article in www.finegolf.co.uk by Lorne 23rd June 2015
The Chambers Bay course is young and not perfect, on that we can all agree. So,
1. Did it give us one of the most exciting US Opens ever?
2. Did it examine the best players in the world?
3. Did the best come out on top?
I want to analyse the controversial commentary from three perspectives:
o The playing pros.
o The past players, in which I include ‘Moaning Montgomerie’ and competitive golf architect Gary Player.
o Golf TV and Press Journalists
I have not yet played the course so it is difficult to pontificate on the design, particularly as the considerable movement in the ground is difficult to appreciate from watching only the TV.
Davis and Johnson
The USGA and Executive Director Mike Davis showed visionary leadership some fifteen years ago in encouraging the building of Chambers Bay and promising the support to help it happen.
So, well done the USGA for seeing soon after the millennium that ‘running-golf’ was the future with ‘target-golf’ becoming by comparison predictable and boring.
Pros are used to dominating a course with their ‘carrying-power’ and stopping control.
As Cpl. Jones of Dad’s Army said “They don’t like it up them!” The fiery ‘running’ surfaces make their power off the tee less of a weapon.
Dustin Johnson’s drives apparently averaged 340 yards (It is not surprising the course needed to be able to be extended to 7,900 yards – more on this later) but he crucially is also accurate.
The consistent Grace lost because of one OOB drive. The brilliant Jason Day, irrespective of his health problem that was forever being commented on, lost it by allowing his drives to run out of fairway, as well as his errant bump-up from underneath the 13th green that almost came back to his feet. This incident revealed he did not know how to play the short game on such firm surfaces as was the case also for many lesser mortals in the field, who were used to playing ‘target-golf’.
They were all using wedges to chip. Off the tight turf you need to be a magician every time to not ‘scull or dunk-it’ at the crucial moment when employing the wedge.
‘Target-golf’ players may like fringes around the green to give definition and hold their ball in place but I am glad to report across GB&I, it is being recognised that aprons and run-offs at fine golf courses are being firmed up and extended. Chambers Bay is an extreme example of this aspect of ‘running’ design that welcomes the bump-and-run shot.
Did this ‘running-golf’ course require strategic thought on the tee as to where players should best put their ball on the fairway and was this ideal location also near a hazard that added risk to obtain the best approach line to the green in order to get their ball near and below the pin?
Was it a real examination of their imagination, creativity and skill and not just of their carrying-power?
It is not surprising McIlroy was somewhere there with the leaders but he will admit to not being totally comfortable with ‘running-golf’. His duffed pitch to the 16th using a sand wedge rather than a bump-and-run 8-iron was more indicative that he was not going to win than the missed putts at 14 and 15. Sadly this observation was lost on the Sky TV commentary team (McGinley was the exception and the guy who made the most sense, such as his comment: ”They are having to think outside the box and use creativity. You don’t see that very often on tour”).
These pros, used to playing on ‘target-golf’ courses like Augusta that are pristine, immaculate, soft and coloured green, require time to get used to brown-turf ‘running-golf’. Jordon Spieth to his credit and good sense played 63 practice holes round Chambers Bay. The finest courses only reveal their brilliance to you after a few rounds. For a twenty-one-year-old who they all say is very competitive (i.e. doesn’t like losing) he showed remarkable composure most of the time, working out with his caddy what to do. It is when the chips are down and the pressure is on, that the best heads concentrate and achieve, as he did up the 18th, a hole that he had unfortunately described earlier as “the dumbest hole he had ever played”!
It was a pity that the 18th was too much for battling Shane Lowry, who with Jimmy Gunn from Dornoch, gave GB&I fans some hope that as more tournaments are played on ‘running-golf’ courses we will have somebody to cheer who understands how to play them! And their experience of playing under the wind was not even needed here, with the pleasant sea breeze seldom being above 10mph.
Somebody described the course as ‘quirky’. What an accolade for a ‘Major’ venue. The game should not be a predictable exact science.
Back in 1999 there were various pros who afterwards regretted their comments of complaint about how The R&A had set-up Carnoustie for The Open Championship as too tough. If you remember the rough was grown-in at the point where the Jocky Burn pinches the fairway on the sixth hole, offering a large reward to those who took on the risk of ‘Hogan’s Alley’.
There were a few players at Chambers Bay who would have done well to heed Jack Nicklaus’s advice that “if you moan you are already beat”.
Montgomerie couldn’t help himself from calling the undulations on the 7th as too severe, though he thought that green’s surface was good. It was amusing to hear his colleague point out that he had three bogeys on this hole!
Young Billy Herschel’s comment was enlightening: “I don’t think you would have heard us complain as much. (Editor’s underline) I think you would see a lot more putts go in from a distance, from 10 to 20 feet. You haven’t seen a lot of those putts go in this week”. On the long putts I am not sure he was right but does it enhance his reputation to be seen looking for excuses by fluttering his hand like a snake?
