JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Nathan Smith is playing in his 14th U.S. Amateur, so he knows a little bit about stroke-play qualifying venues.
Two of the strongest courses we have played since I have been playing in Amateurs, said Smith, 36, in reference to Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands and Riverside courses, which are hosting the U.S. Amateur’s 312-player, 36-hole stroke play qualifier.
On Wednesday, the 114th championship’s match-play rounds move exclusively to the higher-profile Highlands Course, but the Riverside Course has certainly been worthy of the players’ praise.
When pressed to name a possible equal to AAC’s tandem, Smith paused before simply saying, I don’t think I can.
In Monday’s opening round, Smith shot an even-par 72 on a 7,437-yard Riverside Course that gained his respect.
It’s difficult and in spectacular shape, Smith said. It’s one of those courses that would never play the same every day you played it because there are so many different options with pins. The rough is tough, but playable. You have to drive the ball well. It has everything.
The Riverside Course was originally designed by Robert Trent Jones in 1964, and hosted the 1990 U.S. Women’s Open, won by Betsy King. Six years later, conversations about upgrading the course began, and the discussion quickly mushroomed beyond just revamping the greens.
In 2002, Jones’ son, Rees, oversaw a complete redesign. Holes 13 through 15 were reversed to bring the Chattahoochee River more into play, and four new holes were created.
Meanwhile, Ken Mangum, AAC’s director of golf courses and grounds for nearly 26 years, sought to upgrade to the latest and best turfgrass. Zeon zoysia fairways and Tifton 10 rough were installed, and in 2013 the greens were switched to ultradwarf bermudagrass to bring the course in line with the Highlands Course.
By the time we were finished, the Riverside Course was better than the Highlands, which was our championship course, so we needed to upgrade the Highlands, Mangum said. We were keeping up with the Joneses with our own courses.
Prior to 2003, Mangum said 10 percent of the guest play was on the Riverside Course. After the reopening, that figure increased to 60 percent.
I think [the Riverside Course] is probably the best alternate course I've played in the few years I've played in this, said Scottie Scheffler, the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur champion. It's fair and they put in some tough pins, so it wasn't really playing as easy as I thought it would. But that's just the way it was.
From a statistical standpoint, on Monday the par-72 Riverside Course played to a stroke average of 2.91 over par. The par-71 Highlands Course stroke average was 3.61 over par.
When the best players in golf are engaged, they play better golf, I believe, said Rees Jones. When you think a course is easy, you tend to lose a little focus. I think the Riverside Course – both actually – are formidable tests, but also offer a lot of flexibility.
The Riverside is the more member-friendly of the two courses. It’s a bit more open off the tee, the greens have more level putting plateaus and the bunkers are shallower.
Bo Andrews played collegiately at Georgia Tech and became a club member earlier this summer. In preparation for this week, he said he played the Riverside Course three times mainly to get a feel for lines off the tee.
[Former teammate Ollie Schniederjans] and I were talking about how they should have the U.S. Amateur here every year, this place is literally that good, he said. The Highlands is unbelievable and the Riverside is way up there.
Possibly as good as a companion course can get.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.