PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. - Justin Rose, hands on head, learned a harsh lesson:
There are good swings, and then there are good shots.
Rose thought he'd accomplished both, but he'd only done the former.
His shot on the 98-yard seventh at Pebble Beach Golf Links landed pin-high and careened to the back of the green as if it had struck a pool table.
As my colleague Bradley Klein says, “Golf course architecture is what happens when the ball hits the ground."
Case in point: the 2019 U.S. Open.
In the last decade, numbers have come to rule the lives and livelihoods of professional golfers. Sophisticated high-speed camera tracking systems like TrackMan have encouraged pros to reduce themselves to a set of numbers: ball speed, launch angle, spin rate, apex, carry distance.
Typically receptive PGA Tour greens make that last figure the most important one when it comes to scoring. They spend hours internalizing the feeling of a wedge swing that sends a ball 84 yards as distinct from one that sends a ball 88 yards. And both swings (in concert with their equipment) are refined to impart just the right amount of spin to make the ball hit and sit, perhaps hopping a couple feet forward before zipping a couple feet back.
Rose was likely expecting that sort of behavior, plus a couple yards' extra forward bounce. He appeared to have landed his shot where he intended, but he underestimated what would happen when the ball hit the ground.
Eventual champion Gary Woodland's ability to hit low, running tee shots helped him keep the ball in the fairway while still getting plenty of distance, and his high-spin faded short irons and wedges were a match for the firm conditions through the weekend.
When putting surfaces are soft, even cups placed three paces from the edge of a green put up meager defense against an elite professional level of training. When carry distance can be equated to total shot distance, pros can remove a huge variable from pre-shot calculations.
The presence of that variable - literally: what happens when the ball hits the ground - marks the point at which a golf shot morphs from applied mathematics into art. When pros have to consider the height, distance and direction a ball will bounce as part of their preparation for a shot, it also forces them to consider elements like trajectory and left-right shaping in order to try to use that bounce’s effect to their advantage. In firm conditions, a “stock” shot - which pros hone to near-perfection on the practice tee and which can be boring to watch over and over during regular Tour events - is usually not good enough to produce the desired result.
Shotmaking skill becomes relevant once again.
Justin Rose is tied for third on the PGA Tour on average proximity to the hole from 100 to 125 yards, at 16’1”. On Saturday, he ended up 39’11” past the hole on a shot he clearly thought would be close after he struck it.
Why did this little pitch fool Rose so? Even on expertly-struck wedge shots by the best practitioners, balls were caroming 20 to 30 feet forward before trying to reel back. With the hole just five paces onto the green, it took a high, floating shot that brought the thick fronting rough and bunkers into play to truly challenge the cup from the tee. A simple two-putt from 30 or 40 feet long seemed a safe alternative to trying to manufacture a brilliant shot. Still, some players were up to the task, carding 20 birdies on the day.
Pebble Beach's seventh hole still played under par for the day, but it required an exceptional shot to produce a birdie. Francesco Molinari, known for his precision with irons, made the day's lone double-bogey on the hole. Tiger Woods was another of its victims, sending his tee shot well past the pin and three-putting for bogey.
While Justin Rose escaped a couple hours later with a two-putt par after his own misadventure from the tee box, there was little denying the complications a firm putting surface can lay on even world-class golfers.
Rory McIlroy, who finished tied for ninth, had a telling response to a question about what challenged him the most about Pebble Beach:
"I think the greens are so small, and when it gets a little firm like this and they start to tuck pins in little corners, it's angles, it's all angles," he said. "You're trying to think and move ahead. It's a little bit like chess where you're crossing paths, going from the third green to the fourth tee and seeing a group tee off 17 and watching their balls land on the right side and kicking in. You have to anticipate what your ball is going to do along the ground, as well."
Firm = fun (especially if you're getting strokes)
Not only is it more fun to watch golf on firm ground, it's more fun to play, especially on courses designed to accommodate such conditions. For many golfers, the sight of a big fairway bounce on a well-struck drive is a thrill because it portends big distance. And since the vast majority of rank-and-file golfers leave approach shots short of pin-high due to less reliable solid contact and a modicum of inflation of distance expectations for irons, firmer greens tend to help the ball along toward the cup in regulation. Off-green contours direct shots in a pleasing direction, too.
In this way, firmness can actually help to equalize players of disparate handicaps. The more accustomed one is to placing the ball in the intended spot, the more frustrating it can be when the ground seems to foil those efforts. The more accustomed one is to falling short of the target, the more firm turf can help make up that lost ground.