It’s tough, it’s dense but there are spots where you might catch a break. In this Golfweek video, I explain some of the elements players will find off the tee and around Bethpage Black’s greens for the 2019 PGA Championship:
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Let’s face it, cautious golf at The Players can be a bit of a snooze, and while I’m all for firm and fast most of the time, the design here lends itself better to aerial golf, encouraging aggressive play and penalizing the overzealous. With the March date’s different winds and softer ground, it seems like we will see more drivers, more risk taking and a little more fun to the proceedings.
My story for Golfweek on this and the possible dent this may put in the hopes of plodders.
Plus, Brooks Koepka added this today:
I think you're definitely going to have to have a few more drivers in hand. Going back to your question, I think it was, I hit driver, 6-iron into 7 yesterday. And I've hit 3-iron and 9-iron off that hole. So you can't hit 5- and 4-iron out of this rough and you can't play it the way you used to. You've got to be more aggressive. With it being soft it kind of widens the fairways a little bit, the ball isn't going to roll as much, so I think it definitely plays into the longer hitters' hands and you can definitely have driver out quite a bit more.
As a side note, as much as I love the chance for recoveries from the rough, this pine straw right on the 16th fairway edge looks even better…
Even though we’ve seen this movie before: eliminating fairway at the Old Course to mask regulatory ineptitude, the retirement of Chief Inspector Peter Dawson seemingly put an end to that madness.
Turns out, his replacement has signed off on an enhanced rough harvesting effort to combat the surge in driving distances at the home of strategic golf, the Old Course.
Who knew there was any more rough to grow or fairway to eliminate at the Road?
While most understand the Road hole’s strategy and the visual and angle issues caused by bailing out left off the 17th tee, the R&A has begun adding more rough to “enhance” strategy by offering hack-out rough.
From John Huggan’s Golf World report after Martin Slumbers’ day with reporters this week.
“We will be looking at the course setup and there is some rough beginning to grow that will ensure the strategic nature of the Old Course remains. The importance of making sure you play the strategy properly will be enhanced. But if we get no weather, no wind and plenty of rain, we all know the links course is at the mercy of these great players. The Old Course is no different.”
Specifically, Slumbers indicated that the rough left of the 17th fairway on the iconic Road Hole will be enhanced in order to force players to the right, closer to the out-of-bounds. The grass on the bank left of the 14th fairway and right of the fifth will also be allowed to grow longer than ever before.
Also do not discount how much gorse has been allowed to remain to “defend” the course, on top of tee boxes on the neighboring courses, something Old Tom Morris worked to rid the place of and which was instrumental in the course’s increase in strategy and enjoyment.
But it’s the notion of taking a shot away from a player, or disallowing a ball to run to a disadvantageous location at the Old Course, that speaks to a special level of absurdity. Particularly given Slumbers’s suggestion that the growing effort has already begun, meaning everyday golfers will have to suffer more for one week every five to six years.
What a bleak and cynical vision for the most important and cherished links, and all so that a few people can avoid doing their job as regulators.
With this week’s rains Pebble Beach can’t get much softer, so watching Sunday’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am finale won’t yield much insight into what we’ll see for June’s U.S. Open.
One major correction, according to Golf World’s Dave Shedloski after discussing the setup with USGA officials on site this week, is the 11th fairway’s shrinkage at least allowing those who hit the fairway to have the best angle of approach.
One exception is the fairway at No. 11, an uphill par 4 of 390 yards leading to a shallow green that slopes severely from back to front. Hall says the fairway has been shifted to the left, leaving an easier approach, especially for players who take on the hole with driver. “The fairway direction before left a difficult second shot. You weren’t really rewarded for being in the fairway,” Hall said.
In 2010 the USGA attempted to bring trouble down the right into play but it left players in the left rough with a better angle of approach with their approaches. Given today’s bomb-and-gouge approach and the possibility of driving the ball closer to the green, it all may not matter.
New tees at 9 and 13 will also likely be used after getting an initiation at the 2018 U.S. Amateur.
