A 9,000-yard course would be nuts, but it’s also fast becoming a necessity

Over the last month, golf’s ruling bodies—the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient—have conducted their most important championships, offering a referendum on their stewardship of the professional game.

At the U.S. Open, Justin Thomas became the first man to post a nine-under round at a major and Brooks Koepka decimated the longest course in U.S. Open history, posting a record 16-under on an Erin Hills layout that played around 7,800 yards. One former champion told GOLF.com, “This is not what the Open is supposed to be. It’s a joke. A highlight show.” At last week’s Open Championship, Branden Grace broke golf’s four-minute-mile barrier,torching Royal Birkdale with a record round of 62. Grace ranks 108th on the PGA Tour in driving distance; on his historic day, Birkdale played less than 7,200 yards and a short-knocker like Grace hit 9-iron or less into 10 greens, with the longest club he employed into any par 4 being a 7-iron. The longest hitters faced even less of a test as the game’s oldest championship had essentially been reduced to a pitch-and-putt.

I have been saying for years that to seriously challenge Tour players—to make them hit long-irons into some par 3s and 4s, and have a few 5s be true three-shot holes—a course needs to be around 9,000 yards. Maybe 10,000. I tweeted this in the wake of Grace’s 62 and it ruffled the feathers of many folks, including various Tour players. “That is complete nonsense!” Billy Horschel replied, with typical understatement. Colt Knost offered a similarly nuanced take: “U seriously have no idea what ur talking about!”

I’m not saying a 9,000-yard course is a good idea, only that it has become a necessity. Luke Donald partially fleshed out the problem with this solution: “SMH & 7 hour rounds, how fun Alan.” It’s true that a course of that length would require an obscene amount of land and water and time to play. But the USGA and R&A have shown no stomach for rolling back the pros’ gear.

The entire equipment industry is built on FOMO; we all want to play the latest and greatest stuff that the pros use. A reduced-flight ball would be a disaster for fan interest: Who wants to watch Dustin Johnson drive it 270 when we can do it ourselves? So while throttling back the ball and driver would be an easy fix to make today’s courses relevant again, I am operating under the premise that it will never happen, despite the pleas of Jack Nicklaus and many other truth-tellers. So where does the game go from here?

Course setup seems like an easy answer. As Knost tweeted at me, “They can’t help that there is no wind and soft greens [at Birkdale]. Deep rough firm greens [is the answer]. Course can be 6800 yards and play tough. Look at Olympic club.” The same thing was said of Erin Hills: It would have been a totally different test if it had played tournament and fast. But it often rains during the Open Championship, and every U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the Midwest or East is likely to get wet, just as so many Masters weeks have been touched by storms. To bank on dry, fiery conditions to give a venue its teeth is foolish.

Links courses have always used wind as a primary defense and still conditions led to good scoring, but nowadays no wind means these 19th-century playing fields will be destroyed by modern athletes who optimize their performance with trainers, nutritionists, osteopaths, sports psychologists, putting gurus, stats experts, Trackman, Swedish nannies and a host of other modern advances. Unless every major moves to California (home of the Olympic Club), firm and fast will remain a mirage.

So what about deep rough and narrow fairways? No doubt that setup is a deterrent to low scoring. But it also leads to a tedious, constrained style of golf, where shotmaking is diminished. A very penal setup off the tee means power players will simply leave the big stick in the bag. Driving it long and straight is the toughest task in golf, and those who can do both deserve to be rewarded; if there is no room to hit driver, the sport has been diminished and the venue is not offering a true test.

I should state here that I don’t really care about the concept of protecting par. Whether the winning score at a major championship is six under or 14 under is of little interest to me; what I care about is how the score was accomplished. Laying up off the tee with 3-woods and hybrids and hitting short irons into most greens simply makes the game too easy. Birdiefests at everyday Tour events are fun, but the majors should test every aspect of players’ games while pushing them to the brink spiritually.

Jordan Spieth described his third-round 65 at Birkdale as “stress-free.” I’m sorry, but trying to protect a lead in the final group on Saturday at a major should involve some stress. At the U.S. Open last month Dru Love, son of Davis and a college-aged amateur who was playing in his first Open, described Erin Hills, after a first-round 71 as “pretty easy,” while Matt Kuchar’s caddie, John Wood, noted that “nobody’s playing with any fear.” Wood was right. During the final round there was never a sense of imminent danger, the rain-softened course was simply too short, even at 7,800 yards. Erin Hills had been built to accommodate drivers but in the end was bludgeoned to death by them.

