Sunday, October 31, 2010

Golf Course Setup and Major Championships

Golf's governing bodies continue to struggle with setting up the venues for Major Championships. At times this is an embarrassment to our sport and in 2010  it was more of the same, with questionable setups at three of the four Majors.

After the 2010 US Open, people were talking about how the USGA had gotten better at setting up Championships. Well isn't that a left handed compliment? It has gotten better but is it good? The 14th hole at Pebble was certainly interesting. And the players seemed to be just fine with St. Andrews, even if, according to Frank Nobilo, of the Golf Channel, the R&A didn't mow the greens on Saturday. And then we certainly had an interesting PGA Championship.

Conversely, Augusta seems to be able to come up with a pretty good setup year after year. Augusta has an advantage. Augusta's Committee knows their golf course better than any organization knows any of the venues that they visit once a decade or so. Can you imagine Augusta having a poor setup like some of the other majors?

Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing mystical about setting up a golf course, there is no crystal ball, no mind altering drugs required or sports psychologists to consult. It just is not that difficult. Golf is different than other sports, in that the playing field is different from venue to venue and for that matter from day to day and therein lies the problem. Variables that influence the setup include; architecture, slopes, soils, grass species, climate, sand, thatch, etc. Officials of golf's governing bodies have a challenge that is unique in sports; preparing a field of play that has the potential for infinite variability. I don't envy their charge but I do question their process, and their personnel's experience/expertise. How can that be? Perhaps these people do setups for several lesser events each year. That really is not much experience considering that the Assistant Superintendent at your favorite golf course does setup every day and hundreds of times a year.

To setup a golf course for a Championship, one must determine the pin positions, tee locations, green speed, rough height, fairway widths, and irrigation. That's about it, yes there is more but understanding the basics can lead to a successful Major Championship setup. Architecture, grasses, weather, and intended playability are to be reflected in the setup, yes, but they can't be adjusted by man or committee the week of the event.

Haven't we all played in a tournament where the Pro, Superintendent, Committee Chair, or someone from a golf organization did a setup that was inappropriate, usually with every tough pin placement and green speeds that were just too much. Many newcomers to course setup don't have an understanding of setup or a feel for it and just look for difficult pin positions without regards to the ebb and flow of the golf course. In a four day event, a golf course can have similar levels of challenge while being very different each day or dare I say, provide a variable level of challenge from day to day. During a Championship, could that help identify the best player?

How is it that the PGA Tour, week in and week out, has great setups on their events? Slugger White, the PGA Tour's Tournament Director and Rules Official, seems to be able to figure things out pretty well every week and yet the governing bodies of golf have struggled at an alarming rate. Maybe the Majors should bring in Slugger to teach them how to do setup. When is the last time that we saw a PGA Tour event choose pin positions that were inappropriate for the green's speed or have greens that were bumpy because the week before an event a well intentioned official decided to turn the water off causing greens to get so bad that the the TV broadcast tried to minimize their close ups of the balls rolling on the greens? I can't remember one.

Golf's Championships, its Majors, have  course setups dictated by people that do setup a few times a year and really have little experience doing setup. You've got to love these organizations. When I was a young man, the stimpmeter was being touted by the USGA as the tool to achieve consistency from green to green on a particular golf course. And now, they are routinely talking about and possibly creating different speeds from green to green and maybe even on the same green. One green is softer and slower than another. Is that consistency or is that a flaw in the setup of the golf course? Green speed should be based upon the the most severe green or desired pin placement on the golf course on that day of play. Pick that one pin placement that you really want to use and determine the speed that works. That should be the speed for the rest of the greens. This can be determined years in advance of an event. This panic management of the USGA, R&A, and PGA of America rolling into town the week before a Championship and making these decisions on the fly is just bizarre.

You may now be asking yourself, how I can say these things. Good question. The answer is that I was a Superintendent for 6 PGA Tour events, one PGA Championship, an Assistant Superintendent for a US Open, and on the greens crew for an Amateur. I have done golf course set up literally hundreds of times on Top 100 golf courses and overseen it thousands of times. I half kidded with a friend of mine recently who has been closely affiliated with golf's governing body that while I was still in my teens, that I had done more setup than anyone in any of these organizations. It may have been a little bit of a stretch or worse yet, maybe not.

But let's not stop with greens. What about the fairway narrowing and straightening? I don't know about the R&A but I do know that the PGA of America and the USGA routinely narrow fairways down and straighten them for their Championships. In doing so, they do make the golf courses tougher. But they also create less strategic options for the golfer and less to think about on tee shots. Does this identify the best golfer? It seems to minimize strategic options and dictate one way to play each hole. This could just be a philosophical approach to identifying the best golfer that I disagree with. I believe that the player can be challenged both with accuracy and options to more fully and completely test their mind and mettle.

Roughs for Championships are another area that the Majors just seem to struggle with. Different grasses and different weather conditions require different heights of cuts to provide a proper challenge. The typical problem that we see with roughs is when Bluegrass or other cool season grasses are allowed to grow too high. The roughs quite often are trimmed up on Tuesday and Wednesday to about 4 inches and then left to grow for the remainder of the Championship. What happens is that bluegrass starts to fall over when it gets much longer than 4 inches. So we end up with roughs where some balls are in grass that is laying over against the grain and other balls are laying on top of grass that is laying down in the direction of play. Two bad shots, one player chunks their ball out with a short iron and the other has a hot lie that they can hit any club they want. If the grass had been trimmed to whatever that "right" height is, both players and most of the rest of the field that day would have had similar conditions when in the rough. This happens every time that the roughs gets too long. The key is that there is a height that can be determined and managed to provide really good rough for championships.

Once a venue is picked, it is incumbent on the Association holding the Championship to plan for course setup. A digital level, available for $75 at hardware stores, and a couple of days on site could alleviate the embarrassment of poor pin placements and speed setup of Championships. Measure the slope of each pin placement that is desired and determine which is the steepest. Then mow that green and measure the speed. Is the pin accessible? If so mow it again and see if it still works. If it does roll the green and repeat. At some point the pin won't work. The last speed that worked is the speed the greens can be on the day that that pin placement is used. On other days another pin placement on the same green or another green will determine what the "right" speed for that day can be. And heaven forbid that we can look at the % slope of the green with a digital level and know what speeds work for what slopes. As far as adjusting greens speeds, it really isn't tough. Most Superintendents have a pretty good handle on that and can provide any desired speed. Perhaps these organizations could let the Superintendent know what speed the greens should be a year in advance instead of on Wednesday afternoon of the Championship or worse yet on Saturday or Sunday morning of the Championship.

I have measured the slopes of iffy pin placements and have a pretty good idea of what speeds work on different slopes. Perhaps these Organizations that run major championships could do a little research and know that a pin placement on a 4%, 3.5%, 3%, 2.5% slopes can have maximum green speeds of x feet on the stimpmeter. Nope, I'm not telling, I've done my work, but for $75 and an afternoon, anybody that works for one of these Organizations that is involved in course setup can figure it out. It doesn't seem like something that you discover during a Major Championship after your mistakes have marred the competition.

Let me suggest something that I have done before. A year before the event, the golf course should do a run-through of course setup. This can be a special treat for golfers at these Championship venues and allow all parties to get comfortable with the setup. This will help everyone work out the little things or at least identify the issues with plenty of time to address them.

Perhaps some of our friends that control Golf's Major Championships will read this and use some of these ideas to minimize the risk of further embarrassment for golf. Or maybe, just maybe they don't care as long as revenues aren't affected.

Suny's Philosophy of Golf Course Architecture

No comments:

Post a Comment