Mike McKenna knows a thing or two about the Amata Spring Country Club, and is not surprised that a 14-year-old, slightly built, short-hitting Guan Tianlang managed to shock one of the most competitive fields in the history of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) when it was last hosted on the golf course in 2012.
The widely travelled 42-year-old started his career at Slaley Hall in England, and then had stints in Scotland, USA, New Zealand, Dubai, India, Bali and Vietnam before taking up his current responsibility as deputy general manager and head of agronomy at Amata Springs in 2017. To say that he knows every nook and cranny of the golf course better than the back of his hand, won’t be an exaggeration.
“I am not surprised that Tianlang won that week. It’s a big golf course, but if you look at the history of champions here, like Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, a couple of things stand out – you’ve got to be a very good iron player. And you’ve got to have a very strong short game because we have paspalum grass on the greens and it needs getting used to,” said McKenna.
“I have seen a lot of videos of the 2012 AAC, and there is no doubt that what Tianlang lacked in distance, he made up for it with his exceptional short game that week.”
McKenna feels that there are five key holes on the golf course that need to be handled carefully by the players if they want to follow in the footsteps of 2021 champion Keita Nakajima.
Hole No4, 459 yards, Par-4
The fourth is one of the most difficult holes on the golf course. You’ve got a really thin green, and it’s early in the round. You’ve got water in front and a big bunker on the right-hand side of the fairway. If you hit it in the bunker, you’ve got to go over the water, which is an intimidating second shot. But even if you get it on the fairway, you’re going to have about a 200-yard second to a very narrow and undulating green. If you miss it right or left, it is a difficult up and down. If you are starting from the first, and get through the fourth at even-par, it’s going to set you up for the rest of the round.
Mike’s mantra for 4th: A big key is to avoid the fairway bunker. A 200-yard shot from the fairway is much better than an even longer shot from the bunker to a narrow green.
Hole No9, 464 yards, Par-4
The ninth has the lake on the left-hand side and bunkers on the right. The tee shot is critical, and a lot of people will push it out to the right-hand side, thinking of playing it safe. But right is a bad place to be and you can easily make a bogey or double from there. There are two bunkers on the right-hand side, and if you go further right, you will be having a severely sloping lie in the rough. You will have to go for the green that’s a little bit higher than where you are. Almost over half the green slopes back down the fairway. So, if you land on the green, and you’re short, chances are that it’s going to go back 30-40 yards. And then you’re left with another difficult chip shot. Getting in position is key.
Mike’s mantra for 9th: A lot of people who play here, don’t realize that because of the elevation, it’s an extra half club for your second, otherwise the ball will stay short and roll all the way back.
Hole No14, 496 yards, Par-4
Depending on where they put the tee box on the 14th, it’s going to be somewhere around about 180 to 200 yards for your second shot. On the right is a huge bunker that swallows up a lot of errant approach shots. But on the left-hand side, there is this huge slope and swale that takes you away. And if you go down there, you can pick up some big numbers because the ball is going to roll all the way down the bottom and then you’ve got to kind of flick it up towards another thin green. The has been lengthened considerably after Bubba Watson bombed his drives in 2013 and hit sand wedges for his second. They are now affectionately referred to as ‘Bubba Tees’.
Mike’s mantra for 14th: Stay away from the swale on the left. The 14th is all about the tee shot, a nice little draw would be great.
Hole No17, 152 yards, Par-3
There are only two true floating island greens in the world. One is the 14th hole at the Coeur D’Alene Resort in Utah, and we have the second one here at Amata Spring this week. It plays just 150 yards, but it has plenty of crosswind and the green is thin in the front. It’s a birdie hole, but a lot of people get intimidated just looking at it as they play the 16th hole. It’s a bit like the 12th hole of Augusta National. It’s short, but it starts playing on your mind as soon as you start walking towards the 11th green. A lot of players come up short on the 17th, but it is a birdie hole. However, come Sunday, with the title on the line, it can be frightening.
Mike’s mantra for 17th: Not much advice to give here other than avoid the water!
Hole No18, 477 yards, Par-4
The 18th at Amata Springs is a great finishing hole. The prevailing wind is going to be into the face and the bunker is going to be in play on the right-hand side. Of course, there is water all along the left. The tee shot is going to be key. It’s an intimidating tee shot with the water and the bunker, and even if you get it in the fairway, you’ve got nearly 200 yards for your second and there is water all the way to the left. If they put up a pin on the left-hand side, you need to clear 200 yards over water. If you do go into the lake, you might still have a nerve-racking 60-yard fourth shot over the water again.
Mike’s mantra for 18th: Chances are, like 2012 champion Guan Tianlang, many players would miss the green, which has subtle tiers to it. Reaching the right tier with your approach, and keeping the ball below the hole, is crucial.