Professional golf has never been more exciting. So why is it so poorly run?
Note: This is long. Sorry, I got carried away. Also, I wrote this the week after the (British) Open Championship, and it wasn’t published until now for some reason.
The past four majors in professional golf, starting with the 2014 PGA at Valhalla and continuing through the 2015 Open Championship at the Old Course, have been won by a combined seven shots.
This includes the Masters, where 21–year-old Jordan Spieth (the age descriptor is becoming less mandatory with his increasingly widespread fame) led wire-to-wire, tied the tournament scoring record of 270, and won by four. Spieth also conquered the toughest test in golf this year, watching Dustin Johnson melt down on the final green to hand the U.S. Open trophy to the young Texan.
The two majors on either side of Spieth’s triumphs were won by a player who seems destined to go down as one of the best ten or fifteen (if not three or four) players to ever tee it up (Rory McIlroy), and a constantly-in-contention former Masters champion (Zach Johnson, in a three-man playoff).
The names within two places of the top after all was said and done in these past four majors comprise a Who’s Who of golf’s A-list. In fact, in many cases, full names aren’t even necessary — Phil (twice), Rickie, Dustin, and Oosty (twice) all nearly added to their own compelling career tales before ultimately falling just short.
Make no mistake: the past four majors were awesome.
Rory made par on the last hole at the PGA Championship at Valhalla when only par or better would do.
Jordan’s Masters victory felt so weighted with history that, between overcoming his collapse of the previous year, chasing Tiger’s ghost towards the tournament scoring record, and starting the nearly Herculean task of fulfilling his future’s potential, it hardly mattered that he had no physical peers to contend with.
Lost in the thousands of discussions about DJ’s collapse (and yes, that’s the word I’m using for it) on the final green at Chambers Bay are the five incredible shots to set up that scenario — Spieth’s perfect drive, rocket 3-wood, and near-eagle that would have shaken the foundation of the Space Needle; and DJ’s characteristic laser drive and almost casual 5-iron to 12 feet.
And even Zach Johnson, the only major winner in the past calendar year to not emerge from one of the final two groups, rolled in a 30-foot birdie on the 18th at the Old Course to post an early number, then emerged victorious from the first playoff in an Open Championship since Tom Watson’s near miss in 2009.
And make no mistake, golf as a whole right now is in an incredible place.
The last four majors were great. Seven of the top 20 golfers in the world are under 30. A heaping handful of other 20somethings are in contention on both the PGA and European Tours every week. Eight different countries are represented in the top 20. Monday’s finish at this year’s Open Championship drew a better overnight rating than last summer’s final round, which wasn’t played on a weekday. This was probably due to the very real possibility of a CALENDAR YEAR GRAND SLAM, which we have somehow gotten through about 500 words of a golf blog post without mentioning.
So, that’s all well and good. Everything’s copacetic. Nothing whatsoever has gone wrong in the past year or so that would make us think…
Make us think that people are unhappy with…
This is getting to be kind of a long-winded intro, so I’ll just get to my point.
Professional golf right now is amazing. The way professional golf is run right now is pretty terrible.
Let’s go major-by-major, shall we?
2014 PGA Championship
Winner: Rory McIlroy
Controversy: Rory hitting up
Besides the oppressive heat and sauna-like humidity of Louisville in August, the PGA Championship at Valhalla went off with few hitches. Valhalla is one of the signature courses in the United States when it comes to high-stakes golf tournaments, having hosted three PGAs (‘96, ‘00, and ‘14) and the 2008 Ryder Cup. The top of the leaderboard featured some of the biggest names in the sport, including Rory, Phil, and Rickie, and low scores were the order of the day on Sunday.
Henrik Stenson went out in a blistering 30 en route to a 5-under 66, and posted 14-under as the number to beat. Playing in the second to last group, Phil put up his own 66 to get to -15 for the tournament. McIlroy went out in a shaky 36, but caught fire on the back nine, eagling the par-5 10th and posting birdies at 13 and 17 to come to the 18th tee at -16, two ahead of both Rickie and Phil, who were in the group ahead.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Wanamaker Trophy.
It got dark.
Rain had threatened to derail play all day, and it finally made good on its promise just past noon, dumping a deluge that caused play to be suspended for nearly two hours.
In an effort to reel in every stray eyeball (and thus, ad dollar) in America, the tournament was slated to come to a close during prime time on the East Coast — the final pairing of McIlroy and Bernd Wiesberger was supposed to tee off at 3 PM.
Due to the delay, they hit their first balls at 4:26.
Although the sky in that image above looks relatively menacing, it doesn’t look particularly night-like. Here are a few photos of Rory’s trophy presentation, roughly 15 minutes after that shot.
But cameras are unreliable narrators. Short aperture, wide focus, narrow depth of field, these are camera terms that might allow a photographer to manipulate how light or dark an image looks.
Or they might not. I’m not a camera guy.
