OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Tom Fazio had himself a picnic of sorts one afternoon at Caves Valley Golf Club, the tucked-away pinnacle of Maryland golf built in a bucolic, erstwhile Thoreauvian setting.
Already working on constructing an all-new opening hole at the club he originally designed and which opened in 1991, Fazio spent the day on the par-4 11th, watching member after member play the hole. It was exacting. The hole worked hard to the right, with an ideal drive challenging sentinel-like trees at the semi-dogleg. The reward for the great drive? A shorter uphill shot into the hard-to-hit green...from a difficult sidehill lie which promoted a draw.
As the story goes, Fazio saw but a handful of players hit the green all day. He saw all he needed to know: The 11th hole had to get blown up, too.
So, that's what he set out to do, transforming the 11th hole from a 463-yard par 4 without mercy into reachable par 5 that will prove an exciting part of the start to July's Constellation Seniors Players Championship.
Caves Valley will host big-time golf yet again, following on the NCAA Championships, the 2002 U.S. Senior Open and the 2014 International Crown on the LPGA. The club is the latest in a line of brilliant hosts for this PGA Tour Champions major, following in the footsteps of Pittsburgh's Fox Chapel, Belmont Country Club in Massachusetts, Philadelphia's eponymous Cricket Club, and preceding a trip next year to Exmoor in the Chicagoland area, which will serve as 2018 host.
These host courses happen to land in the geographic footprint of Constellation, which, as a subsidiary of Exelon, is one of the nation's largest providers and sellers of energy. While Constellation doesn't decide the tracks, PGA Tour Champions has worked hard to find compelling, top-tier hosts for the Senior Players. Constellation vice-president Andrew Singer said the only one of the company's major geographic footprints that haven't played host yet is the Houston area. Maybe bump up the date and head to the Tiger Woods-designed Bluejack National?
But I digress. Caves Valley is in the spotlight for the next six weeks as club member Bernhard Langer goes for a fourth-consecutive Senior Players title and potentially a fourth 50-plus major this year -- that is, if he wins the U.S. Senior Open two weeks prior to the week at the Baltimore-area club, July 13-16.
The 11th hole is much better as a par 5. It follows the drivable -- at least, in concept -- par 4 10th, which will play as the opener for the championship with the nines flipped. The par 5 fairway still is set to the left but offers some fair-but-funky lies in the drive zone. If you're going to get to the green, you'll need to negotiate something other than a flat piece of turf. Better still, the second shot commands a draw into the green, making the player hit two different shot types to get home. The green slopes back to front, with some subdued tiering. A deep bunker front left is better than the foot-high fescue growing on the sidehill just left of the green and fairway. The bunkering to the right is a reasonable bail out for a second shot.
What follows from the 11th -- the temporary second -- is a downhill par 3 which invites backspin off the slope of the green into a potential ace. After that, a dogleg-left par 5 continues the scoring barrage. A downhill short par 4 is next. The first five holes of the tournament could conceivably be played in 7 under par. That won't happen, but the carrot of extraordinary scoring is a brilliant touch.
Flip to the back side -- the member's front -- and the 10th hole is a substantial improvement over the original first hole, which, frankly, was dull. It's still a downhill tee shot, but the hole is now better framed by bunkering on both sides while offering plenty of room to land the ball. The uphill second shot is somewhat blind, but there's a backstop on the left half of the green to go at hole locations on that side. With the hole on the right side, an ideal fade would get back to the hole nicely.
Caves Valley is imminently scorable. It's fair off the tee, playing to fairly wide swaths of short grass as the holes narrow somewhat toward the green. Great approaches are rewarded, while lousy shots aren't summarily punished. Don't take playability for granted, however, as there's plenty of room to flail about -- particularly in deep, often penal bunkers that leave the player crummy odds of getting up-and-down. In that sense, Fazio makes the problems at Caves very clear: Stay out of the white stuff.
The Constellation Senior Players has been under-the-radar brilliant for a handful of years now, and its road-show nature is bringing into view some of the nation's great clubs that simply can't host the PGA Tour. Caves Valley will prove a delightful host, and then it'll return to its mission of transforming the Baltimore community by connecting the area's most successful in business with golf in an incredible setting -- one that's still getting better.