Copperhead Course turns evil when PGA Tour comes to town

The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is hosting a PGA Tour event for the 11th time. Vijay Singh holds the tournament record at 18-under 266.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club is hosting a PGA Tour event for the 11th time. Vijay Singh holds the tournament record at 18-under 266.

Not designed for your league

The Copperhead Course at Innisbrook will play differently this week than during the rest of the year. The course is designed to give amateurs a 25- to 30-yard landing area about 280 yards from the tee box on par 4s and 5s. Professionals are aiming 300 to 320 yards down the fairway, where it tapers to about 18 to 22 yards wide.

Range for amateurs: 25- to 30-yard landing area about 280 yards from the tee box on the par 4s and 5s.

Range for professionals: 300 to 320 yards down the fairway, 18 to 22 yards wide.

PALM HARBOR — The transformation is almost complete.

Innisbrook's Copperhead Course, home of this week's Transitions Championship, is just about changed from "resort course Copperhead" to its evil twin, "championship course Copperhead."

Think you've played the Copperhead? You haven't played it like this. Think you can relate to what the pros are going through this week because you've faced the same shots? You cannot.

This Copperhead course shows its fiercest face only one week a year. Some of the best players in the world are going to play it, so it has to be at its peak. The rest of the time it goes from being nasty to just difficult.

That's the way it has to be.

"If it was like this year round, nobody would want to play it," said Innisbrook's director of agronomy (fancy name for course superintendent), Keith Einwag. "It would be way too hard."

The only way to truly experience the Copperhead is to either earn a PGA Tour card or play in the Wednesday pro-am.

"You get to play the course, but you never really get to play it at the competition level," Einwag said. "Our club championship, if you play that week, you'll get close to the brutal rough, you'll get close to the green speeds, but we won't stop watering the greens because we still have three weeks until the (PGA) tournament.

"You really want to play the competition golf course, pay the $5,000 or whatever it is and play in the pro-am."

Here's how the course turns evil:

From tee …

A week before the tournament, the PGA sends a rules official and agronomist to check out the course. They ride the course and look for potential problems.

"There's a lot more to it than you think," PGA competition agronomist Harry Schuemann said.

It starts from the tee boxes. Pros play from the tips, and this week the course plays at just more than 7,300 yards. It normally plays from 6,100 to 6,700 yards.

The only way the pros won't play from the tips is on the par 3s, where wind might make a hole too hard even for them.

"You don't want them hitting a hybrid from over 200 yards out and trying to land it on these greens," Einwag said.

Another difference is the size of the landing area on par 4s and 5s. The average golfer is looking at a spot from 250 to 280 yards down the fairway. From the tee, that spot is generally wide.

Professionals are looking at an area that's 300 to 320 yards away, which is where the landing area tapers to about 18 to 20 yards. That's also where sand traps and deep rough linger in case of a slightly errant shot.

"The typical landing area for the pros is about 18-22 yards wide," Einwag said. "For the guests, their landing area is much wider, about 25-30 yards. The pros are looking at a different part of the fairway than the average golfer. That's why the fairways kind of taper in at certain points. It's a risk/reward."

To fairway …

Here's some advice from Einwag, who has been the head agronomist at Innisbrook for 10 years.

"Hit the fairway and don't worry about it," he said.

From the tee box, or behind the ropes, the intermediate and main cuts of rough look benign. That is an optical illusion. For the Transitions tournament, the intermediate rough will top out at about an inch and a half, but the main rough will start at 3 1/2 inches.

"By Sunday, it will be about 4 1/2," Einwag said.

That qualifies as U.S. Open-style rough. When balls land in Bermuda rough that thick, it's hard to advance. During regular resort play, the main rough tops out at an inch and a half.

Einwag said his crew, which numbers about 65 to 70 before and during tournament week, will cut the rough just before the tournament then leave it alone.

"Every day we mow tees, fairways and greens," he said. "We mow the rough about once per week."