This is the point where I should offer a brilliant solution but, alas, there isn’t one. The USGA and R&A have begat a mess that can’t easily be cleaned up. Golf’s most important events now need the perfect mix of sunbaked greens and stiff wind to offer the right challenge. This will happen only occasionally, so in a doomed effort to protect the reputation of the courses (and ruling bodies) you can expect more silly setups like the dead greens at Chambers Bay or shaved greens at the Old Course in 2015, which led to a suspension of play due to wind (even though every other nearby course was open for play), or what we saw at Merion, with crazy pin positions and players hitting irons off the tee at many/most of the par 4s, which is about as boring as golf gets.

Every sport evolves, and golf has done so rapidly this century, which began with the solid-core ball revolution. In response to my original tweet a few folks pointed out that basketball players have grown bigger and stronger and more skilled but the NBA hasn’t raised the rims. That’s because those bigger, stronger players also play defense, keeping the game in balance. The only defense golf courses have today is the weather, with all of its capriciousness, or extreme setups, with all of their flaws. The equivalent of 6’11″ point guard is a 9,000-yard golf course. Like it or not, the time has come.

Courtesy of Alan Shipnuck(golf.com)

 

U.S. Open 2017: Johnny Miller pours cold water on Justin Thomas breaking his record

As Justin Thomas broke Johnny Miller’s record for low score in relation to par at the U.S. Open, people far and wide made cracks about the NBC announcer not enjoying the moment. Turns out, they weren’t too far from the truth.

Thomas shot a third-round 63 at Erin Hills — punctuated by an eagle on No. 18 — to match Miller’s famed final round score from the 1973 U.S. Open. But his nine-under-par total was one better than Johnny’s eight under at Oakmont.

RELATED: Our favorite Johnny Millerisms

Yet Miller seemed to pour some cold water on JT’s record-breaking round when Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner spoke to him on Saturday evening:

“Taking nothing away from nine-under par — nine under is incredible with U.S. Open pressure,” Miller said. “But it isn’t a U.S. Open course that I’m familiar with the way it was set up.” Hmm. . .

Of course, Miller has a point. Erin Hills, which is hosting its first major championship, has yielded unusually low scores for a U.S. Open. In addition to Thomas’ 63, there have already been four other rounds of 65, and more players broke par on Saturday than during any previous third round at the tournament. But. . . he still comes across as slightly bitter.

RELATED: The winners & losers from Day 3 at the U.S. Open

Although, Miller’s mixed reaction (he did give Thomas credit for going that low under U.S. Open pressure) shouldn’t come as a surprise. NBC booth partner Dan Hicks said during a recent Golf Digest podcast that Miller wasn’t too thrilled about Henrik Stenson shooting 63 in the final round of last year’s Open Championship. Not that we blame him. And he’s certainly not the first athlete to root against young whippersnappers coming after their predecessors’ records.

On the bright side for Johnny, he didn’t have to sit in the booth and analyze Thomas’ round on live TV. And we’re pretty sure this is the first time he’s ever trended on Twitter.

courtesy of Alex Myers (golfdigest.com)

Mickelson details what needs to happen for him to play U.S. Open, and now we wait

Phil Mickelson closed the FedEx St. Jude Classic with a 68.

Phil Mickelson closed the FedEx St. Jude Classic with a two-under 68 on Sunday, but when he plays next is anyone’s guess.

Mickelson said earlier this month he plans to skip next week’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills in order to attend his daughter Amanda’s high school graduation in California, which is the same day as the opening round in Wisconsin. Mickelson is a U.S. Open victory away from the career grand slam and has finished as the runner-up in the event six times.

After his round on Sunday, CBS Sports’ Amanda Balionis asked Mickelson what needs to happen for him to make his tee time on Thursday, which is 3:20 p.m. EST.

“I need a four-hour delay,” Mickelson said. “I need a minimum four-hour delay most likely. That’s the way I kind of mapped it out. I should get into the air right around my tee time or just prior, it’s about a three-hour-and-twenty-minute flight, and by the time I get to the course I would need a four-hour delay. Last night there was a 60 percent chance of thunderstorms on Thursday; right now it’s 20 percent. Who knows. … It’s not looking good, but it’s totally fine.”

