The major championships have come and gone and the Ryder Cup is on the horizon, but it didn’t take me long to determine my favorite event of this year.
Augusta was impressive, as always, particularly as I’d walked the grounds the week before the event. Torrey Pines was set up well, albeit with the usual diabolical U.S. Open rough heights, but the pressure of the national championship took its toll on Sunday afternoon. And, of course, Phil gave us old guys a thrill at Kiawah in winning the PGA Championship.
However, the event I enjoyed the most – by a long shot – was The Open at Royal St. George’s.
I love real links golf, and I like The Open’s new position as the final major on the golf calendar. It comes early enough in the season that it can still inspire us to make the most of summer play while, hopefully, providing a few teachable moments for golfers and golf course superintendents.
What I think I love most about The Open – and, for that matter, on most courses in the UK – is that golfers must play the course as they find it. It’s how golf is meant to be played, on firm, dry conditions, not on manufactured or tricked-up surfaces. That means shots can be affected, for good or bad, by nature, geography, terrain, or weather. And that makes golf challenging and fun.
Admittedly, the field at Royal St. George’s got a break from Mother Nature this year, with warm temperatures and little, if any, wind. But it’s proof just how good the course and the conditions were that the absence of those outside agencies didn’t diminish the wonderful play and outcome of the competition.
What did we learn from this year’s Open Championship? Here are my takeaways:
How great is it to see green speed NOT being an issue? How fast were they? “A smidge over 10 feet,” said head greenkeeper Paul Larsen, who became an overnight internet sensation during the run of the championship. How refreshing was he and how sensible were those green speeds? (And you gotta love that hair!)
Slower green speeds allow for a wider variety of hole locations, which keeps things interesting. Faster surfaces force the hole to the center of the green, making the approach shot easier for the elite player. Super-fast surfaces take away the player’s need to “figure out the speed.” Putting then requires a mere nudge, followed by lots of patience as the ball creeps to the hole and, one hopes, doesn’t trickle away and off the putting surface.
It’s probably surprising to many recreational golfers that slower greens are harder to putt. The golfer can’t be afraid to hit the ball. Slower greens require more skill as players need to read the break, judge their swing, gauge the takeaway, and take the contours into consideration.
While we’re talking about green speeds, what is it that makes us so concerned about pace? Stimpmeter envy? Bragging rights? If you think it’s a badge of honor to reach 13- or 14-foot speeds, I suggest you think again.
Are you getting pressure from the better players at your facility? Is it something to do with the size of your (cutting) unit?
Find a speed – particularly in this economic climate – that makes sense for your golfers, staff and budget. Fast greens cost more to maintain. Consider the cost of materials, plant protectants and, at least right now, the shortage of labor. At a busy daily-fee or in a golf community with average players, excessively fast putting surfaces mean you’re spending a lot more money to make a lot of golfers unhappy.
Another consequence of fast greens is fewer good hole locations. The skills needed for hitting effective approach shots virtually disappear. Slower speeds allow putting holes in more “interesting” locations, including in tight corners and along slopes and angles.
At The Open, it was a joy to watch the best players in the world creatively work their way around and onto the putting greens. How cool was it to see a hole location on the back side of a mound? And then watch the player figure it out?
Of course, we walk a fine line here. There are challenging hole locations and there are those that are too hard. Making things too difficult or intimidating for beginners so they don’t understand what the game is about is a really bad idea. And bad hole locations slow play.
Royal St. George’s proved that a championship can be contested on a shorter golf course with a great set of greens, undulations and fair hole locations. It was great to see that distance didn’t matter and the course didn’t need bombers like Bryson or Dustin to identify the Champion Golfer of the Year. Coincidentally, shorter bodes well for Merion, which appears to have earned a permanent place in the future U.S. Open Championship rotation.
The golf course setup at The Open was creative and made players think. Isn’t that what the game should be about? Golfers should have to think their way around the property, using club selection, course management and strategy to score.
With the overhyped emphasis in the U.S. on conditioning, plus long rough and fast greens, these subtle nuances are lost to the average player. This occurred in 2013 at the U.S. Open at Merion, in 2017 at Erin Hills where rough was harvested mid-U.S. Open week and again, a Shinnecock in 2018 on the 13th green where Phil Mickelson seemingly lost his mind.
Most weeks of the year, the golf we see on television is meant to be entertainment. The PGA Tour wants to showcase the skill and talent of its players. Its courses are set up to give players opportunities to score and excite their fan base. This means perfectly raked bunkers with “firm” sand, greens of perfect and consistent speeds, and predictable surface firmness regardless of turf type with mostly accessible hole locations.
The majors offer some variation. Because the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, and Open Championship move from site to site, players must figure out the conditions. But they pretty much know what to expect at the U.S. Open now (until the powers that be change their philosophy … again), and the PGA Championship.
Year in and year out, the one event the shows us something different is The Open. That’s largely because in the UK the approach to golf is different and, frankly, more human. The courses are far more natural and require strategic thinking. They test all levels of player, from beginners to the best in the world. Anyone who’s had the chance to take a golf trip anywhere in the UK has experienced that. And, I’ll bet, enjoyed it immensely.
Watching golf played smartly, creatively, and managed well should be a teachable moment for all of us. Seeing courses that more faithfully follow nature and inject a little serendipity is great. Whatever we as superintendents can do to give our golfers more fun and challenge should be applauded.