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Players complain about tough courses

Bay Hill was brutal one year. Shots into the firm greens looked as if they were bouncing off a trampoline, yet the grass was so lush in front of the green it was hard to get the ball close. No one shot better than 69.

One major champion unloaded in the parking lot that evening, calling the course a joke and wondering aloud if he would return. Just then, tournament host Arnold Palmer pulled up beside him in a golf cart and asked him what he thought.

He looked at the King, shrugged and slowly nodded his head.

“Not bad,” he said.

Jack Nicklaus couldn’t stop laughing when he heard this story Sunday morning at the Memorial.

There was no shortage of media complaints about Muirfield Village, where Kenny Perry won with the highest score in 23 years. Nicklaus might be colorblind, but he can read black-and-white print in a newspaper.

The source of players’ aggravation was rough that might be as thick and long as they see all year. Combine that with the fastest, purest greens on tour and the results were predictable. There were more rounds in the 80s than the 60s. Players near the top of the leaderboard said it was tough but fair. Players near the bottom said it was ridiculous.

Nicklaus could relate to Palmer.

“Not one player said a word to me,” he said.

Course setups get about as much attention as slow play these days, and solutions are equally difficult to find. Nicklaus made it clear that he wasn’t in charge of the way Muirfield Village played—that ultimately falls to the PGA Tour staff—but it was no different from previous years, except for a wet spring that made the grass grow.

The rough, indeed, was troublesome. Mike Weir had a wedge to the fifth green in the final round and chipped out from the deep rough (he still made par). Phil Mickelson rifled a 3-wood some 290 yards to the par-5 11th green in the second round, and the ball rolled off the back into the rough. It was so deep he wound up scrambling for par.

“I think one of the greatest shots in golf is the recovery,” Nicklaus said. “I hate it when you’re hacking out, and they’re doing that at my tournament. I hate that. But I have no control over that.”

The lawn mowers weren’t broken, but the grass was so thick it might not have mattered.

Some players felt as though they were at a U.S. Open, and maybe that’s why Nicklaus was so amused to hear so much whining. He used to go to the U.S. Open, listen to players complain about the course, and figure those guys had no chance.

“You have to learn to adjust,” Nicklaus said. “If I couldn’t adjust my game to the conditions, I didn’t deserve to do well.”

The problem is whether the PGA Tour is getting enough variety.

For all the complaining at Memorial, there were birdies to be made. Mathew Goggin made 15 over the first two days, along with his share of bogeys. Even so, Davis Love III has noticed the winning score getting worse in recent years.

“Scores should be going down, not up,” Love said. “That’s a pretty good indication that it’s getting harder. Nobody ever shoots 20 under anymore. And players are a heck of a lot better. The fields are deeper.”

Love said the course setup was a major topic at the players’ meeting last month in North Carolina. Why are courses so hard? What kind of show can they put on for the fans and a television audience when they’re scrambling for par?

And who’s idea was this, anyway?

“It’s a four-letter word,” Steve Flesch said at the Memorial. “And he runs this place.”

The mandate actually came from the PGA Tour policy board nearly 20 years ago, with only a few instructions. Firm, closely mown grass on the tees, fairways and greens. Thick, evenly dispersed rough (when growing conditions allow).

The summation of that 1990 document was to have all courses play as difficult as possible while remaining fair. Exactly what that means, of course, is subject to interpretation.

Are course setups getting worse?

In 22 stroke-play events this year, 10 winning scores were higher, 10 were lower and two were the same.

“I don’t want to sound like the guy who’s 44 and not playing good,” said Love, who turned 44 in April and is not playing particularly well. “But it’s really hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or easy—it’s the same for everybody. But is that what we want?”

This follows a year in which average birdies were way down from previous years, along with TV ratings, and players began asking if fans might lose interest watching the best in the world hack it around every week.

“I think Phil had the right idea when he said technology has gone two ways,” Joe Ogilvie said. “We have better balls, better drivers, better equipment. Johnny Miller talks about equipment almost as much as he talks about himself. But 15 years ago, they couldn’t grow rough 10 inches. John Deere makes a hell of a tractor that cuts the greens lower and lower and lower.

“It gets to the point when golf—even for us—gets pretty boring.”

Next week is the U.S. Open, where the winning score has been 5 over par the last two years.

Ogilvie believes PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, the USGA and other golf organizations want courses to be tougher than ever so fans won’t think “these guys are good” simply because of the better equipment.

“But at least,” Ogilvie said, “they’re not saying ‘these guys are good’ because of HGH.”

 

June 4, 2008




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