The (Lost?) Art of Course Setup

By: Geoff Shackelford

Midway through the 2002 Australian Open's first round, play was cancelled because Victoria Golf Club's greens had exceeded the speed limit. Players putted off the green. Uphill putts hit past certain holes trickled back well short of the cup. On a mild day with light winds, 27 players finished 18 holes-and not one was under par. The setup folly prompted New Zealand's Greg Turner to remark, "It's not the incompetence that astounds me, just the extent of it."

The Victoria debacle is just one example of a rash of course setup foibles in recent years. Particularly notable are questionable ploys at the last five United States Open Championships, and no doubt there will be plenty of debate surrounding this year's event at Chicago's Olympia Fields. One wonders: Is pushing the course-setup envelope a longtime component of tournament golf that's only now being exposed as media scrutiny generally intensifies? Are these foibles a product of governing bodies rigging tournament courses to mask ineffective equipment regulation? Or is it simple incompetence?

Course design and setup began to change when early-20th century pros such as Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor complained about center-line fairway bunkers and any other feature they deemed unfair. During the 1920s, writer Bernard Darwin questioned the introduction of "rough" and other artificial course-setup tricks. Out of love for the unfettered Old Course at St. Andrews, Darwin expressed concern about a restrictive course setup's effect on architecture, speed of play and everyday golf in general.

The revered Bobby Jones, though expressing displeasure only occasionally during his competitive years, forced the golf world to take notice whenever he did speak out on setup issues. He disapproved, for example, of the 1927 U.S. Open setup, in which Oakmont's bunkers had been prepared with deep-furrowing rakes.

"The ... difficulty is its greatest charm," Jones said after seeing Oakmont's spike-tined rakes for the first time. "But when in spite of the vast improvement in the ball, in seeking to preserve the difficulty and to make scoring as hard as it was in the old days, we make the mistake of destroying the effect of skill and judgment ... I cannot help protesting."

According to its former executive director, Frank Hannigan, the USGA took control of U.S. Open course setup in 1952. Executive director Joe Dey and committeeman Richard Tufts stepped in following what Hannigan calls a "hugely erratic" run of setups handled by host courses and superintendents. The inconsistencies boiled over with the infamous 1951 Oakland Hills preparation, which prompted spectator and 11-time major championship winner Walter Hagen to remark that "the course was playing the players, not the players playing the course."

Ironically, USGA intercession has seemed more geared toward repeating the stark severity of '51 than avoiding it. The USGA's setup concept has been simple: Present narrow, rough-lined fairways to reward straight tee shots. Add firm greens ringed by nasty rough, placing a premium on greens hit in regulation. The result: All pars are hard-earned.

Over the years, efforts to emphasize straight drives to a single safe position (as opposed to strategically placed tee shots) and protect the mysterious "integrity of par" have typically muted the role of course architecture. Besides the contrivance of changing par-5s to par-4s, thereby reducing the number of red numbers posted, there have been high-rough and concrete-green setups that pushed the limits of reason, highlighted by 1974's "Massacre at Winged Foot," where Hale Irwin's 7-over-par was good enough to win by two strokes.

In 1979, a bizarre overnight spruce planting was designed to prevent Lon Hinkle from shortcutting a hole by playing down one of Inverness's parallel fairways. There have been rumors of last-minute Gibberellic acid applications to stimulate immediate rough growth. Midway through the 1985 PGA Championship, panicky officials took a cue from the USGA and rolled the greens to slick down and speed up the putting surfaces.

The 1980s featured a consistent series of Open setups spearheaded by longtime staff member P.J. Boatwright, who mastered the art of "tough-but-fair" U.S. Open conditions. He was succeeded by his protégé, longtime amateur great and current Champions Tour player David Eger. In a minor departure from previous USGA philosophy, Eger introduced chipping areas around certain greens at Shinnecock Hills and Pebble Beach, the logic being that creating recovery options would promote more aggressive approach shots.After Eger left to go work for the PGA Tour, USGA championship setups have been handled by rules and competitions director Tom Meeks, championship committee head Fred Ridley, championship agronomist Tim Moraghan and almost annual input from a USGA-endorsed course architect, more commonly referred to as an "Open Doctor."