Paul Azinger brought up this question when discussing the 2018 Ryder Cup with the Morning Drive crew, noting that he was the first American captain in the modern era to influence setup. He said it’s been more of a European tradition to meddle and suggested that Captain Thomas Bjorn exploited the U.S. strength. But the most interesting point: Azinger now agrees with Jack Nicklaus’ view that Captain’s shouldn’t have control over the setup.
While a sportsmanship element certainly seems undermined by course setup gamesmanship, and the 2018 Le Golf National presentation was just plain silly, I think the event is more interesting when the home team attempts to shape the course to their strengths. The move can easily backfire. But since the Ryder Cup seems determined to avoid genuinely captivating match play architecture with strong risk-reward holes, course setup ploys add intrigue.
After his Safeway Open second round Phil Mickelson made clear he’s going to play less in 2018-19.
Reason one, as reported by PGATour.com’s Cameron Morfit, centers around fatigue and managing his energy levels as a 48-year-old.
Then there was layer two of his views, expressed after experiencing light rough in Napa following the excess of Le Golf National where silly wedge-out, injury-inducing nonsense was harvested successfully to mess with Team USA. Kevin Casey at Golfweek with the quotes:
“It’s a unique situation in that the way the Europeans did a great thing, they did the opposite of what we do when we have the Ryder Cup here. The fairways were 14 to 16 yards wide. Ben Hogan, who is the greatest ball-striker of all time, had a five percent margin of error. So if you hit the ball 300 yards, which we all hit it more than that, you need to have a 30-yard fairway to be able to hit it.”
Let’s put the breaks on here for a minute. I don’t recall many 14 to 16 yard wide areas in the main landing areas, or anything under 20 yards. I paced off about 10 landing areas and the Europeans generally gave one are of width, though they also engaged in chintzy (perfectly kosher) tactics of rolling an area like the left side of the first fairway to reduce a swatch of 30 yards to effectively playing 25.
Here’s where Mickelson and Team USA do deserve some credit: the setup was structured so that an extremely errant drive—except down across the 7th hole OB as Patrick Reed found out—could find the spectator areas.
They very easily could have taken tee shots on multiple holes at the chalets and spectator areas well off play, taken a free drop on the hardpan, and shown up the European setup. Thankfully, they did not in the interest of sportsmanship and given the horrible injury suffered by a spectator.
The second point by Mickelson is a gift. For those who have explained how distance gains are a burden on golf courses, he effective explains how more width is needed to accommodate drives over 300 yards. More width means more acreage for turf, more acreage means more cost.
As for his scheduling around high rough, this does not bode well for a Torrey Pines start to the 2019 season given that it has some of the highest on the PGA Tour:
“And I’m 48. I’m not going to play tournaments with rough like that anymore. It’s a waste of my time. I’m going to play courses that are playable and that I can play aggressive, attacking, make a lot of birdies, (the) style of golf I like to play.”
He certainly is wise to schedule that way.
The course setup for Le Golf National is distinctly retro.
As in, the loathsome injury-thick rough of the 70s, 80s and 90s that no one misses. Yes, the landing areas are generous enough at their widest spots—35 yards—but many of the holes feature water down one side, hack-out rough on the other side. The Forecaddie with details and photos.
Philosophically, I’m not sure how intentional the effect is to offset the Americans’ distance advantage off the tee, but like most, have my doubts. The strategy could backfire for Europe with players like Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy, who thrive off hitting driver.
As a spectacle, the rough off the fairways is trimmed enough that we should see some strategic dilemmas, but any more than 10 yards off the fairway will force automatic layups and take away some of risk-reward intrigue posed by Le Golf National’s plethora of water hazards.
The reviews are in and they are not strong for the USGA's handling of Shinnecock Hills.
My take for Golfweek comes with doses of empathy, as Mike Davis, Jeff Hall and friends are trying to maintain the difficult U.S. Open challenge in a game out of balance due to equipment advances. To do so, the edge-pushing in a modern green speed world via tough hole locations will continue to make classic courses too prone to disasters like Saturday.
I also have great admiration for the effort of the grounds crew who had the place in superb condition and positioned perfectly heading into the week. As with 2004, the fatal decisions for this setup were not theirs to make.
