2018 PGA Championship: ‘Big and brawny’ Bellerive awaits major hopefuls


The PGA Championship begins at Bellerive Country Club Thursday in St. Louis. It’s the first time since 1992 this major was held at this venue. Nick Price won the first of his three major championships.

Bellerive is a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that opened in 1960 and was known as the “Green Monster of Ladue.” That nickname offers some insight into Jones’ design work.

In 1965, Bellerive became the youngest course to host a U.S. Open. In subsequent years, it also hosted the U.S. Senior Open and Senior PGA Championship.

We asked some members of Golfweek’s course-ratings panel to share their thoughts on Bellerive. Those raters include James R. Hansen, professor emeritus of history at Auburn and author of the 2014 biography “A Difficult Par: Robert Trent Jones Sr. and the Making of Modern Golf.”

What the Golfweek Raters have to say:

James R. Hansen, Auburn, Ala.: Robert Trent Jones Sr. considered Bellerive to be one of his best layouts and, although it’s not my favorite Trent Jones course, it is certainly in my top five. He was especially pleased with his routing of the course, taking advantage of a beautiful winding creek and adding two ponds, bringing water into play on 11 holes. From the start it was a very demanding layout – it opened in 1960 with six par 4s longer than 450 yards and par 5s measuring 580 and 606 yards, with a total yardage of 7,200 on a par of 70 – that required both power and strategy.

Peter Clement, Chattanooga, Tenn.: It’s a big golf course right from the start. Long and difficult are the two words I would use to describe Bellerive.

Gordon Lawson, Warrenton, Va.: Bellerive is a great championship test and feels like it was built to host a major. There is an aura of grandeur with the large tee boxes, wide fairways and contoured greens.

Randy Seiner, Leawood, Kan.: Bellerive intrigues me from the standpoint it not only hosted the 1965 U.S. Open only five years after it opened, but so many other major championships at the professional and amateur level. Yet … Bellerive remains somewhat forgotten and, in my view, underrated by even knowledgeable golf fans.

Bob Stuart, Westhampton Beach, N.Y.: I played in the first U.S. Mid-Am there in 1980. Seems like another lifetime ago. What I recall was a typical Trent Jones golf course of the period when he was building really challenging, lengthy courses. I know his mantra was “hard par, easy bogey,” but he had just enough water that a poorly struck shot was going to yield something worse. … I grew up at Winged Foot, so I regarded Bellerive as “Winged Foot with less personality.”

Josh Asher, Scottsdale, Ariz: It is vintage RTJ – long, runway tees, well-defined, manicured fairways bordered by thick, penal rough and large greens complexes guarded by deep, ominous-looking sand traps. … I characterized it as “big and brawny,” which I think is a reasonably accurate conclusion. 

Greg Flesher, Tucson: Bellerive is a course that is mostly right in front of you and doesn’t resort to trickery. Good execution is rewarded and poor execution is penalized. The smart decision to remove trees and relocate dirt has resulted in a much more open feel and improved hole-to-hole flow. New sand in all bunkers presents an Augusta-like visual.

What about the changes since 2013?

As Flesher indicated, architect Rees Jones renovated Bellerive in 2006, when the course underwent an extensive tree-management program, and returned in 2013 to rebuild the bunkers and make other alterations. The raters discussed those changes.

Hansen: Knowing how his father felt about the course, Rees did a good job maintaining the traditional character of the course while updating it to match the most rigorous standards of our 21st-century game. … I like the fact that he didn’t alter his father’s green-within-a-green concept – though he did create even smaller targets – while maintaining his dad’s dramatic contours.

Rusty Schlattman, Houston: During the 1965 Open, the trees bordering the fairways were somewhat sparse in most areas. In watching the 2004 Senior Open, the course had grown in significantly. During our (2016) Rater Retreat, it was pointed out how many trees had been removed to open the (site lines) and (enhance) playability of the course.

Jason Nier, Pocahontas, Ark.: I have played Bellerive twice. The first time was prior to its latest renovations and tree removal. It was overgrown then and felt constricted, but the second time around, the changes were spectacular. Vistas were reclaimed, a green was moved and the bunkering renovations all seemed to bring more of the course into play and enhance strategy.

Flesher: Holes 2 and 11 have been completely redesigned for the better. No. 3 has been redesigned with an increase in pond size, but it makes it play very similar to the classic No. 6. Differentiation would have been preferred.

So what do the raters think of Bellerive and the changes to the course?

Tom Fussell, Nashville: The ever-present creek, which feeds several lakes, seemed to meander continuously throughout the course. Also, negotiating the course’s elevation changes played a serious role in the design of the course, particularly on the final nine. Shot selection seems to be affected on almost every hole, both short and long. 

Nier: While the holes lay out well on the land, I found it odd at the lack of right-turning holes. And you don’t see that right turn until the 17th hole. … The walk emphasized how significant the elevation changes affect play there. It’s subtle at times. There is a good mixture of varying looks, too. There are a few approaches across swales and valleys to perched greens, as well as a few elevated tee shots where everything is out in front of you. The bunkering renovations are really nice, too. I don’t recall the greens being too severe, but the greens are protected well by the bunkers and slopes within the collection areas.

Lawson: Highlight holes for me are the third and sixth, both challenging par 3s over water that demand precision. I also enjoyed the brutish 17th, a par 5
that can stretch to more than 600 yards. Between 17 and the dogleg-left, uphill 18th, Bellerive is designed to present an exciting finish to the
season’s last major.

Michael Reich, Beverly Hills, Mich.: If I had a criticism, it might be that the course could be too difficult for the average player. There are a lot of long par 4s, and with all the water it could be a long day for a high-handicapper.

What can we expect from Bellerive during the
PGA Championship? 

Asher: It is a strong test of golf and I’m pleased that it continues to host major tournaments.

Linda Seiner, Leawood, Kan.: I do wonder about the logistics for handling the crowds that will attend the PGA Championship and having sufficient accessible viewing areas to adequately showcase the golf and the course.

Fussell: Add in the humid and sticky weather of St. Louis in August, and the added length the PGA setup will present, and Bellerive will be a stern test for today’s best players.

Nier: I think the back nine has a strong set of par 4s that will offer challenges during the tournament.

Randy Seiner: Somewhat unusual is the clear dominance of dogleg-left holes that should favor a right-to-left player in the PGA Championship.

Jason Hancock, Nashville: Also remember the green complexes. Most are elevated and include quadrants requiring accurate approach shots.
It’s easy to understand why Bellerive has hosted so many prestigious events over the years, and it will be interesting to see average scoring stats
at the PGA Championship.

(Note: This story ran in the August 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

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