Fanling fighting back after last year's humiliation
One year ago Fanling was defenceless. Whether it was the lift, clean and place rule in effect or just generally benign conditions, the course was abused in ways it had never seen in its 122 years. Ian Poulter won the championship with a record 22 under par, but just barely. Simon Dyson and Matteo Manassero both finished at 21 under, with Anthony Kang coming in at 20 under. Poulter had one round of 60, while Kang had a 61 and 84 players shot under par with the cut line at two under. Ouch.
Of course, give any pro these days an opportunity to lift, clean and place his ball for four days and they will slay most courses. But softer greens and gentler rough also contributed. This year was payback. Yesterday, 'moving day' came and went with the slightest of motions. Co-leader Rory McIlroy started the day at seven under par and finished it there. Paying partner Alvaro Quiros managed to shoot three under to take a one-shot lead over Peter Hanson, who was the low man for the day with a 65, while Gregory Havret shot a 65. And that was it for 'moving day'.
'The reason the course has played tough is because the greens are very firm and they are fast,' Poulter said. 'We have winds that have kept the score down but today was still scoreable.' After three rounds last year, Poulter was 18 under. This year he is four under. 'I've never seen this course play as tough as this,' McIlroy said, while Quiros hopes it plays tougher today to better keep his pursuers at bay.
At 6,700 yards, Fanling hardly intimidates with length. 'But the course is very penal right now. You have to manage your game and that really is the essence of golf,' says Hong Kong national team coach Brad Schadewitz, who was also on the bag for Shinichi Mizuno this week. 'All the top players I have spoken with like it because they know they can't just knock it around here, you have to make good shots. You can't fake it, the course won't let you. These are easily the best bunkers and greens all year and the Fanling people should be proud of this course. In 17 years, this is the best I have ever seen it.'
Although he would never admit it, the rash of higher scores has to bring a smile to the face of course manager Randy Witt. A native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they have a pretty famous NFL team, Witt came to Fanling six years ago from the Bull at Pinehurst Falls in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a Jack Nicklaus signature course. Apparently a couple of senior golfers on the European Tour played a practice round before last year's tournament and found the fairways uneven, hence the lift, clean and place rule, despite the dry conditions. Witt is far too diplomatic to get into the specifics of last year's ruling from the European Tour but admits it made some folks around here a bit unhappy.
'I guess we all take a real sense of pride in the product we put out here,' he said. 'To myself and my staff - and I am sure probably to a lot of the club members - it wasn't really a favourable thing.
'But I have learned in this business there are a lot of highs and a lot of lows and at the end of the day you kind of go home to your family because there are things we can't control and foremost among them is mother nature. If they wanted to play lift, clean and place, then OK.'
He also admits, as a course manager preparing a track for a professional tournament, he has fairly simple criteria. 'I look at it as playing conditions and playability,' he said. 'I don't get into numbers they will shoot because nowadays with the type of pros you have out there, and the depth of the fields, these guys can get hot for four days and they can tear apart any type of golf course.' Still, having four guys finish better than 20 under at least year's tournament was something of a wake-up call.
'We made more of a conscious effort after last year's 22 under to make it a bit more challenging, and we have never had rough like this before, nor have we had the firm, hard, fast conditions,' he said. 'We have had fast greens before, but never to this extent.'
He credits the unexpected rains in October for helping to grow out the rough, as well as the fact that course maintenance is a constant and not just something you try to peak for one week a year. 'What leads us to have a good course is that we try to provide our membership with the best conditions every day, tournament-like conditions,' Witt said.
'Some of the changes you see out here are not much different from what the members have seen.' And what everybody else is seeing this week is a grand old course fighting back, for now at least.