The Live From guys weren't as empathetic but it's hard to argue against their points in light of what happened.
Still, the problem remains the pre-tournament guarantees juxtaposed against what ended up happening. Reconciling the inability to have learned from mistakes will likely haunt the USGA for the next eight years.
Just a reminder of what was said and promoted pre-2018...
The USGA actually touted the lessons learned in this video piece.
Matt Ginella's piece on the maintenance team and tools at the USGA's disposal.
And here is what was said at May's media day by Mike Davis:
"And so I would just say that it was 14 years ago, it was a different time, it was different people, and we as an organization, we learned from it. When you set up a U.S. Open it is golf's ultimate test, it's probably set up closer to the edge than any other event in golf and I think that the difference then versus now is there was a lot more, we have a lot more technology, a lot more data in our hands.
"And frankly, ladies and gentlemen, what really happened then was just a lack of water. There just wasn't enough water put in and the plant, essentially the grass itself kind of went dormant, there wasn't enough friction on the greens.
"And now days we have got everything from firmness meters, we have got moisture meters in the greens, we have got -- obviously we can tell how fast a green is running. The meteorology is better, so we not only know where the wind are coming from but the velocities. And, frankly, there's better communication between the USGA and the grounds staff.”
In hindsight, the tools and those manning them worked. The weather forecast was not taken seriously enough by the USGA, just as was the case in 2004. There was a decision this time around not to add water as the day progressed that will haunt this regime just as it has with past setup teams. (It should be noted PJ Boatwright and David Eger's setups in 1986 and 1995 did not experience any issues. Greens were also slower and the equipment was not overwhelming the game.)
It seems the USGA needs to understand most want a satisfying championship, even if it means a compromise of the principle to not interfere with conditions as play progresses. (Thank you all for voting on the topic of adding water. With nearly 900 votes in now, 59% say add water mid-round if need be, 41% said no.)
Who would argue with a midday misting in this case had it been done in the name of protecting the health of the greens post-tournament? And we are talking about a very small amount to have kept those hole locations functional.
With two straight Opens tainted by a lack of water and a golf course that so easily spills over the edge as a dry, warm day progresses, what is there to be done?
Without any distance regulation or willingness to accept lower scores as a result of turning away from suggestions distances advances were de-skilling the game, the USGA must not let classic seaside courses have green speeds over 10.5. They must let the courses be scored upon, though a case could be made slower greens would not lead to lower scores. Having given the Heisman to distance regulation for years while pushing green speeds and hole locations to maintain the ultimate test, the organization has positioned itself into a corner.
One thing we do know: no classic course should every be forced to add length or soften greens going forward. Especially a masterpiece like Shinnecock Hills.
I eavesdropped on Saturday setup and came away just astounded at the difficulty of Shinnecock Hills under tournament conditions. The difference in speed and firmness from a week ago is pretty profound, with more dryness and difficult days ahead.
So if you're wondering how you'd handle this monster of a course, you'll enjoy Eamon Lynch's premise of asking players what a 4.3 Index like USGA CEO Mike Davis would shoot on the course he's preparing with Jeff Hall.
Davis's answer might be the best:
“90 plus,” he shot back with the good humor of a man who knows this course is designed to test the best, not the rest. “Assuming I did not run out of balls.”
As I write for Golfweek.com, the USGA setup team has deviated from their original plans more than they can ever recall to accommodate potentially high winds during Thursday's 2018 U.S. Open first round.
Winds will be mostly out of the west, making some very long holes shorter, but also difficult to hold uphill second shots to greens like the 9th and 10th.
The Wednesday rains also should favor morning players who will get to the course before the afternoon bakes out Shinnecock Hills. Though the forecast suggests a good steady breeze all day. Peak gusts are expected around 2-3 pm.
We discussed on Live From The U.S. Open today.
Check out Guy Yocom's Golf Digest feature on how we are arriving at Shinnecock Hills with a restored golf course, narrowed in response to Erin Hills and the importance for the USGA to get this right.
The piece in print or online is accompanied by some incredible Dom Furore images and some very rich details on the evolution of Shinnecock since 2004 when it last hosted the U.S. Open.
