There are a few things we know for certain as professional golf returns to Jersey City this week for The Northern Trust.
The views at Liberty National Golf Club will be tremendous — the course sits less than a mile from the Statue of Liberty with Lower Manhattan as the backdrop for several holes.
The best players in the game will be there — including Brooks Koepka, Tiger Woods and the rest of the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings — for the first event of the the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs.
And, if history is any judge, the leaderboard will make for a memorable Sunday. The first two PGA Tour events played at Liberty featured big names trading blows down the stretch: Heath Slocum edged out Woods, Padraig Harrington, Ernie Els and Steve Stricker by one shot 2009; and Adam Scott got a one-shot win over Woods, Justin Rose and Gary Woodland in 2013.
So why do the best seem to excel at Liberty National? Here’s what some of the previous contenders at Liberty think.
What it takes
Liberty National is exposed to New York Harbor, which means frequent, unpredictable wind, putting a premium on good ball striking. Woodland, who won the U.S. Open this year at Pebble Beach, believes that getting off the tee is the key at Liberty.
“You’ve got to drive the ball in play,” said Woodland, who won this year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. “The greens are usually perfect and there’s some slope on them, so if you drive the ball into the fairway you can attack from the fairway, make sure you get the par fives and keep the ball in the fairway.”
Woodland likes his chances at Liberty National, because he plays and practices there frequently when he visits New York City. He also feels the course is similar to Pebble Beach in that he’ll have to throttle back off the tee because there are several short and/or tight par fours.
“I don’t hit a lot of drivers there,” Woodland said. “But when I do I think it’s a huge advantage. Similar, I guess, to Pebble from that standpoint where I hit a lot of irons off tees to get the ball in play and attack it from there.”
Scott, who shot a final round 66 to win in 2013 and played the Presidents Cup in 2017, believes his past experience will help him this week. It also helps that the course fits his eye because it reminds him of some of the resort-style layouts he played in Australia growing up.
“I guess it’s purely by chance that you go there and things look good to you,” Scott said. “I’ve always enjoyed playing there. … I feel pretty comfortable out there.”
And while Scott acknowledges it’s important to get the ball in play off the tee, he views Liberty National as a second-shot golf course.
“Probably hitting greens,” Scott said, when asked what it takes to play the course well. “Of course, there’s a lot of water and it’s obvious you’ve got to keep it out of the water, but I feel like it’s a little tricker around the greens than it really looks.”
A vast improvement
When Liberty National first hosted the tournament in 2009, the views and location looked impressive on television, but the course wasn’t winning any popularity contests among the players.
The first time Tiger Woods played Liberty, it took him less than nine holes to decide that Tom Kite and Bob Cupp had botched their design.
“Maybe Tom did this course before his eye operation,” Woods joked with one of his pro-am partners the day before the tournament. And he was hardly alone as players universally did not find the combination of small greens with severe slopes and narrow fairways lined with thick rough to be a fair test.
The owners of the course, which was built in 2006 over a former industrial wasteland at a cost of $250 million, took that criticism to heart. Liberty National underwent an extensive renovation in 2010, with 15 of the 18 holes changing significantly in an effort to improve its playability.
Greens were rebuilt, the rough was cut down, and when pros returned in 2013 for the start of the playoffs, and again in 2017 for the Presidents Cup, they found a course that was a better, fairer test of golf.
“I think it’s vastly improved,” said Rose. “We played it previously to that and no one really enjoyed the course and I think the tweaks and changes they made were well-received by everybody. I thought the course was a lot more playable, manageable — a lot more fun.”