MAJOR championship golf is getting harder. Not just for the players, but for us … the fan in the gallery or the sleep-deprived devotee, as is the case here in Australia, who perches in front of the TV.
It certainly isn’t any fun for the world’s best players to be made to look hopeless as they hack another shot somewhere in the direction of the green from rough so deep and thick that a machete would be more appropriate weaponry than a pitching wedge.
From our side of the gallery ropes it makes for a less than spectacular event. Those fortunate enough to be in the crowd will no doubt get a lesson in the most appropriate expletive befitting another chip out en route to another bogey, or double.
If I want to see someone struggle to break 80 I’ll tee it up on Saturday morning each week to get my dose of chip outs, three-putts and hard luck stories. I don’t need to watch the world’s best players made to look second rate because the set-up of courses for the majors is calculated to protect what they believe is the game’s Holy Grail – Par.
As far as I am concerned par is simply a number on a scorecard. Imagine if you just took away all those threes, fours and fives of the scorecard and just went and played. Lowest score still wins, no matter what.
At least two of the majors have slowly but surely had their excitement factor drained from them by the very people running them.
The committee at Augusta National (Masters) are less ‘par-centric’ but they can conspire to have an eight- to 10-under winning score simply by using certain pin positions to ramp up the challenge. On the other hand you have the USGA contriving to see their champion finish no better than par. Narrow landing areas, fast running fairways, long rough and exceptionally quick greens are all part of the USGA formula. This only results in someone losing the championship down the stretch with bogies, rather than producing a winner who comes from the pack of chasers with a birdie run. The USGA wears “the US Open is the toughest test in golf” line like a badge, but its obsessive compulsive drive to have no player in red numbers goes too far more often than not.
As I write this, the final preparations were being made to the Erin Hills course for this year’s US Open and will be another brutal outing, which had some players scratching their heads.
Adam Scott was even moved to plead with the USGA to not go overboard on a difficult set-up.
“Let’s just have something that’s a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to do away with the even-par target. Let’s just have something that’s a challenge and interesting, not just playing brutal.
“The ball is in their court. Hopefully they get it right this time, just from a playability standpoint. If their major pinnacle event requires courses to be the way they are, it doesn’t set a good example.”
As you read this, the US Open will have been run and won, but I’m willing to bet that the leader with nine holes to play didn’t win and a player who stayed out of trouble and banked pars down the stretch did.
The US PGA has been following a similar philosophy to the USGA for a few years now but the R&A has resisted the urge, on most occasions, to tamper too much with their classic courses. Sure they have lengthened them and there was the year of madness at Carnoustie in 1999 but, on the whole, Open courses (in partnership with Mother Nature) have been allowed to determine the champion.
Royal Birkdale, venue for this month’s Open Championship, underwent major changes prior to hosting the event in 2008. Many holes were lengthened and thick rough flanking hard and fast fairways were narrowed to 20 yards in parts.
The changes for this year’s tournament have been minimal and the course has actually been shortened, not by much mind you, from the beast that confronted the field nine years ago.
But don’t expect this year’s Open to produce anything memorable or exciting down the stretch come Sunday. We might see some missed par putts that will leave the result hanging in the balance. But I can almost guarantee you won’t see a player rattle off a string of five birdies on the front nine – as Ian Baker-Finch did in 1991 to stamp his place in Open history – or finish birdie-eagle-birdie to catch the leader and win by one. The winner is more likely to keep the driver in the bag, hit irons to stay out of trouble and make a stack of two-putt pars to close out the tournament. Thrilling!
I hope I am wrong about the outcome at Royal Birkdale but the course was certainly hard enough before the changes.
All this begs the question, though. What the hell do these organisations hope to achieve for the ‘growth of the game’ by making their showpiece events humiliating for players and boring for spectators?