Most fascinating to learn was Ray Floyd's role in suggesting the course was too wide after watching the proceedings at Erin HIls.
"I said, 'Mike, we need to have a chat,' " recalls Floyd, at age 75 retired but still an influential voice."I asked him, 'Were you happy with the [fairway widths] at Erin Hills? I don't think you were.' Mike told me he absolutely was not. I said, 'Well, it's going to be on steroids at Shinnecock, because it doesn't move and flow as much. You've got it dead wide, and we've had three really good U.S. Opens here with it tight and narrow.' "
The alert from Floyd, combined with conversations Davis had with smart people in golf, must have set off internal alarms. His reaction, expressed in action more than words, was almost immediate. Within weeks, the USGA undertook dramatic alterations to Shinnecock Hills.
Of course historians will recall that the last time Shinnecock hosted, the USGA was coming off a record-scoring U.S. Open. Let's hope the re-narrowing is as far as things go. As Yocum details in a number of way, it does seem very unlikely the course will ever be allowed to spill over the top this time.
I can't say I agree with Rory McIlroy's assessment of recent U.S. Open course setups, but as Dan Kilbridge notes for Golfweek, the 2011 champion chimed in following a strong third round at Muirfield Village.
“I think the USGA thinks that we’re better than we actually are, if that makes sense,” McIlroy said. “I think they overthink it. I think that, and I don’t want to single out (USGA Executive Director) Mike Davis here, I think it’s a collective thought process. We were talking about this yesterday. They sort of, I don’t think it should be as much of an exact science to set up golf courses as it is. I mean, get the fairways sort of firm, grow the rough, put the pins in some tough locations, but fair, and let us go play.”
Ah if it were only that simple!
I certainly understand the player reaction to the Davis era of more variety and different questions being asked. Most have made the golf better to play and watch, with a few hiccups.
But it's most intriguing to read McIlroy's example of overthinking setup, which may be a case of him overthinking just how much the USGA controls Mother Nature.
“It’s been a very reactionary few years to what happened at Chambers Bay,” McIlroy said. “I think they felt Chambers Bay was – Erin Hills was going to be similar to Chambers Bay. So they soaked it and made it really wide and all of a sudden 16 under par wins again and they’re like, um, what just happened? So I think they have to take previous results out of their head and just say, ‘Okay, let’s set up this golf course as best we can and just let the guys go play.'”
At 252 yards for this year's U.S. Open, this uphill, typically downwind long par-3 is one of the more subtly artful and not-so-subtly difficult one-shotters around.
In 1986, P.J. Boatwright noted the small approach added to players land the ball short of the green, 226 yards away:
A very strong a par-3, uphill to a green that is appropriately large. Normally, we isolate greens on par-3 holes with rough. In this case, because the hole is so long, we left a strip of fairway in front of the green so that players can bounce the ball onto the green. This is only fair because the hole is likely to play downwind.
The aerial showing the entire fairway drenched in rough! Fairway was installed by 1995:
The flyover today:
David Dusek reports from U.S. Open media day at Shinnecock Hills and the USGA made the first effort to put behind them the course setup boondoggle from the last Open.
Somewhere Tom Meeks and Walter Driver aren't liking these comments from current Executive Director Mike Davis, but the truth can be painful:
“It’s been 14 years, and it’s a different time, with different people,” Davis said. “When you set up a U.S. Open, it is golf’s ultimate test and is probably set up closer to the edge than any other event in golf. The difference between then and now is that we have a lot more technology and a lot more data. And frankly, what basically happened then was a lack of water.”
This probably won't bring great comfort to Phil Mickelson, who lost by two with a double at the virtually unplayable 7th hole.
“Looking back at 2004, and at parts of that magnificent day with Retief (Goosen) and Phil Mickelson coming down to the end, there are parts that we learned from,” Davis said. “I’m happy we got a mulligan this time. We probably made a bogey last time, maybe a double bogey.”
Newsday's Mark Herrmann has the definitive account of Shinnecock Hills' last-minute narrowing.
