The front nine at Niagara Falls country club offers Porter Cup contestants the opportunity to ground themselves or to go low. If the swing isn’t where they want it to be, the first three holes offer a chance to ease into the round. If the action is firing perfectly, it’s not uncommon to be two or three under, heading into the difficult 4-5 corner. The opening nine, despite an absence of changing topography, provides a heave-ho of prospects: easy 3, difficult 2, easy 2, difficult 2. This preview of the outward half of the Niagara Falls country club should give you a sense of what the competitors face as they begin each round.
Straight hole, wide fairway. Could you ask for any more? Folks get into trouble when they shoot at corner pins, so the smart plays on one are fairway center, followed by green center. The putting surface slopes gently from back to front, but is not filled with internal contours. Any hole location is within 20 feet of green center, so why mess with either front bunker or the side/back fall-aways?
Some of the changes to the original NFCC course, made over the years, were suspect, but this one is not. A few years back, the chipping green and the #2 putting surface were swapped. Instead of a second, consecutive straight hole, the course offers a dogleg right with bunkers in the landing zone. A massive sea of sand guards the right fairway and rough, and a second bunker, smaller and hidden from the tee, waits beyond for those who carry the first one. Since this hole plays nearly 40 yards shorter than the opener, iron/hypbrid off the tee and short iron into green are all that are needed. The putting surface sits at an angle to the approach, and the smart play is to green center, from where all hole locations are accessible.
Now it’s time to loosen the belt and give the ball a ride. The third is one of three par-five holes on the course and plays downhill from tee to landing area. No bunkers or other hazards await in the drive zone, so all competitors launch a drive, in anticipation of an iron into the green. Most contestants will club down one, as sand left and right, accompanied by greenside fall-off areas, ensure a difficult up-and-down from anywhere but the fairway. The third green is the most challenging of the early holes, but it sees its fair share of made eagle and birdie putts. For viewing purposes, if you like red numbers, hang out here.
How can a hole that used to play as a four-iron, and now plays as a seven-iron, cause so much consternation for the best amateur golfers? This one does. It’s a straightforward par three, but that pinched green! Bunkers left and right and right again (in the back) wreak havoc with the field. Unlike the previous hole, there’s not much room to miss short, so it’s all or nothing here. Get it on the wee green and you have a legitimate birdie putt. Miss the putting surface and your recovery skills are put to the test.
There are three demanding, par-four holes on the front nine and number five is the first of the triumvirate. The hole run straight from tee to green, but has the feel of a slight dogleg. The fairway narrows in the drive zone, just past an enormous, right-side tree that gobbles up wayward tee shots. The putting surface is a marvelous creature, sighted slightly below fairway level. Surrounded by bunkers, it is enormous, but is not completely accessible for a run-up shot. Once aboard, the putt might break any of many ways. For an apparently-flat green, this one moves! Par here feels like quite an achievement and buoys the spirits for the next hole.
The second stretch of merciful holes begins here. Most golfers will have wedge left to this par four, meaning that the systems are set for a dialed-in approach. The lone fairway bunker is not in the Porter Cup drive zone. The green is not as large as others and not very undulating. Putts at birdie have an excellent chance here.
Another par three where there is no excuse to miss a run at birdie. Although the green is bisected by a large ridge, creating upper-right and lower-left segments, its sideways arrangement makes it very wide and very enticing. Bunkers short and long make the slightly-elevated green appear to be an oasis within the sand. The name of the game is distance control, and short irons from the tee should ensure this.
And here it gets real, at least for a time. 450 and 477-yard par four holes to close the outward nine. Not what one might call simple. Eight is pinched on the right by out of bounds and on the left by trees and rough. There are no fairway bunkers to preoccupy thoughts on the tee, but the angled fairway demands the proper line. The green is protected by three large bunkers and a fourth, smallish one. No one gets home with a bounce, so that mid-iron or hybrid needs to soar high and land soft. Par here affords no celebration, as number nine awaits.
The closing hole on the opening nine has a dogleg-right feel, but is essentially straight from tee to green. Close-at-hand, out of bounds up the right has a tendency to push tee shots left, toward the lone fairway bunker, rough and trees. Balls that reach the fairway from the markers have a choice: in the air or on the ground for the remainder of the journey. Two massive bunkers protect the right and left sides, while a smaller one sits to the rear of the putting surface. The safest miss is short, so underclubbing is common on the approach. A pitch or a putt up the fall line should nestle near the hole. The front nine has the potential to ruin rounds, unless the golfer sets a strategy and follows it with precision.