Setup of U.S. Open courses continued to reflect Boatwright and Eger's legacy until the 1998 event at San Francisco's Olympic Club, where extreme measures backfired disastrously during the second round. Olympic's slender 18th green featured a Friday hole location cut into a rear slope that had been deemed questionable in pre-tournament evaluations. Who can forget the image of Payne Stewart after his short par putt lipped out on that sunny afternoon? Arms folded, Stewart watched in disbelief as his ball trickled down the green and finished 25 feet from the hole.

But the 18th-hole problem was only part of a strange week in which many players felt the USGA employed setup tactics to compensate for Olympic's 6,797-yard length, considered short by modern standards.

"The course had lost much of its character by Thursday," says Eger, who qualified for that '98 Open. "It had been dried out to the extent that it was virtually impossible for tee shots to come to rest in some of the sloping fairways." Instead, balls came to rest awkwardly against the primary rough strips. "Great courses like Olympic, Shinnecock and Pinehurst No. 2 should be played as their designers meant them to be. should, if anything, be enhanced during the Open," continues Eger, "not disguised by unreasonably narrow fairways, overly penal rough, rock-hard turf and poor hole locations."

The following year at Pinehurst No. 2, the USGA admirably refused to grow rough around Donald Ross's trademark crowned greens, and also featured shorter-than-usual fairway rough. Players complimented the setup-until they saw tournament hole locations perched precariously close to the edges of putting surfaces. With Open green speeds set to kick in, a disastrous weekend was averted only by unseasonably cool and misty weather.

In 2000, Pebble Beach included the widely criticized second-hole par switch. A par-5 reachable in two for longer drivers in previous Opens, the hole was deemed too short by present-day three-shot standards, and thus changed to a long par-4. Less talked about but clearly noticeable were well-watered green approaches oddly contrasted with bone-dry putting surfaces. However, any questionable setup moves were rendered moot by Tiger Woods' epic runaway victory.

The 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills witnessed another first: greens too fast for play. Early-week practice rounds revealed the newly resurfaced ninth and 18th greens to be so slick, even balls hit to the middle were rolling back and down into the fairway below. The USGA raised mowing heights, leaving the new bentgrass lumpy and leafier than the other 16 surfaces. By late Sunday afternoon, 18th-hole putting fiascos by leaders Mark Brooks, Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen had tinged the outcome.

Bethpage in 2002 featured the 490-yard 10th hole's now infamous 250-yard forced carry over high rough to a fairway that proved unreachable for most of the field when wind and rain showed up in round two. Just as controversial was the fairway contour design for the Black Course's 499-yard, par-4 12th. USGA officials provided just 12 paces of fairway width for those driving 260-270 yards. But if a player carried the left-side bunker and another patch of dense rough with a 285-yard drive, he found a fairway that widened to 26 paces.

"What were they thinking?" asked an incredulous Nick Price, a member of the shorter-hitting contingent. "It defies logic."Overseas, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club would like to forget the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie-perhaps the definitive course setup debacle. The problem was not confined to one hole or a single poor decision. Instead, ultra-narrow fairways accented by fertilized rough and defended by an unapologetic superintendent made the classic Carnoustie links almost unrecognizable. A design that easily would have held its own without such harsh pre-tournament preparations became a battle zone of grimly defensive golf. The result was a painful final-hole meltdown by the leader (Jean Van de Velde) and an unlikely champion who's scarcely been heard from since (Paul Lawrie).

Some have lamented the British Open's shift to irrigated fairways and narrow contour lines restricting the driver. Authentic links characteristics once provided a refreshing contrast to the previous month's precision-guided U.S. Open. However, Muirfield's slender fairways were widely praised during the 2002 British Open because players felt the long hitter's advantage had been reduced. Others pointed out that the tightly bunched field never did fully separate itself, with an unseemly four-man playoff ensuing.