Given USGA CEO Mike Davis's public concerns about the role distance plays in being able to present courses as the architects intended, the admission that last fall's narrowing of this year's U.S. Open course at least does not come with any aggravating spin. This was a reaction to Erin Hills, where the freedom to hit driver lead to incredible driving distances and low scoring.
Still, the expense to keep Shinnecock Hills relevant speaks to a very different version of the game.
“They did it almost overnight,” said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA. “As someone at the club said, it was like a military exercise. When all is said and done, it looks tremendous. It fits your eye because these are the appropriate grasses.”
Herrmann notes that landing areas will still "be wider than they were for the previous three Opens in the modern era — in 1986, 1995 and 2004 — but slimmer than they had been after the club’s recent restoration project."
Three contractors were employed and the fairway grass taken out is resting comfortably at a New Jersey sod farm should the Shinnecock Hills members want it back.
“Some of the fairways had gone to 60 yards wide. It was great fun to play,” Davis said, adding that the average width had been 26 yards in 2004. “What we’ve done is come back and say, ‘You know what? You’re going to have to tighten it up some because accuracy is part of the test.’ ”
As absurd as all of this is to theoretically protect "accuracy", the real issue remains huge distance gains passing by the governing bodies. If the professional game were in balance, the width could be tolerated thanks to the green complexes serving as the defense. Angles would matter. A form of accuracy would be rewarded. Just not this year at Shinnecock. Again.
Preparing to host the Wells Fargo Championship, last year's PGA Championship host underwent yet more design modifications on top of modifications made to the previous modifications.
The good news: Quail Hollow's green speeds and rough are more subdued this week thanks to a ryegrass overseed and elimination of some teeing grounds from consideration.
The one tee someone said was better suited to a lemonade stand is not available according to club chairman/host/lead tinkerer/comedian Johnny Harris. From Rex Hoggard's GolfChannel.com report:
“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked in the video of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”
True to his word, on Tuesday as players made their way around the course to prepare for this week’s event, there was an actual lemonade stand perched on the back of the fourth tee box.
George Savaricas reports for Golf Central on player reaction.
If you haven't seen the shot, do check out Lydia Ko's 3-wood from Lake Merced and the 2018 MEDIHEAL Championship.
In her Golfweek account, Beth Ann Nichols called it "one of the most clutch 3-woods in LPGA history, negotiating a tree down the left side of the closing par 5 and nestling it in close for eagle. For a moment, an albatross was in the picture."
I want to highlight the shot for a host of reasons beyond the simple pleasure of watching someone with supernatural talents deliver so decisively under pressure.
Some are wondering why the LPGA held more appeal in recent weeks and shots like Ko's bear greater study in the context of the distance and skill debate.
--The 18th hole for this particular event will never be confused with Augusta National's 13th, yet there was enough strategic interest to create intrigue: drive down the right side and get a better view of the green, drive left and perhaps shorten the approach, but also lose the better angle.
--In the playoff, Minjee Lee outdrove Ko by 30 yards, but as Golf Channel's Karen Stupples noted almost immediately, Ko would have the better angle due to an overhanging cypress tree and the shape of the alleyway approach. Check out this screen grab of Ko's angle, with Lee's ball down the left, just above Ko's waistline:
--Since LPGA driving distances are of sane proportions for a majority of the golf courses on earth, even very simple architectural elements provided options, risks and nuanced reward in positioning. The execution by Ko was ultimately masterful, but she was given a canvas thanks to the firm ground conditions, immaculate turf and LMCC design to execute something special.
--Watching the way Ko's ball hit the ground and release toward the hole only added to the drama and beauty of the shot. If this were a 6-iron, as we see all too often hit into a par-5 by today's male players, the shot loses appeal. It's not something we talk about nor is it a shot that leaves us in awe of the players. Or, in modern parlance, we don't feel like we're living under par.
--The game is far more interesting to watch and play when angles have meaning and the ground can be used. Even a novice golf watcher can get a thrill from a shot like Ko's and appreciate that they saw something few humans could accomplish.
--When the game is compelling because of the aforementioned elements, more people will tune in on those merits over, say, watching forty-year-olds playing air guitar to music that hasn't been relevant in decades, if ever.
