Tiger’s criticism of Pebble’s greens viewed as a self-serving excuse

June 19, 2010

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The guy said one word. He said the greens here were “awful.” When Tiger Woods speaks, the whole world takes notice, or the golf world does, anyway. He came off the course after a lousy round on Thursday, with lousy putting, and deemed the greens to be “awful.” In the Pebble Beach Co. offices, in the USGA trailers, in the course maintenance sheds, in English and Spanish both, people in the grass-growing business were and are upset and confused.

“He’s wrong,” David Fay, the USGA executive director, told me yesterday. “They’re smoother than they were in 2000.” That would be the year the U.S. Open was last at Pebble, when Tiger won by 15. “It was a harsh thing for him to say. I don’t want to turn this into a whole turf-surface advisory thing, but the fact is the people who grow this grass are highly skilled, highly educated, and they have so many tools at their disposal. Conditions have been good for growing grass and we’re very pleased with the greens. We can take criticism when it’s warranted. We have pretty thick skin. Criticism is useful. But this is not useful criticism.” No, it was a one-word rant from a deeply frustrated man.

Candor is welcome from the players, and I wish there were more of it. But what Tiger said is really only self-serving excuse-making. “That’s what elite golfers do,” said Fay, who has been around the professional game all his adult life. “They find something to blame. Although not all the time. Phil [Mickelson] came in from a bad putting round on Thursday and said he made bad strokes. Today he’s making everything.”

At Torrey Pines, which, like Pebble Beach, has poa annua greens, Woods stroked a wobbly putt on the 72nd hole of the tournament, a downhill, curving 15-footer that bounced like a super ball before it famously disappeared. Naturally, he didn’t complain about the awful greens there. These Pebble greens are far smoother than the Torrey Pine greens were.

If you’ve seen the Pebble greens on TV, you know they have every shade of green and khaki on them. That’s common on all poa greens, especially on seaside courses where different grass seeds get blown around. David Fay said they look “splotchy” and Lee Westwood said they looked like “broccoli.” (The English know how to use English, don’t they?) Sergio Garcia complimented his playing partner Paul Casey for making a two-footer and Casey responded with the international sign of dribbling. They’re not perfect. Who wants perfect? For 99 percent of us, they’d be the smoothest, fastest, most beautiful, most interesting, most scenic greens we’d ever putt on. Do we want to spend $495 (the Pebble green fee) to do so? That’s another question.

Which is why so many people at the Pebble Beach Co. were put off by what Woods said. They’re in the hospitality business. The public hears the greens dissed by the best player in the world, and it doesn’t encourage people to want to come. Viewed that way, maybe Tiger’s doing us all a favor. Five bills — it really is an outrageous sum to pay for a single round of golf. I mean, just because they can get it, does that mean they should?

It’s tough business, what Woods has to do after every round, come right off the 18th green and talk to a knot of microphones, even when he’s made bogey on the last. In almost every other sport, the athlete gets a chance to cool off before going in to the meet the press.

And, in fairness to Woods, the greens are not putting like his hotel carpet. Brad Faxon, the Tour player who is working for NBC this week, told me on Friday that the greens were close to perfect on Monday. “There’s more bumpiness in them now than there was in the practice rounds, and that’s the opposite of what usually happens,” Faxon said.

He sees Woods in a bigger context than most. When Tiger says the greens are “awful,” there’s a whole lot more going on than that. “He’s not very confident in himself now, and he’s not very confident in his game,” Faxon said. And that shows up in unexpected ways. Like in the scores Woods is shooting. And the things he’s saying after them.

When Woods came in from his Friday round, he didn’t back off his “awful” comment. He did explain himself. He said the greens were better in the morning than they were in the afternoon. He gave a little discourse on why that was, the flowering of the grass seed, etc. David Fay wasn’t particularly impressed.

“Grass grows,” the longtime USGA said. “If the sun comes out, it grows more.”

On Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday, Tiger did all his course work in the mornings. As he knows better than anybody, U.S. Opens are won late on Sunday afternoons, after a long day of growth. They get crusty and bumpy and funky. And splotchy. It’s part of the fun. It’s part of the sport.