Starting On The Back Nine

Starting On The Back Nine golf ball on green and blue field.

Starting On The Back Nine

I always get a something-is-not-quite-right feeling when I show up at one of my favorite local courses and the pro says “back nine start today.”

Nothing has changed. It is not as though I have been asked to play the course backwards (although I have played my home course — Washtenaw GC — backwards). They haven’t moved the tee boxes or added new bunkers.

And yet, something is ever so slightly off.

On my regular courses, holes unfold in a familiar rhythm. At Washtenaw, there’s a short par four as a warm-up, followed by a very long four, and then a five I can easily reach in regulation. Green Oaks has a long opening four, followed by a five, then a break with a par three and two shortish fours. The University of Michigan has its flat opening five which serves as a warmup for the strenuous up and down holes that follow.

I drive into the parking lots of these courses with an expectation of how my round will unfold. Until the pro says “start on the back nine.”

Reverse the nines at Green Oaks, and you start with a hybrid off the tee on a right angle par 4, a par three and a tight par four over water. At Michigan, you’d start with a brutal uphill par four.

I don’t think there’s anything objectively wrong with those back nine starts. They’re just not what I mentally prepared for; it sometimes takes a couple of holes to lose that slightly off-balance feeling.

Interestingly, at Washtenaw, a back nine start means that the course is being played as originally routed.

Associated Press report, Nov. 6, 1926

The article above, which was written in 1926, describes Washtenaw Country Club as it was being prepared for the 1927 Michigan Amateur.

In the final paragraph, it describes water before the first and fourth tees, and behind the third green.

That perfectly fits the current tenth and thirteenth tees, where Paint Creek runs just in front. The creek also runs just behind the twelfth green. The current eighteenth — referred to as the ninth in the article — has a carry over water to the green from a commanding hilltop.

Meanwhile, the current seven does indeed have water that guards its putting green.

Curiously, the article mentions water that threatens a topped shot from ten — the current first hole. As the course currently stands, to reach water, a shot would not only need to be topped but somehow shanked left.

What I think likely is that in 1926, Paint Creek ran through the current driving range and in front of the tees for the current first hole. At some point, to reclaim the land, the creek was forced into its current culvert, diving under ground to the right of the ninth hole and re-emerging to the left of the first.

In the end, it is all a matter of expectations. Obviously, the original routing at Washtenaw was good enough for a state championship. If Michigan started on ten, people would say “it is good to get to get a tough hole behind you.” If the back nine at Green Oaks was the norm, golfers would be appreciative of the opportunity to start with some shorter clubs before pulling out the driver.

I know all this, and yet I still get that feeling. My golf game doesn’t just need a pro to fix my chicken wing. It needs a psychotherapist to fix my neuroses.

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