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Jack Nicklaus makes bunkers more penal

Jack Nicklaus turned to an Amish community for the latest weapon to combat low scoring in golf.

It's called a rake.

This isn't the garden variety rake, but a wooden one with tines that are 2 1/2 inches apart. Nicklaus ordered 150 of them for the bunkers at Muirfield Village, then made a slight adjustment so they would be more potent.

"As I was testing them on Saturday, I found that once the bunker was raked the second time, the rake was too narrow and it just went right back to a smooth bunker," Nicklaus said. "So I said, 'Let's take every other tooth out."'

The rakes create furrows in the sand, so the ball will sit atop a slight ridge or nestle between them. It makes it difficult to get any spin on the ball, therefore making it tough to get the ball close to the hole.

OK, so it's not as high-tech as titanium, not as sophisticated as sub-air pumps.

Still, the gap-toothed, wooden rakes being used this week at the Memorial might be enough to bring scores down, or at least make world-class players think twice about hitting into bunkers.

And that's the whole idea of a bunker, isn't it?

Nicklaus has designed hundreds of golf courses around the world, and he could think of three reasons why an architect would put in a bunker -- it looks nice, it helps define the shape of the hole and it penalizes an errant shot.

"To this point in time, they've been aesthetically pleasing and they guide you around the golf course," Nicklaus said. "But they haven't been penal. So I think that third element needs to come into it. I thought that for a long, long time."

Nicklaus, the tournament host who is not playing the Memorial for the first time, spoke for nearly an hour Tuesday and not once did he say anything about the golf ball going too far.

He long has lamented that technology has required courses to spend millions of dollars lengthening the golf course to make it more challenging. And all he needed to do was build a new rake?

Whether it does any good will be determined over four days at Muirfield Village, where the winning score as been double digits under par every year since 1990. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But it speaks to the notion that making golf tougher might mean making conditions more ragged.

One reason driving distance has increased so much over the years is that fairways are firmer and tighter than carpet in a five-star hotel. Elaborate lawn mowers can make greens smoother than a billiard table. And the sand is raked so smooth that players don't even wince when they see their balls disappear into a bunker. More times than not, they're relieved.

Brad Faxon and Jerry Kelly got their first look at the furrows in the bunkers during a morning practice round.

"It's a hazard," Faxon said.

Of greater concern to Kelly was the methodology in the art of raking a bunker. When the furrows run toward the target, players at least have a chance of getting their club on the ball. When the furrows are perpendicular, players have to hit behind a clump of sand, and they can't get much -- if any -- spin on the ball.

And from a fairway bunker?

"It's a wedge out," Kelly said. "You might be able to move an 8-iron."

Indeed, this was a dominant topic of conversation in the locker room and in the practice areas, driven by curiosity whether this is a new twist to the Memorial or if players can expect to see this every week.

"No decision has been made longterm," said Henry Hughes, chief of operations for the PGA Tour. "It's strictly a test."

Ironically, Nicklaus takes the blame for bunkers being so perfect in the first place. Years ago, he wanted a clean look in the bunkers and his staff developed a rake often seen throughout the PGA Tour -- round, with tines about 1 1/2 inches long.

"Now, all the bunkers are so perfect, there's no penalty anymore," he said.

Paul Azinger, one of the best bunker players on tour, doesn't necessarily agree. Azinger noted that he was 0-for-10 in sand saves at the Memorial a year ago. "I thought they were hard enough," he said.

And while the corn-row look in the bunkers should make them tougher, it could eliminate some of the excitement. In the most exciting finish of this prestigious event, Azinger holed out from a greenside bunker at No. 18 for birdie to beat Payne Stewart in 1993.

In these bunkers, he's probably lucky to be within 20 feet.

When Jim Furyk won here in 2002, the pivotal shot was holing a bunker shot on the par-5 15th for birdie.

Now?

"The pin would have to be pretty sturdy," he said with a smile.

Defending champion Bart Bryant was asked the last time he saw bunkers like the ones at Muirfield Village.

"A little nine-hole golf course in New Mexico," he said. "We had one bunker out on the course that never got raked."

He was kidding, but not much.

Whether this becomes part of the tour landscape remains to be seen, like when the tour started putting the flags three and four paces from the edge of the greens in 2003.

Nicklaus doesn't recall any ridges in the bunkers since Oakmont in the 1962 U.S. Open, which he won in a playoff over Arnold Palmer. The furrows were so deep there that the best anyone could do was pitch out sideways.

He doesn't think these ridges are that bad.

"Matter of fact, I was in two bunkers when I was out there Saturday," he said. "And I got both up-and-down."

 

 




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