the fairways are generous. The original Arnold Palmer design was extensively reworked by Gil Hanse and Brad Faxon in 2007, but consistent from day one has been a trio of finishing holes that are relatively easy. The 16th is the shortest par-3 on the golf course, playing 187 at most. The 17th is a short par-4 dogleg left, inviting players to put an iron in the middle of the fairway to produce a downhill wedge or 9 iron to the green. And the 18th is a dogleg right par-5, reachable in two by most of the field assuming they put their tee shot in the fairway.

Yet each of those holes has its own challenges. The green on the par-3 is fronted by a water hazard that wraps around the left side of the putting surface. Trees, rocks, and gnarly rough guard the left side of the penultimate hole, a danger to any golfer bold enough to attempt to cut the dogleg. The tee shot at the last must avoid several deep fairway bunkers. And after numerous reconfigurations, the final hole’s green complex now offers a smaller and significantly raised target. Those who go for the green in two and find the putting surface have a legitimate shot at shaving two strokes from par. But an errant approach shot winds up in either a bunker short or a deep swale long, from either of which par is no longer guaranteed.

The idea behind that closing trio is to provide the opportunity for sudden swings at the end of each round. Fans got a taste of that on Sunday as the third day of play drew to a close. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who won the Deutsche Bank two years ago, charged up the leaderboard with a 6-under 65, capped by a mid-iron to the final green from 217 yards that settled on the left side of the putting surface, setting up a 2-putt birdie that secured the 54 hole lead. Two groups later Rickie Fowler’s approach hooked wide left, and his chip from deep rough ran through the green and into the fronting bunker. Fowler did well to escape with a par, and while his third round 67 was one of the day’s better efforts, the errant approach shot meant that he left the 18th green one behind Stenson heading into Monday’s final round.

Twenty-three hours later the margin was still one shot as Fowler and Stenson stood under a broiling Labor Day sun on the 16th tee, the beginning of TPC Boston’s closing stretch. Twice during the final round Stenson pushed his lead to three strokes. The first time came when Fowler appeared to claim the advantage at the 5th hole with a short iron approach to six feet. But the leader rolled in his seventeen foot birdie putt and Fowler’s effort to match was tentative, curling beneath the cup. After Fowler rode the wave of the huge crowd following the final pairing that was heavily in the American’s corner with a birdie at the 7th, Stenson again widened the gap with a fourteen foot birdie putt to begin the final nine.

This time the margin lasted only until the next hole. Stenson’s tee shot up the hill at the 11th missed the green to the right, while Fowler’s settled twelve feet past the flag, to the delight of the throng packed into the spectator bowl. When the leader was unable to get up and down for par and the pursuer rolled in his birdie try, the lead was back to one. The two then traded forty-foot birdie putts on the way home, Stenson converting at the 12th and Fowler answering at the 14th.

Off of that birdie Fowler had the honor at the tournament’s final par-3. His shot to the back left pin flew straight toward the flag, stopping twelve feet from the cup. Then Stenson learned to his great regret that what TPC Boston’s finish can give on one day it can take back on the next. His 7-iron into a freshening wind ballooned a bit. With the pin on the back left of the green, the leader’s tee shot was short and right. It barely cleared the hazard before bouncing back into the water. The result was a double bogey that allowed Fowler to claim the lead without even making his birdie putt.

There were two more holes of parry and thrust; and the outcome wasn’t certain until Stenson’s chip for eagle at the last just missed the cup as it raced by, and his subsequent birdie putt failed to fall. Finally, as the sun over New England settled on the far horizon, Rickie Fowler had a FedEx Cup playoff series title to bookend his Players Championship win last May, and Henrik Stenson had a new appreciation for both the tenderness and the teeth of TPC Boston.

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