Two problems facing golf these days are slow play and the game’s lack of growth. When second-tier events set up their courses to be as tough as the majors, they contribute to both.
It’s fitting that golf’s four most prestigious events — the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship — are the most challenging. But it seems that every week the players now face deep rough and ultra-fast greens that force them to play a plodding, defensive style of golf. Instead of showcasing their talents, they are forced into a battle of attrition.
Depending on which organization you want to believe, the total number of people playing golf today is either staying steady or decreasing slightly. I wonder why? Sure, the game is too expensive to attract new players in droves. But let’s get real. Last week’s Memorial and Senior PGA Championship both featured hack-it-out rough. If you had never played golf before and you saw those tournaments on TV, would you want to take up the game?
Contrast that with the 1986 Masters, when Jack Nicklaus shot a back-nine 30 on Sunday. A low round like that attracts people to the game.
At the heart of the problem is a testosterone battle waged by the organizers of the PGA Tour’s week-to-week events. By growing ankle-deep rough, getting greens rolling to 13 on the Stimpmeter and tucking pins in crazy positions, they’re saying to players, “My tournament is as good as a major.”
There has also been a knee-jerk over-reaction to technology, manifesting itself in courses that are stretched longer and longer.
We need to take a deep breath and examine what’s happening. I can’t believe that I’m writing this, but the PGA Tour could learn a few things from what the USGA’s done with the U.S. Open.
I tip my hat to the USGA for implementing the staggered-rough strategy. Players who miss the fairway by only a few feet should not be penalized as harshly as players who blow their shots 20 yards off target. At Torrey Pines this week, the 2 1/2-inch first cut of rough will give players a chance to hit recovery shots (Hooray! Recovery shots!), but balls will fall through the thick Kikuyu rough in the primary cut. Playing out of that stuff will be brutal.
I also love the idea of pairing the game’s best players. Golf, like every other sport, is star driven. Fans don’t just want to see the best players competing in the same tournament, they want to see head-to-head matchups between Tiger and Phil, Vijay and Ernie.
Having played Torrey Pines last week, I can tell you that the South Course is in unbelievably good shape. The layout is fair, but very tough. Its fairways are running fast, so length may not be a huge factor, but the greens are also extremely firm. Unless there is rain in La Jolla, look for them to roll to 13 or 13 1/2 by next weekend. If that happens, the green contours will be exposed for the disasters that they are.
The PGA Tour needs to get with the program. Phil Mickelson’s recovery shot on 18 Sunday at Colonial, which led to his dramatic birdie and victory, gets my vote as Shot of the Year. That kind of shot would never have been possible at Muirfield Village or any number of other courses that want “fairway or death” set ups.
Pebble Beach got it right this year, as did Riviera. Interestingly, in areas where it has been a poor season for growing grass or where it rained in the middle of the week (like in Atlanta and Hilton Head), organizers could not create over-the-top setups, so the courses played wonderfully.
No one is looking for 30 under to be a winning score, but the way things are now on the PGA Tour, David Duval and Al Geiberger should not expect any new members in the “59 Club.” And we should not expect to grow the game.