Irony isn't his thing, otherwise Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee might even find it funny that he's dusting off his sticks for a competitive comeback with the hope of playing the Old Course during this year's Senior Open Championship (John Strege reports).
Yet the same analyst who so eloquently lamented the disappearance of Alister MacKenzie design features at Augusta National just seven years ago, who advocated bifurcation regularly not long ago in hopes of allowing for classic designs to matter, now blames Alister MacKenzie's design philosophy for a range of things, including potentially "damaging" the modern professional game.
In quite the contradictory column, Chamblee says elite players would return to smaller driver heads and spinning balls to shape the balls into...ribbon like fairways lined with thick rough. Except MacKenzie--supported by rogues like Bobby Jones and Ben Crenshaw--had the audacity to channel the Old Course and spread that who whole fun/width/strategy message.
Players, professional and amateur, loved the forgiving nature of his designs, and budding architects wanting to imitate MacKenzie’s work, adopted philosophies along similar lines. To this day when having a debate with a group of Tour players or golf course architect nerds, the consensus will be to have little or graduated rough off of the tee, “to allow for the recovery” many will say, followed by “to give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.”
I've never actually heard a tour player recite the greatest pleasure line and can confidently say that there are three active players on the PGA Tour who've actually read those words in print. (That would be the law firm of Ogilvy, Herman and Blair).
Because golf course setups have become far more forgiving – owing to the MacKenzie philosophy, complaints and suggestions of the players and to the social media chorus that we want more birdies – players seek to launch shots as high as they can, with as little spin as they can, with as long of a driver as they can handle.
Wait, so the players try to make birdies to please social media, not because it helps lower their scores? Kinky!
Distance has become a means to an end so much, that many are crying for a roll back of the ball when all that needs to happen is to roll back to an era when one man had the guts and the acuity to not listen to the players, or the pervading philosophy of fairness.
Imagine if the U.S. Open and other events returned to this demanding philosophy. Players out of necessity would choose balls that spin more, heads that were smaller so they could shape shots, shots that would start lower for more control and golf swings would evolve to find the balance of distance and accuracy. In time an athlete would come along who could solve the puzzle of how to hit the ball far and straight.
Yes, they never practice how to hit it straighter these days, these kids.
It is amazing how quickly some forget the bomb and gouge era of the early 21st century when rough and narrowness was employed to offset a distance explosion. That was back when Brandel was pro-MacKenzie and pro-bifurcation.
Ryan Farrow did an aerial overlay of the famed Oakmont Country Club from 1938 vs. 2017 and found that more bunkers have been added while there has been a huge drop in fairway acreage and width.
The club's tree removal program undoubtedly impacts the turf shift to rough, but that's not the entire story. Something else has happened in that time. Oh, right, the top players are hitting it about 80 yards longer.
For anyone hosting a major or thinking of doing so, Tony Dear's Links piece is worth a read given the high-profile Chambers Bay experiment.
As the story notes, it succeeded on the financial and ratings front, but agronomically left a scar that is now being rectified by a creative conversion to poa greens.
Since June 2015, Johnson has increased cultural inputs (mowing, rolling, fertilizer, pesticide, water) to favor annual bluegrass establishment, and is seeding the greens with the only commercially available annual bluegrass turf—Poa reptans Two-Putt. “The good news,” he says, “is that it establishes pretty well. The bad news is that its prolific seedhead production in the first year or so gives the greens that blotchy appearance.”
Johnson has also begun saving and analyzing clipping yields from the greens in an effort to monitor growth and make better decisions on when to cut, seed, fertilize, and irrigate. “Every-day play is our focus as a public course,” he says. “I want smooth greens as well as consistent speed and firmness.”
On the financial side, Chambers continued the trend of public-access venues raking in more money for the USGA (we won't know how Erin Hills fared for a while):
According to its Annual Report, USGA revenue from its Open championships (U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open, U.S. Women’s Open) in 2016, when the U.S. Open was played at Oakmont, was $53.3m. In 2015, it was $64.3m.
The irony in all of this is that Chambers would make a great PGA Championship venue...in August. May? Not so much. Though still certainly doable and capable of bringing big energy and bigger West Coast ratings.