Twenty word tease: Let’s focus not on what the professional gleans from this event. Instead, let’s look toward the average golfer’s perspective.
An Open for the Ages? Most people never even heard of Graeme McDowell. For the most part the final round was almost boring. No big names. The only truly historic possibility was Ernie Els winning his third open. So how could this have been an historic event? Well for once, let’s focus not on what the professional golfer gleans from an event like this. Instead, let’s look at it from the average golfer’s perspective.
This was a true People’s Open. Because it was played on a golf course the USGA boasts that the public can play, like Pinehurst or Bethpage? Get real USGA. All three of these locations are far beyond triple digit greens fees (unless you are a New York resident, and that only gets you to Long Island). No, this was a people’s open purely thanks to the course setup. Not only did Mike Davis of the USGA put some teeth into Pebble Beach beyond high rough of opens past, he did it in such a way that signals to the world that brown is beautiful and rough does not have to dominate to challenge the best golfers in the world.
So how does that make this past event the People’s Open? Because it is another significant step in golf course management that can return affordability to the game of golf for the people. See, it is a lot less costly to manage a golf course where it is not imperative that every square inch of grass be perfectly manicured emerald green. It is also a lot less time-consuming to maintain dense rough along each fairway as well. Hopefully these are lessons that every greens chairman can learn and use back home in an attempt to cut costs and shine the spotlight away from conditions and back toward strategy. Davis is deftly demonstrating that course setup can be strategic in and of itself, provided there is some interest in design beyond relying purely on aesthetics and difficulty.
One of the more innovative setup strategies Davis incorporated is actually a tried and true method of intentional golf course design: utilizing the natural features of a property to create strategic choices for golfers. In this case, he virtually eliminated rough along the bluff’s edges at Pebble. Particularly from the eighth to twelfth holes as well as the other ocean holes, fairway was extended right up into the rocks, meaning that the ground game became a factor off the tee. Architects of the past often relied on short grass to lead slightly adrift tee shots toward sandy hazards or elsewhere, placing a premium on not necessarily being straight off the tee but shaping shots to take advantage of the contours of the ground. This art has gone virtually extinct with the inclusion of rough as part and parcel of a golf course designer’s repertoire.
Granted, we have seen the gradual inclusion of short grass around greens in Opens of the past decade or so (none more evident than at Pinehurst No. 2), but this is the first time I can recall that the short grass had an effect elsewhere on the course. It was absolute drama personified watching Phil’s tee shot on eighteen roll confidently into the rocky bluffs on Saturday. To me, this was much more interesting than watching him mentally grapple between a three wood and driver because the fairway was a measly twenty-seven yards wide with end-game rough on both sides. Seriously, although the conversations between him and Bones may be fascinating once in a while, it is not really a ratings-gainer.
My mother always hated watching the British Open because she could never make out the fairways and greens. I am guessing she was in the majority of Americans that felt the same way. Yet here we were, watching golfers putting on a quilt of greens and browns at Pebble a few weeks ago. There was discussion about Poa annua late in the day, but that is a conversation we have heard even when the greens were uniformly verdant. No, the greens were not compromised due to color as the putting was true. Think now how much healthier the game could be if we could eliminate the cost of color consistency and be happy with a smooth roll. Bottom line: our wallets would be a bit healthier. In turn, this game will grow.
So here I am rambling about how this is an Open for the ages, talking about how narrow fairways should be a thing of the past. The result of the new open setup and prep may result in less fluke open winners (see Andy North, Steve Jones, maybe Corey Pavin) and replaced with more talent. So how does Graeme McDowell factor into this thought process. Who is Graeme McDowell?
History may look upon him as another Michael Campbell or it may look upon him as another Nick Faldo. His track record (multiple international winner, Ryder Cupper) was formed on hard and fast playing conditions of Europe, where green is gauche and brown is big. He certainly fits the mold of the new Open setup. So kudos to Mike Davis to convince the rest of the USGA to make a difference. Maybe he can talk to the guys in charge of equipment?