The question is this: How can pros, who are all playing the same course, find a way to get their heads around this type of examination? Who am I to say; they are the ones with a team including psychologists etc. But when I play on firm, fast surfaces my attitude is ‘I just love it’. It may well suit match-play more than pencil-and-card but when my approach has not been good enough to find the green’s surface, I enjoy having to select a bump-and-run in which I have to imagine where to pitch the ball and then execute with my 7-iron Ping Eye Two taking account of the contours. It is the percentage shot and it saves me, as long as I employ ‘soft’ hands, numerous shots. These pros either use a wedge (that they are used to using on soft turf when they can get under the ball and pitch and stop it quickly) or a putter that has often to roll over fringe grasses that are difficult to predict.
They have to find a way to enjoy themselves and to work with the course not against it.
These days all golfers complain about the inconsistency of bunkers. The traditionalist might say “Hey, they are hazards; you should not be in there!” The pampered nature of modern golf is highlighted by pros on purpose firing into pristine flat bunkers around the green, as they are so much easier to control out of than from tough fringe rough. That was not an issue at Chambers Bay. The tufting around the bunkers and their depth made them proper hazards.
I believe four types of Fescues (hard, sheep, red and chewings) have been used across the course which makes up 96% of all the 78 acres of playing surfaces (I would have thought it likely there is only red and chewings on the greens) and the greens are cut at 0.18 inches (4.5mm) but I do not have any inside information on the reason for the inconsistency of the putting surfaces at Chambers Bay. I can take a guess and would be very open to being put right. There are a couple of holes that are newly laid or seeded that are almost pure fescue grasses that performed truly. The others perhaps have been invaded by small patches of annual meadow grass (Poa annua) which Stenson said made the greens look like broccoli. They reported that on short slow putts the ball apparently bounced too much (not that this was obvious to me from the comfort of my chair, when watching the slow motion magnification.
The Seattle Times quoted Mickelson as saying “Downhill putts can be tricky, but uphill they seem to hold the line just fine.” It seemed to me that the slopes just took the ball away and often on the unprofessional low side – which is simply called bad reading of the green! But clearly the pros confidence was already shot to pieces as they were not used to seeing such a mottled colour and putting is all about confidence. If you see a mottled colour as a problem you will have problems.
It was suggested by the TV commentators that when the ball hit a patch of Poa it kicked the ball off-line. To get Poa to run smoothly it is normally cut at 3mm or below so there may be some truth in that but it all sounds like an amateur speaking. Why didn’t Sky TV invite a greenkeeper or agronomist to advise on this technical matter instead of continually emphasising that the players were complaining?
There is no doubt (and it is objectively proven yet again by the latest STRI 6-year programme 2014 figures – see Michel Coffey’s latest Newsletter) that fine grasses give a smoother, truer roll to the ball than Poa annua and thereby give better putting performance.
The same criticism might be made of the golf journalists in the Sunday papers. The Times (Nick Pitt – headline: Players cut up rough but best survive Chamber of Horrors), Telegraph (James Corrigan – Headline: Course is a betrayal says Player) and Observer (Ewan Murray, the very same Sky commentator? –Headline: Stenson objects to suffering broccoli with his greens) where each had a major article on the state of the course. These men were looking for controversy with no thought that the greenkeepers should be given any space. They merely quoted the moaning players and Gary Player who incidentally at least correctly criticised the USGA and The R&A for not reining–in the power of the ball, something that Donald Steel, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Jacklin, Nick Park and Uncle Tom Cobbley would all agree on that. (The logical conclusion of this refusal to act is designers creating 7,900 yard courses that are ten miles to walk round and take five hours to play).
Gary Player’s comment that recreational players would not enjoy Chambers Bay, is somewhat undermined by the fact that there were 38,000 rounds here in 2014.
Chambers Bay is young and not perfect but having just reviewed Ganton, we must remember it has been tweaked by Harry Colt, Alister Mackenzie, Ken Cotton, three of the most outstanding golf architects ever, with input from other great designers over 125 years and they have a course manager and two greenkeeping/agronomic advisers who understand fine grasses and a committee and secretary committed to long term improvement.
Below is the cumulative under-par score of the winner of recent Majors, 2005 to 2014:
The Masters -95
US Open -18
The Open -86
US PGA -99
Whatever the moaners said, Chambers Bay performed to its objective and I would answer a ‘yes’ to each of the opening questions.
Pro golf may be financially healthy but those who feed off it have a responsibility to recreational golf which is suffering badly.
Is the concept of ‘running-golf’ at last getting through to the golf world headlines? Perhaps, but there are too many golf journalists who do not understand it and too many companies with their commercial interests hooked into ‘target-golf’. Expect more vitriol to come.