Mickelson, who hasn’t seen or played Erin Hills, added that he plans to keep his game sharp the next few days just in case.

courtesy of Josh Berhow (golf.com)

Golfer withdraws from U.S. Open sectional qualifier after airline loses his golf clubs

TELA, HONDURAS – MARCH 24: Michael Buttacavoli of the United States tees off on the 18th hole during the second round of the PGA TOUR Latinoamérica Honduras Open presented by Indura Golf Resort at Indura Golf Resort on March 24, 2017 in Tela, Honduras. (Photo by Enrique Berardi/PGA TOUR)

We’ve heard some horror stories through the years with airlines losing or damaging golf clubs, but this one is particularly sad. On Monday, Michael Buttacavoli was set to try to qualify for the U.S. Open — until his sticks never showed up. What a nightmare.

No big deal, American Airlines. It’s just the U.S. OPEN.

Buttacavoli, a 29-year-old currently playing on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica Tour, advanced through local qualifying by shooting 69 at The Club at Emerald Hills (Hollywood, Fla.) last month. He was to play in Monday’s sectional qualifier at Jupiter Hills Club in Tequesta, Fla., where an early 7:26 tee time gave him a small, but doable travel window after flying overnight to Miami from Ecuador after finishing T-51 in the Quito Open.

“I was met with supportive parents with food in the car and stuff I needed. My brother was going to caddie for me. I figured I’d get there, have a 30-40 minute warmup, and go,” Buttacavoli said when reached by phone on Monday. “My bag just never came.”

Instead, Buttacavoli, who has made it to sectional qualifying three other times, but never gotten into the U.S. Open, was forced to scramble back and forth between the baggage carousel and the counter, losing valuable time. His clothes made it off the plane, but he believes his golf bag got lost in the shuffle with clubs of other players on the flight who were on their way to the Dominican Republic for the next PGA Tour Latinoamerica event.

Following his initial tweet Monday morning, he exchanged messages with American Airlines:

And then with a fellow golfer:

PGA Tour pro Zac Blair weighed in wondering why he didn’t at least try with a rental set at the site with 49 players vying for just three spots.

McIlroy points to unique atmosphere of Chambers Bay as motivator

Rory Mcllroy

                        Rory Mcllroy

Chambers Bay is some 2,700 miles from Augusta, Ga., but to Rory McIlroy it feels like another galaxy.

“Much quieter. There was so much hype, so much attention,” McIlroy said. “Compared to Augusta, this feels so much different.”

That’s because unlike the Masters two months ago, McIlroy won’t tee it up at the 115th U.S. Open this week with a chance to win the career Grand Slam. This U.S. Open business is old stuff; he already owns one. Thing is, if he has designs on adding a second one, McIlroy will have to go about things differently than the first time around.

Back in 2011, McIlroy overwhelmed everyone at a water-logged pin cushion called Congressional Country Club, the place so saturated that the kid from Northern Ireland zeroed in at flagsticks all week. He led by six at the halfway point, by eight at 54 holes, and cruised to a record 16-under 268 to win by eight.

Four years later, soft and soggy has been replaced by firm and fast, a change of complexion that McIlroy said suits him. But it’s here in the story that McIlroy tosses some contradictions into the mix, because though he calls Chambers Bay “a pure links golf course,” in the next breath he offers that players would be well-served to hit it far, hit it high to attack elevated greens and realize “you don’t have to run the ball on the ground.”

Akin to saying it’s pure American football, but you don’t have to tackle.

Closer to the truth is this: Chambers Bay feels like a links but will not play like a links, because as McIlroy said, the ball needs to be played in the air because of the many elevated greens. And as one astute observer reminded, “they didn’t move millions of yards of dirt to build St. Andrews,” another reminder that we need to get away from calling Chambers Bay a links.

It’s not.

No offense, young Rory, but to give him his due, let’s focus on two things.

One, the last time we brought one of these big shows to a pure links, McIlroy dominated the field to win the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool last summer.

Two, the last time we played one of these majors at a venue that felt like a links but didn’t play like a links, McIlroy overwhelmed the field to win the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.

In other words, put aside all the course descriptions and all the various parameters and keep it simple. McIlroy is the best player in the world and feels deserving of that distinction. “I’ve won more majors than anyone else in (the last few years), and I want to go out every week and try to back that up and show that,” he said.

