The season’s major championships are done, but not without a great deal of chatter about course setup. And not just about how the courses played, but who should be in charge of conditions and their effect on the competitions.
Trying to test the world’s best golfers is hard work, but that doesn’t mean what happened at the majors isn’t relevant to you and your club, even in a small way. Whether you’re getting your course ready for the club championship, a member/guest, annual invitational, or a state or local association event, you need to think about what constitutes fair setup. I suggest starting with these broad parameters:
- Identify the competitors’ skills. Make it so the eventual winner has to be at his/her best and hit all the shots. Try to take luck out of it.
- Highlight the design of the golf course, whether classic or modern.
- Address and mitigate weather and other environmental issues (wind, rain, heat, cold, humidity), regardless of the season.
- Prepare agronomic conditions diligently and carefully. You do not want your actions to make or break the event or you.
Those are the broad strokes. Here are some lessons from each of this year’s majors.
Since this event is contested over the same course every year, the players know the yardages, the conditions and the course. They are familiar with the playing surfaces and can alter strategy accordingly.
If you hold an invitational every year, chances are your members and many of their guests are familiar with the conditions. That continuity is one reason people return year after year, so you do not want to deviate too far from what’s worked in the past.
The way to change things, as they do at Augusta National, is by varying hole locations day to day and the order in which they appear. For the competitive rounds, locate the best, not the hardest locations on each hole that highlight the design, challenge players’ abilities, maintain pace of play, and maintain a balance of front/back, left/right (if the design allows). Vary those locations to keep things fun and challenging for the players.
At the Masters, everyone knows where the Saturday and Sunday hole locations are going to be. It’s part of the fun. Can your players handle the pressure of familiarity?
If there are practice rounds, keep things straightforward and put holes in the center of greens. Don’t waste good locations on these rounds when players are familiarizing themselves with the course.
The U.S. Open is a good model for your club championship in that you are trying to identify, not embarrass, the best players at your club. As the superintendent, you can and should have a lot of impact on how that happens.
You know the limitations of your course based on design, agronomics, the environment and, of course, previous experience. You want to challenge members beyond the normal golf course setup, but unlike the last few U.S. Opens, and especially this year at Shinnecock Hills, you don’t want to push the envelope past the point of no return where the course is lost.
Every course is different, as are the playing abilities of its members. That said, there are a few key factors in balancing course and challenge:
- Firmness and green speed. Pick a speed appropriate for the time of year, green design and skill of the competitors. Get close to, but do not exceed, maximum speed: You can always make it a little faster, but once you’ve gone too far it’s hard to dial back without dramatically affecting conditions of play.
- Height of primary rough. You’re not holding the U.S. Open and your players are not pros. Rough longer than 3 inches (OBTW golf ball diameter 1.68 inches) is going to aggravate most of the field, will make it harder to return the course for normal play and will affect pace of play.
- Teeing grounds. Club championship or not, do not play every hole from the tips. Adjust hole lengths for diversity. Play some par fours long, others short; consider a reachable par five; put a different club in players’ hands for each of the par threes. This is how you identify the best players.
The Open Championship
Britain had a near-drought this summer and still produced a great Open at Carnoustie. Why? Because the Greenkeeper and R&A decided to leave the course as it was through the green (brown, fast, and dried out), while concentrating on the greens. Stimpmeter readings were carefully monitored and the greens remained consistent throughout the week.
No matter what your environmental or meteorological situation, the putting surfaces are key. Keep them consistent, keep them fair, keep them alive. This is the most responsible way to meet the conditions necessary for any competition while also rewarding good shots.
This was the last PGA in August, and as Bellerive proved, it’s good the event is moving to May as of next year. I don’t know what the PGA of America expected in St. Louis in August, but they got it and then some thanks to an extremely hot, wet summer than wreaked havoc with course conditions. Still, the PGA did the right thing, challenging players with hole locations and length and not pushing agronomics in late summer. Here’s how to react when conditions make your course a little too player-friendly:
- When greens are extra-receptive, up the challenge by placing holes closer to the edges and use more front locations.
- When fairways are wet and there’s less roll, find other ways to challenge the long hitters who stand to benefit. Select a teeing ground which removes the driver from the big-hitter but not the short-hitter to place them in the same landing zone with equal second shots. Or calculate their tee-shot length so your fairway bunkering comes into their view when selecting a club.
- With wet conditions, don’t cut the turf too low, which may add driver length (ball roll) and avoid tight mowing that damages turf when it’s moist.
- Be flexible with tee selection, by varying hole lengths significantly. You cause the better player to think twice.
Whenever you’re holding a tournament in the late summer, watch for extra agronomic stress on the course and be ready to deal with it right away.
A few general comments no matter what the event and when it’s played:
- Don’t get upset when — not if — Mother Nature throws you a curveball. Be prepared.
- Low scores are not a bad thing if conditions are uniform and anyone is capable of having a great round.
- Focus on the quality of the leaderboard and player enjoyment. You want them to want to come back again tomorrow, next week, next year.
- Don’t let your ego get in the way. It’s not about you; it’s about the players, the event and the course. Any superintendent can make a course hard. The good ones know how to make it challenging, fair and fun.