A few minor course changes and a return to the traditional September dates have made Hillcrest Country Club a much better test for competitors in the Albertsons Boise Open.
Andrew “Beef” Johnston leads this year’s event at 13-under through two rounds. Five other players are in double digits under par and the cut line was 3-under.
Last year, champion Martin Piller shot 18-under through two rounds (and 28-under total for the week). Twenty other players were at least 10-under through two rounds.
One reason the course has played more difficult this year, despite the strongest field in the event’s history, is that four holes were lengthened and a fifth received a new fairway bunker that’s forcing many players to lay up off the tee.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities out there to make it longer, but where there were opportunities, I think they’re great,” tournament director David Babcock said. “They really make a big difference.”
The tournament paid for the upgrades. This is the first year that the Boise Open is part of the Web.com Tour Finals.
“We sat down, all of us together, and thought what do we need to do to put a little more teeth into this,” Babcock said of organizers and the Web.com Tour.
▪ A new tee added 33 yards to the par-5 third hole, now 594 yards. “No. 3 used to be pretty much an auto birdie,” Tyler Aldridge of Nampa said. “Now it’s close to 600 yards, so it’s a much more demanding hole.”
▪ A new tee added 10 yards to the par-4 fifth hole, making the right fairway bunker more of a factor. “It makes that hole much more strategic,” Babcock said.
▪ A new tee tacked 14 yards onto the par-3 eighth hole, which played at more than 220 yards Friday with a back-right pin.
▪ A new tee added 13 yards to the par-4 ninth hole to bring the right fairway bunkers more into play.
▪ A new bunker on the right side of the par-4 12th hole makes it less likely that players will hit driver, effectively lengthening the hole. “Previously, you could bomb it and that bunker wasn’t even in your mind,” Babcock said.
The course also has benefited from the return to September. When the tournament was played in the July heat the past three years, course superintendent Joe Aholt had to walk a fine line between creating firm conditions and endangering the golf course.
In September, he can produce firm, fast surfaces and deep rough.
“In July, you can do it,” Aholt said. “You just might not have a golf course left when they leave. In September, you can push a little harder.”
The changes, which also included mounding along the right side of the par-4 11th hole, utilized nearly all of the remaining space on the property.
“I don’t think there’s anything more that can be done other than adding bunkers,” Aholt said.
Players have raved about this year’s setup.
“I quite enjoy playing this kind of golf,” said Brett Dewitt, who also played last year. “You’ve actually got to maneuver your ball around the course and put it in certain spots to get to certain pins.”
JOB SECURITY — AND THEN SOME
Mackenzie Hughes of Canada didn’t have a top-25 finish on the Web.com Tour until July and was in danger of losing his Web.com Tour card.
“I missed (six of seven) cuts and that was kind of my low point in my year,” he said . “I was in that limbo — am I going to go back to Q-School, am I going to get my card?”
Then he got hot and won the third-to-last event of the regular season. Suddenly, he went from outside Web.com Tour Finals to a spot on the PGA Tour for 2016-17.
And his hot streak continued Friday with a 7-under 64 that left him tied for fourth.
Hughes, a 25-year-old from Canada, still struggles to find the words to describe what his win meant to him.
“It was something I always thought I could do,” he said, “but I thought it was beyond my wildest dreams to win this year.”
Tyler Aldridge of Nampa made the cut at 4-under. ... Notables who missed the cut: Jason Gore (-2), Steve Wheatcroft (-2), Rory Sabbatini (-2), Bryson DeChambeau (-2), Wesley Bryan (-1), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (-1), Martin Piller (even) and Camilo Villegas (+1). ... Former Boise Open champion Luke Guthrie is tied for 14th at 7-under.
- Saturday: 9:09 a.m.; leaders tee off at 11:10 a.m.
- Sunday: 9 a.m.; leaders tee off at approximately 11:30 a.m. (awards ceremony after 4 p.m.)
- Purse: $1 million ($180,000 for winner)
- TV: The Golf Channel (1 to 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday)
- Tickets: $15 daily grounds (17 and younger free with ticketed adult)
- Parking: Free shuttle from the airport economy lot at Victory and Orchard.
- Free post-golf concert at the course: Lounge on Fire (Saturday).
Boise Open leaderboard
Miguel Angel Carballo
Five golfers tied at -7