Forget that he missed the cut in each of his last two starts: the Irish Open and BMW PGA Championship. “I think that’s just the way I’m going to be,” he said.

Focus instead on his impressive wins at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship and Wells Fargo Championship. “I’d rather in a six-tournament period have three wins and three missed-cuts than six top 10s. Volatility on golf is actually a good thing.”

As if to prove his point, McIlroy has missed the cut twice, won and been middle of the pack two other times in the last five U.S. Opens. Pure volatility, which makes this week at a question mark of a golf course even more interesting when it comes to McIlroy.

courtesy of Jim McCabe (Golfweek.com)

Like it or not? PGA Tour players and golf reviewers critique Chambers Bay prior to 2015 U.S. Open

Chambers Bay Par 3

It’s a yearly tradition: The United States Golf Association and Executive Director Mike Davis getting firmly into the psyches of the world’s best golfers. With 2015 U.S. Open host ChaIt’s a yearly tradition: The United States Golf Association and Executive Director Mike Davis getting firmly into the psyches of the world’s best golfers. With 2015 U.S. Open host Chambers Bay, the USGA voodoo appears to be well ahead of schedule.

It’s a novel, if not experimental concept for the U.S. Open, normally staged on Golden Era designs that are exclusive country clubs. With Chambers Bay, opened in 2007, the massive property that was formerly a sand and gravel quarry will draw record attendance. The course setup can change wildly day to day at the hands of the tournament committee thanks to long, ribbon tees and enormous putting surfaces.

Also unique in 2015, virtually no player will have the benefit of knowing the Robert Trent Jones Jr. design very well. The only other event it has hosted is the 2010 U.S. Amateur (2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth shot a second-day 83 and missed qualifying for match play). The USGA then took that feedback to continue to develop the ideal test for the main event in 2015.

Davis said he believes players should take it upon themselves to visit the course many times prior to the event.

“I would contend that there is no way a player will have success here at Chambers Bay unless he really studies the golf course and learns it,” Davis said at U.S. Open media day. “The idea of coming in and playing two practice rounds and just walking it and using your yardage book, that person is done, will not win the U.S. Open.”

Some tour players like 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson have scoffed at the notion they have all sorts of free time to go out of their way to study the course. Others have been less than enthused with what they’ve seen. Henrik Stenson called it a “tricked-up links course.” Ryan Palmer had the most flamboyant comments following his visit.

“(Davis’) idea of tee boxes on down hills, up hills and side hills is ridiculous,” Palmer told USA Today’s Steve DiMeglio. “That’s not golf. I don’t care what anybody says. It will get a lot of bad press from the players. It is a joke. I don’t understand it. I just don’t know why they would do it.”

Chambers Bay rated by the daily-fee golfer

Whether or not the tour pros love the venue, regular golfers can revel in the fact Chambers Bay is the latest addition to the USGA’s shift toward publicly accessible U.S. Open venues. But the caveat is that the course has been under a watchful eye of the USGA and constantly tweaked and renovated ever since opening. Temporary greens and other operational interruptions, due in part because Chambers is wall-to-wall fescue grass, which can be tougher to manage than bent grass in the Pacific Northwest, have been a common occurrence, which some golfers haven’t been too happy about after plunking down $150-$200 or more for a round.

On Golf Advisor, Chambers Bay has had 14 reviews since summer 2013. (I played the course back in 2009 as part of a jaunt from Harding Park to Bandon Dunes to Chambers Bay.)

The most negative review on Golf Advisor came in June 2014 from golfer theonlybfc. He felt like a second-class citizen due to nets protecting parts of the fairways and four temp greens and awarded the experience one star.

“The greens were in worse shape than any muni course I have ever played,” he wrote. “Caddy said that we would be seeing seven different green speeds throughout the day, and he was right.”

Perhaps due to a full summer of added grow-in, reviews for the remainder of 2014 were very positive, with little mention of condition issues. Golf Advisor’s own Mike Bailey awarded the experience five stars. Golfer JLandenburg was a staunch defender of Chambers:

“This course is an incredible opportunity to learn a new kind of golf,” the single-digit handicapper wrote. “But many here are simply too closed minded to get it.”

courtesy of Brandon Tucker (golfadvisor.com)