Bill Fields’s piece for the New York Times described the setting perfectly:
All the scene lacked were a few cars pulled up to the edge of the 18th green, their high beams on to illuminate the gloaming that had enveloped Valhalla Golf Club.
Then it would have seemed like two high school golf teams trying to complete a match on a spring afternoon before daylight saving time had kicked in.
This darkness forced the four players in the final two pairings into an awkward series of interactions, which finally concluded with Fowler and Mickelson allowing McIlroy and Wiesberger to put tee balls into play before Phil and Rickie hit their approach shots.
This is common golf courtesy, a gesture that allows everyone the opportunity to see their approach shots and, hopefully, to finish the hole before darkness falls. This wasn’t the problem.
The problem came with Rory’s next shot.
Fowler and Mickelson hit their approach shots and walked up to their balls in the swifly deepening gloom. Then, McIlroy did something which seemed to catch nearly everyone (including, depending on whose accounts you read, Fowler and Mickelson) off guard: he hit his approach shot to the 18th green before Fowler and Mickelson had finished the hole. He ended up dumping it in the front left bunker, about forty yards from the pin.
This video goes through the whole thing pretty clearly — Phil gave his eagle chip every chance to go down, which would have forced Rory to get up and down for birdie to win. As it happened, Phil birdied, Rory parred, and the Northern Irishman won by a shot.
After the round, of course, everyone wanted to know the story. Most of the involved players said the right things, though Fowler (one of the nicest guys on Tour) did land a soft jab when he responded to one interviewer’s question thus:
“We were cool with hitting the tee shot. We weren’t expecting the approach shots,” said Fowler, adding that finishing in a tie for third with Henrik Stenson (14-under) stung. “Typically if it’s getting dark and they are going to blow the horn, you at least get the guys off the tee and it gives them the opportunity to play. We weren’t expecting the approach shots, so however you look at it, it is what it is.”
Emphasis mine, but the point remains. Mickelson and Fowler felt rushed on the most important hole of the tournament, and were put into an awkward position with regards to the unwritten code of conduct among golfers. By allowing Rory to hit (and hit again), Phil and Rickie made sure the tournament finished on time and were universally praised for their selfless act. However, this put them at a disadvantage — their concentration was definitely thrown (Rickie mentioned that Rory was never really “out of rhythm” as he hit all of his shots without waiting), and the scramble to get everything in before darkness fell meant that Phil hit his approach shot while Rory’s ball sat, tauntingly, 15 yards in front of his.
SBNation’s tournament recap has a great selection of some reactions from prominent golf minds, and the overwhelming sentiment was that this finish was a negative thing for pretty much everyone but Rory.
The question, of course, is this.
Was this the right way to handle it?
It’s hard to say.
And the reason that it’s hard to say is because golf is weird. At its heart, it’s a gentleman’s game. You call your own penalties, there are no official scorekeepers during your round, and even rules officials sometimes give you just enough rope to hang yourself.
The exact process of what happened between Fowler, Mickelson, and McIlroy isn’t totally clear, but the best explanation came from Fields’s NYT piece:
McIlroy said the timesaving idea was his. “I suggested that we play up as a foursome,” he said. “Then I was told we could hit right after them. They didn’t need to do that. They showed a lot of class and sportsmanship. If they hadn’t done that, we might not have gotten it in. It was getting really dark out there.”
According to [PGA of America chief championships officer Kerry] Haigh, who was not at the 18th tee but communicated with walking officials who were, it was Wiesberger who suggested playing up. Haigh said he was told by the officials that Fowler and McIlroy had discussed having the last twosome hit approach shots before Mickelson and Fowler completed the 18th.
Even within this excerpt, two different players (McIlroy and Wiesberger) are given credit for the idea to essentially play the hole with the group ahead. Allegedly, the idea was agreed upon by Fowler and Mickelson, but Fowler’s post-round agitation made it seem that he wasn’t aware that anything of this sort would be happening after the tee shot.
All of this could have been avoided had the final round started earlier.
The Open Championship was played at St. Andrews in Scotland this year. Sunset on the final day of the tournament was 9:43 P.M. The first group of the final day teed off at 7:45 A.M. The forecast called for no rain. The tournament ended, after a 4-hole playoff, at roughly 9 P.M.
Sunset in Louisville last year on the final day of the PGA Championship was 8:43 P.M. The first group of the final day teed off at 8:25 A.M. The forecast called for bands of isolated storms, which in the heat-infused cauldron of the American South can either mean nothing or very big thunderstorms. Admittedly, it was a tough call.
37 pairings played the final round of the PGA. 25 groups started off the first tee before the weather horn sounded, with 10 minutes between tee times. If they had started the tournament an hour and a half earlier, that number would have increased to 33. Having the first group go off at 7:00 A.M. instead of 8:25 would have given the final pairing of McIlroy and Wiesberger a start time of 3:20 — comfortably enough time to get a full round in.
