Another once-infamous golf course has succumbed to shockingly low scores on the PGA Tour. The Stadium Course at PGA West was once deemed too difficult for a pro golf tournament. Now Patrick Cantlay is shooting 18-under on it over two days and the 2021 American Express champion Si Woo Kim went bogey-free over three rounds on the Stadium.
I've reported on amateur competition at the Stadium Course at PGA West and trust me, those of us with day jobs are not shredding this Pete Dye design anytime soon.
But it's quite obvious these days that the vast majority of pro golf venues that were a difficult test even a decade ago are suddenly not very intimidating to a pro golfing set that just continues to get longer and straighter.
Over the last few years as we've watched elite talent like Bryson Dechambeau and Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson go incredibly long and low, I've pondered a little bit how we could make pro golf more challenging without rolling back equipment on all of us. Based on how many hacks I see on my muni who can't hit it 200 yards reliably, I'm not convinced we need a blanket rollback just yet.
But I can also safely say I'm anti-bifurcation. Golf already has what other sports do not: the ability to set staggered starting grounds.
Before the governing bodies decide to come for everyone's driver CC's, let's consider some ways we could make tournaments more uncomfortable for the elite player while not forcing courses to lengthen. After all, land use and golf is and will continue to be the biggest issue facing the future of the amateur industry.
Some of these ideas might seem a little nuts. I'd love to hear your wild ideas in the comments below!
Slow down the greens
Some pundits have suggested growing out the fairway grass would help slow down the rollout of drives. I'd argue that ideally, Mother Nature should be the super. Visiting courses in July 2018 throughout Angus, Scotland, and seeing staff and members beaming with pride at their baked out, brown fairways was a revelation.
Everything was brown there except the greens, which were still watered and slow compared to elite North American courses that will typically run 10-13 on the Stimpmeter. Some pros like Ricky Fowler have suggested slower greens might lead to tougher putting and I tend to agree. Slick greens punish poor players with shoddy short games more than they challenge good players who typically hit all their shots solid with plenty of spin.
The novelty of fast greens leads to more maintenance and higher dues. But they also eliminate the toughest pin positions. By taking off a few feet off the stimp, down to say, 7 or 8, you could set pins on steeper slopes. Suddenly, six-footers have a lot of break. And balls that are traveling faster at the hole have less chance of hitting the lip and dropping.
Ever watch old Masters highlights? Those players putted on grainy bermuda back then.
Permit fewer than 14 clubs
The trouble with bifurcation is that if an accomplished amateur decides they want to test the pro waters, they would have to overhaul their equipment (whether that bifurcation is the ball or the clubs).
Rather than roll back or bifurcate the clubs, take them out of the bag. Reducing the bag to 10 clubs could lead to far more artistry and imagination from the player in terms of gripping up and down the club, sawed off finishes and the like. Consider US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy's thoughts on the topic in a recent column he penned for Golf Australia.
"Don’t get me wrong though. My good shots now are miles better than my best when I was 18. But I feel like I’ve lost a bit of the ability to play all those little “in-between” shots that you need to play and score really well. While I have gained what I like to call “ease of shot” from my modern equipment, almost any need for me to ‘fit’ my drives into specific fairways has been lost. I don’t get creative because I really don’t have to get creative. I hit the shot that my driver is designed to hit. Because that is easier to do. “Ease of use” is the phrase that keeps popping up in my brain." - Ogilvy
Club manufacturers might scoff at the idea of fewer clubs in the bag, but there would be a real opportunity to showcase the versatility of their irons and wedges. It would create a surge in equipment coverage: Pros would all apply different strategies to what they put in the bag. How many wedges? How many woods? Leave out the even-numbered irons?
Players would make lineup decisions every morning like a baseball manager. It could be fascinating.
Vertically graduated rough
An intermediate and primary cut of rough has been a popular tournament setup method for awhile now. The gist is, if a golfer misses the fairway by a few feet, the penalty is less than if they miss it by a few yards. The mowers follow the same path from the start of the fairway to the green surrounds.
