Over the last month, golf's ruling bodies—the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient—have conducted their most important championships, offering a referendum on their stewardship of the professional game.
At the U.S. Open, Justin Thomas became the first man to post a nine-under round at a major and Brooks Koepka decimated the longest course in U.S. Open history, posting a record 16-under on an Erin Hills layout that played around 7,800 yards. One former champion told GOLF.com, "This is not what the Open is supposed to be. It's a joke. A highlight show." At last week's Open Championship, Branden Grace broke golf’s four-minute-mile barrier, torching Royal Birkdale with a record round of 62. Grace ranks 108th on the PGA Tour in driving distance; on his historic day, Birkdale played less than 7,200 yards and a short-knocker like Grace hit 9-iron or less into 10 greens, with the longest club he employed into any par 4 being a 7-iron. The longest hitters faced even less of a test as the game's oldest championship had essentially been reduced to a pitch-and-putt.
I have been saying for years that to seriously challenge Tour players—to make them hit long-irons into some par 3s and 4s, and have a few 5s be true three-shot holes—a course needs to be around 9,000 yards. Maybe 10,000. I tweeted this in the wake of Grace's 62 and it ruffled the feathers of many folks, including various Tour players. "That is complete nonsense!" Billy Horschel replied, with typical understatement. Colt Knost offered a similarly nuanced take: "U seriously have no idea what ur talking about!"
I'm not saying a 9,000-yard course is a good idea, only that it has become a necessity. Luke Donald partially fleshed out the problem with this solution: "SMH & 7 hour rounds, how fun Alan." It's true that a course of that length would require an obscene amount of land and water and time to play. But the USGA and R&A have shown no stomach for rolling back the pros' gear.
The entire equipment industry is built on FOMO; we all want to play the latest and greatest stuff that the pros use. A reduced-flight ball would be a disaster for fan interest: Who wants to watch Dustin Johnson drive it 270 when we can do it ourselves? So while throttling back the ball and driver would be an easy fix to make today's courses relevant again, I am operating under the premise that it will never happen, despite the pleas of Jack Nicklaus and many other truth-tellers. So where does the game go from here?
Course setup seems like an easy answer. As Knost tweeted at me, "They can't help that there is no wind and soft greens [at Birkdale]. Deep rough firm greens [is the answer]. Course can be 6800 yards and play tough. Look at Olympic club." The same thing was said of Erin Hills: It would have been a totally different test if it had played tournament and fast. But it often rains during the Open Championship, and every U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the Midwest or East is likely to get wet, just as so many Masters weeks have been touched by storms. To bank on dry, fiery conditions to give a venue its teeth is foolish.
Links courses have always used wind as a primary defense and still conditions led to good scoring, but nowadays no wind means these 19th-century playing fields will be destroyed by modern athletes who optimize their performance with trainers, nutritionists, osteopaths, sports psychologists, putting gurus, stats experts, Trackman, Swedish nannies and a host of other modern advances. Unless every major moves to California (home of the Olympic Club), firm and fast will remain a mirage.
So what about deep rough and narrow fairways? No doubt that setup is a deterrent to low scoring. But it also leads to a tedious, constrained style of golf, where shotmaking is diminished. A very penal setup off the tee means power players will simply leave the big stick in the bag. Driving it long and straight is the toughest task in golf, and those who can do both deserve to be rewarded; if there is no room to hit driver, the sport has been diminished and the venue is not offering a true test.
I should state here that I don't really care about the concept of protecting par. Whether the winning score at a major championship is six under or 14 under is of little interest to me; what I care about is how the score was accomplished. Laying up off the tee with 3-woods and hybrids and hitting short irons into most greens simply makes the game too easy. Birdiefests at everyday Tour events are fun, but the majors should test every aspect of players' games while pushing them to the brink spiritually.
Jordan Spieth described his third-round 65 at Birkdale as "stress-free." I’m sorry, but trying to protect a lead in the final group on Saturday at a major should involve some stress. At the U.S. Open last month Dru Love, son of Davis and a college-aged amateur who was playing in his first Open, described Erin Hills, after a first-round 71 as "pretty easy," while Matt Kuchar's caddie, John Wood, noted that "nobody’s playing with any fear." Wood was right. During the final round there was never a sense of imminent danger, the rain-softened course was simply too short, even at 7,800 yards. Erin Hills had been built to accommodate drivers but in the end was bludgeoned to death by them.
This is the point where I should offer a brilliant solution but, alas, there isn't one. The USGA and R&A have begat a mess that can't easily be cleaned up. Golf's most important events now need the perfect mix of sunbaked greens and stiff wind to offer the right challenge. This will happen only occasionally, so in a doomed effort to protect the reputation of the courses (and ruling bodies) you can expect more silly setups like the dead greens at Chambers Bay or shaved greens at the Old Course in 2015, which led to a suspension of play due to wind (even though every other nearby course was open for play), or what we saw at Merion, with crazy pin positions and players hitting irons off the tee at many/most of the par 4s, which is about as boring as golf gets.
Every sport evolves, and golf has done so rapidly this century, which began with the solid-core ball revolution. In response to my original tweet a few folks pointed out that basketball players have grown bigger and stronger and more skilled but the NBA hasn’t raised the rims. That’s because those bigger, stronger players also play defense, keeping the game in balance. The only defense golf courses have today is the weather, with all of its capriciousness, or extreme setups, with all of their flaws. The equivalent of 6’11" point guard is a 9,000-yard golf course. Like it or not, the time has come.