"I have been disappointed to see so many players hitting irons off the tee," TV commentator Peter Alliss said before Sunday's final round, in which eventual winner Ernie Els drove with a long iron all day. "Maybe they should narrow the fairways and widen them further up so that it tempts people to use a driver. Driving used to be a great skill, a real weapon in your armory."

A number of traditionalists claim these extreme setups were created to mask a deficit of technology regulation. That contingent includes Jack Nicklaus, long a critic of loosely regulated golf ball technology.

"The long ball has a negative effect on tournament setups," says Nicklaus. "It forces tournament committees to protect par in some way, and what they'll generally do is put the pins in more awkward positions. The golfers are probably better today. Equipment is better. The golf ball goes farther. So they shoot lower scores, so what? I don't have a problem with that. The only problem I have is when none of the difficulty ever comes in play."

In 1992, when David Feherty was still active on tour, the outspoken Irishman weighed in on newly tightened fairways and excessive rough designed to protect par. In a piece that appeared in Golf World, Feherty wrote: "I'm always hearing that it's good when par is relevant. I agree, but if athletes swim the 200-meter freestyle faster than they did 10 years ago, the [event organizers] don't throw Jell-O in the pool."

Architect Brian Silva says most classic architecture is overmatched in today's game. "Tournament setups have favored laser-straight fairways, rather than allowing fairways to twist and turn from tee to green," says Silva, whose design partner Mark Mungeam oversaw renovation work leading up to this year's Open at Olympia Fields. "Ultra-narrow fairways, penalizing rough and Stimpmeter speeds way too fast for green slopes developed during the Golden Age, have exerted an artificial 'brake' on golf scores, keeping the spotlight off how far the golf ball has been traveling."At Olympia Fields' North Course, players will see a layout about 300 yards longer than the one on which the 1997 Senior Open (won by Graham Marsh at even par) was staged. But Mungeam says he and his crew worked hard to maintain the integrity of Willie Park Jr.'s design. In particular, they moved tees back to keep original bunker locations in play for today's longer hitters, rather than moving the hazards forward, which would have meant additional (and unnatural-looking) dozer work.

Mungeam says the USGA generally prefers fairways be narrowed to 24-28 yards wide for the Open, a process he consulted on with Meeks and Moraghan at Olympia. "They did get my input on occasion," he says. "I was most concerned that the fairways not become straight lines and that the bunkers still be an integral part of the fairways. ... We cherish classic courses because they set so comfortably on the landscape."

Only when the trophy is hoisted on June 15 will we know whether Olympia Fields' setup enabled an exciting, strategy-laden championship-or if, as Greg Norman lamented in Golf World last year, a length-driven setup eliminated options and catered to souped-up equipment.

"Anyone who believes golf in America hasn't become one-dimensional should study closely what has occurred in this year's major championships," Norman said. "Technology-including balls that don't spin as they did, square grooves, graphite shafts with virtually no torque and lob wedges with 62 degrees of loft or more-has stolen the ability of many of today's young players to adapt under changing conditions. Strategically placed bunkers, hanging lies and challenging turning points are what will put the teeth back into championship golf, not 500-yard par-4s."

In light of unthinkable driving distances and vastly improved course conditioning, is there a way to present challenging championship golf on venues of reasonable length, without turning majors into freak shows?

"They didn't get a grip on the manufacturers," Hal Sutton said last year after seeing USGA-recommended design changes to Riviera Country Club. "And now they are trying to make up for it by changing the greatest pieces of artwork that we have in the world. I think ... the USGA should have stopped this before it ever got to this point, instead of changing great golf courses."

It seems that until par is accepted as nothing more than a number developed for the handicap system, and the technology situation is refined with a tournament ball, there will be more unnecessary changes to classic venues and an increase in the number of course preparation failures.


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