Maybe it's time to go vertical. Set up tournament venues so that on longer holes, the rough is worse the farther down the fairway you go. If the 250-yard shot misses the fairway by a few yards, the rough isn't half bad. Miss it 300 yards down, it's a hackout. Miss it 350 yards down the fairway, you're dealing with native grasses, gravel piles, sinkholes, fire ants, all of it.
Roll back the bunker
Bunker lies are too flat and too perfect too often. Why should a ball hit the lip and then roll back down into a flat spot? Jack Nicklaus experimented with different rakes at Muirfield Village, but who needs rakes at all? Let the bunkers turn into gnarly pots.
Returning bunkers to a more primitive, rake-free existence would require an endorsement from the turf gurus out there. Superintendents and their staff take immense pride in the presentation of their golf course, and especially so when it has a date with TV cameras.
But our modern, developed economy's labor shortage is very real and affecting golf operations. Courses are taking out bunkers or building them without any. Memorial Park, host of the 2020 Houston Open, went from over 50 to 19 in the Tom Doak and Brooks Koepka-led renovation last year. A reeducation of the proper expectations (or lack thereof) and penalty of a bunker might be welcomed on many sides.
Grandstands are a penalty
This hasn't happened as much in the fan-free COVID-19 tournament golf era but massive grandstands behind greens will be back soon enough. Grandstands make pro golf easier, especially when the drops are growing seemingly absurd. The game's best should be able to avoid them. If players need a drop because they hit the ball into the grandstands, penalize them. Actually, if the ball hits one, a one-stroke penalty should be assessed, no matter where it lands.
Actually enforce pace of play
Weekend hackers rush shots and especially putts all the time because they are having a rough hole and are out of position and don't want to be rude to their fellow golfers. How many of us have played a hole terribly after the course ranger barks at us to speed up? To the pro golfer, everything surrounding them is merely in their pre-shot routine's orbit. There has been more chatter from pro tour executives about slow play lately, but its enforcement is still typically neutered. There is always an excuse to let a slow shot from a pro slide: someone's teeing off over there ... camera crew isn't settled ... I'm in the last group and there is added pressure ... I think I need a ruling ... By gosh this is a tricky read ... It sure is windy out here ... etc., etc., etc.
A pro shouldn't be allowed to ponder a golf shot for over a minute no matter the chaos swirling around them. Part of the skill and awe of elite competition should be their elite ability to process information walking to the ball, commit and executive in an efficient manor. A big Euro Tour-style shotclock is pretty tacky. But giving rules officials the power to penalize slowpokes could lead to more poor decisions and higher scores. If a group is holding up the group behind them, it should be an automatic penalty on the offender.
Here's a bold idea: rethink the Tiger Tee
I play disc golf maybe once a year, and the first thing that always sticks out about this more spartan cousin of golf is the different philosophy on the tee. In golf, virtually every tee shot is unobstructed. When overgrown trees block a tee shot it's considered negligence of the maintenance staff.
Disc golf is different. It's more primitive in nature, often deep in the woods. A disc golfer could have thirty trees between them and the basket. They must be creative and use a variety of shot shapes and throws from tomahawks and rolling shots to huge slices and hooks.
Watching a disc golfer carve a disc around multiple trees like a remote controlled drone is an exquisite thing to witness.
It's apparent that golf galleries love watching sharply shaped shots from the likes of Bubba Watson, and many of Tiger Woods' most famous shots have involved banana-balls around trees, too. The awe of the shaped shot is now amplified at home for the TV viewer with HD and Toptracer. And yet these days, modern players' default shot is typically a Trackman-optimized bullet on a rope unless a tree forces their hand.
So, hear me out: instead of moving the Tiger tees farther back, move them off to the side, behind trees, hills, comfort stations, telephone poles, any sort of obstacle. Demand golfers carve their tee shots to gain the greatest advantage over the field. Imagine putting a tee box behind a low-hanging limb, forcing the world's best to hit Gary Woodland-esque stingers. The risk-reward is amplified. Maybe they mishit it and the ball pops up, hits the tree and rolls right back to their feet.
Are you not entertained?