I began working on this story for Golf World back in December at the Target World Challenge. The tour kindly granted me access to tournament director Mark Russell who then introduced me to John Mutch, the unlucky chap who would be stuck with me tagging around with him for three days at Sherwood, and then again at Torrey Pines and Riviera.
The idea was not to do the typical story we see a few times a year where a writer tags along with an official and explains the official's every move, from the cherry Danish he ate to the time his bowels typically move. Instead, I hoped to better understand the big picture approach to tour course setup in the face of technology advances and in light of player frustration boiling over at Firestone. While I'm not sure the story ever settles the direct question of who is advocating an increase in rough, narrowed landing areas and tucked pins (because it doesn't appear to be in response to any specific directive), I hopefully convey the sense that surprised me somewhat: the amount of pressure the field staff faces from host courses.
Easily the No. 1 player gripe surrounded the increase in new back tees and the use of all too many, no matter how silly the tee seems to be. The rules officials are clearly expected to embrace those tees (as well as silly other little pressures like having to lock in a tee placement for ventures such as the tour's new Trackman thingy). I saw the pressure (subliminal and up front) both at Sherwood and Riviera, where the host courses were asking whether new tees recently constructed would be in use. At Riviera, there were questions directed at the staff about not using the two new hole locations (and the staffers are too gentlemanly to simply say, they stink!).
The most surprising player beef, and one I wholeheartedly agree with, revolved around par-3s and the lack of variety in yardages from day to day on specific holes. The players also pointed out that there is often not enough variety within a round. Mutch did his best to vary the numbers, but sometimes they can't use an interesting forward tee because it's too beat up with divots (and we know how the players would react to that!). Other times it would be nice to see some outside-the-box thinking that really throws the player a curve by playing a hole at 210 one day and 150 the next.
Also surprising were the number of players who now connect course setup tactics with the technology revolution. Compared to a few years ago when they would defend the use of setup to offset distance gains, most I talked to seemed to have soured on using rough and tucked pins to offset distance. Even more amazing, every player I spoke to was in favor of regulating grooves. Nearly all brought it up without prompting. Now, the rationale's varied. Some want to see rough take on more meaning. Some buy the USGA's idea that it will make guys throttle back off the tee. Most (thankfully) want to see firm greens and preferred sides of fairways mean something again. They all hope it leads to fewer absurdly tucked hole locations and less injury inducing rough, and as I noted in a sidebar to the story, Russell says eliminating U-grooves would influence his thinking on rough.
I can't convey enough how devoted the field staff is to equity and running a great event. Few people realize the hours they put in, and while the course setup part of their job is arguably the most interesting aspect, it's disturbing how many babysitting tasks they have which potentially get in the way of doing their course setup work. I never saw it with Mutch, and the guys I spoke to downplay that they would ever get distracted, but you just don't see officials in other sports having to tend to some of the things the field staff handles. Considering how much their thinking influences what we see on television, it's an unusual situation.
It's also difficult to put into words just how good the players and their equipment are these days. I saw some incredibly firm greens at Sherwood and Riviera, yet saw scores I could not have imagined based on what I knew firsthand about that day's setup.
David Eger, who was widely respected for his setup work during 14 years with the tour and praised by several of the rules officials for his work, offered this line. Due to space constraints it couldn't make it into the final piece:
"I watch on TV and see some of those hole placements on the regular tour and I think I wouldn’t have put it within 5 yards of that thing when I setup the course. And then the next thing you know, not only Tiger, but half-a dozen other guys are hitting it in there 5 feet and I’m thinking, how in the hell did he do that?"