Sand traps don't change during tournament week. It's not like they can be easily moved around the course. So if you've ever hit out of a Copperhead sand trap, you've hit out of the same traps the pros have.

The greens, however …

… Are brutal

This is where Copperhead makes a big change. The TifEagle Bermuda grass gets cut to an eighth of an inch. Watering the greens becomes a science. Water them too much and they become too slow. Water them too little and they might brown out.

"Grass is like a sponge," Einwag said. "When it's full of water, the blades are wide open, which causes more resistance to the ball. When you dry it out, the greens get firmer and faster."

This is where the Stimpmeter comes into play. It's basically a 3-foot ruler with a groove on one side. A ball is placed in the groove, and the Stimpmeter is raised until the ball goes down the groove and starts rolling on the green.

Usually, a flat spot on the green is used to judge the ball speed. After three or four tests from slightly different spots, an average is used to find the green speed.

An average green is about 10 on the Stimpmeter. That means a ball will roll about 10 feet. During tournament week, Einwag wants to keep the greens at 11.6 (meaning the ball will roll 11 feet, 6 inches) on the Stimpmeter.

"That's about right for us," he said. "A 12 here would kill them. There's so much slope here that it's too fast."

Schuemann uses Stimpmeters, moisture meters and firm meters to scientifically gauge the greens. If there's one consistent complaint from the players, it's about the greens.

"A golf course has 18 different personalities," Schuemann said. "You have to treat each hole differently. It's really difficult. The key is consistency. Our goal is to be as consistent as we can starting on Tuesday through Sunday. Players want to play the same greens on Sunday that they did on Tuesday."

Play was to be open on Copperhead through today. It shuts down to resort play for only one week. The pins are in totally different places than they will be for the tournament.

And the greens are inching up to tournament speeds.

"Right now we have to look out for resort guests," Schuemann said. "They don't want to play these conditions because they'll never get off the golf course. No. 14 is so dried out right now that there's no way resort guests can hold those greens. It's too quick. But we're doing it for the tournament."

Work, work, work

Einwag lives in Land O'Lakes, but during the tournament, he gets a room on site. He gets to the course by 4:30 a.m. and usually works on it until about 10 a.m. There will be crews on the course until midnight, mowing and watering greens.

On the Monday after the tournament, Einwag goes on vacation.

"After a week like this, I need it," he said.

.Fast facts

Transitions Championship

What: A 72-hole PGA Tour event

When/where: Thursday-Sunday; Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, Copperhead Course, Palm Harbor

Par/yards: 71; 7,340

Field: 144 players

Purse: $5,500,000 (winner's share is $990,000)

Fed Ex Cup points: 500

Defending champ: Jim Furyk

Schedule: Monday — Shelton Quarles celebrity pro-am, 12:30 p.m. shotgun start. Tuesday — Professional practice rounds. Wednesday — Pro-am. Thursday-Friday — first and second rounds, morning and afternoon tee times. Saturday-Sunday — third and fourth rounds.

Tickets: Available at Publix, www.transitionschampionship.com or (727) 942-5566. Cost is $30 per day (Thursday-Sunday) in advance, $40 at the gate and $89 for a weekly badge. Those 17 and younger and military personnel are free all week.

TV: Thursday-Friday, 3-6 p.m., Golf Channel; Saturday-Sunday, 1-3 p.m., Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m., Ch. 8.

Notes: Monday's qualifier will be at Innisbrook's Island Course. … The field has two players in the top 10 of the official world rankings, Martin Kaymer (No. 1) and Paul Casey (No. 7). … Every past champion is in the field except 2000 winner John Huston. … Boo Weekley pulled out of the tournament with an injury. Geoff Ogilvy (No. 27 in the world), John Rollins and Ben Curtis were late additions.

Copperhead Course turns evil when PGA Tour comes to town 03/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 12, 2011 7:21pm]

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