Again, it’s impossible to accurately predict the weather. But it’s not impossible to take precautions against it.
2015 U.S. Open
Winner: Jordan Spieth
Controversy: The course
This year’s U.S. Open was always going to be controversial.
This tournament is so renowned for a specific style of golf — tight fairways, punishing rough, and difficult-to-hold greens — that its Wikipedia page even chimes in to describe it as such. It’s target golf in the extreme, and a few looks at some recent hosts courses does nothing to deny that description.
Here’s the 18th at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, which has hosted 5 U.S. Opens, including the 2012 event.
The famous “Quarry” hole, the 16th, at Merion, which has also played host to 5 Opens including the 2013 edition.
And the first at Pinehurst no. 2, which has hosted a PGA, 3 U.S. Opens, and a Ryder Cup. After an enormous overhaul, Pinehurst returned the non-fairway portions of the course to their natural sand and wiregrass state, which made the 2014 U.S. Open a slightly interesting viewing experience.
But even Pinehurst, without the typically penal Open rough, still had pedigree, unlike this year’s track.
After only eight years in operation, Tacoma’s Chambers Bay was chosen as the site of this year’s U.S. Open.
This is what Chambers Bay looks like.
Yes. THAT course hosted a U.S. Open.
But the fact that it resembles another two-syllable-c-word-followed-by-bay course which essentially sets the standard for quirky links layouts doesn’t, in and of itself, make it a bad U.S. Open venue.
In fact, the course was designed for just such a purpose, with one of the executives in charge of running the municipal course straight-up stating that they had done “everything possible to attract the attention of a prestigious championship.”
Unfortunately, it looks like they got their wish too soon.
Looking more like a grassed-over oil tanker graveyard than a golf course, Chambers Bay began receiving criticism months before the tournament even started, with Ryan Palmer saying (prophetically), “As far as the greens are concerned, it’s not a championship golf course.”
Criticism continued up to and throughout the event, and if you even remotely followed the tournament, you’ll know most of what was said. A sampling of the course’s worst offenses, from SB Nation, where every update is a new story:
Off to a good start.
Players aren’t ever too happy with U.S. Open setups, but rarely do you see such descriptors of parental disappointment like “disgrace” and “shame.”
For a course that was created specifically to host a major championship, you’d think this would be less of an issue.
Player seems like he’s well-respected within the golf community, and he brought an absolute thunderstorm of hate down upon it.
And the funny thing is, people won’t even remember things like the setup, length, and conditions of this course. Because the only thing they’ll remember is the greens.
The evidence makes the case. The greens were an absolute disaster. The main problem, according to most people, was that the whole course was supposed to be made up of one kind of grass (fescue), but another kind (poa annua) that grows faster and in a different pattern somehow snuck in there and turned some of the greens into a veggie platter at the local Piggly Wiggly.
Lunch before play! Day three at US open is on its way! Every Par is a winner! Hwww.facebook.com
They were the major storyline for the whole week, which was kind of too bad since it overshadowed an unbelievable tournament which saw Spieth get halfway to the Grand Slam on the back of another heart-wrenching DJ collapse and despite a white-hot final day charge from Louis Oosthuizen.
Could this have been avoided?
Uh, yeah. Easily. Don’t hold the tournament there. At least not yet.
I mean, I get that they wanted a major in the Pacific Northwest. I get that the course hosted the U.S. Amateur in 2013 and things went fine. I even get that the outrageous slopes, swales, and elevation changes, which prevented the course from being a “true” links, were visually compelling and gave players an extremely difficult test.
However, pretty much no one was happy with this course. Not fans, not players, not broadcasters. There are plenty of terrific golf courses in the Pacific Northwest, including Sahalee Country Club, which has hosted majors on the PGA Tour (1998 PGA) and Champions Tour (2010 U.S. Senior Open) and is slated to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship next year.
There were a few greens where fescue made up the entirety of the green, and these looked and putted beautifully. If the USGA had waited a few years until the course had made sure that all its greens played this way, the issues would have been far fewer.
2015 Open Championship
Winner: Zach Johnson
Controversy: The wind delay
I wanted to squeeze those two tweets in side by side, although they’re talking about different tournaments, because they’re essentially saying the same thing. All golfers know they’re going to have to compete with a few things: each other, the course (which was the issue at Chambers Bay), their own minds (which can sometimes be the toughest opponent), and the weather.
This last point is especially true at links courses, where the wind comes howling off the water and it can be, as Ollie Williams puts it, “rainin’ sideways.”
Bobby Jones once famously said that golf is mainly played on a five and a half inch course — the space between your ears. And when the players have to devote precious real estate in that small space to worrying and wondering about what the custodians of the game are cooking up for them, that ruins the spirit of the competition.
Kirk and Hearn echoed many golfers’ sentiments in challenging the governing bodies of the sport. Golfers are notoriously finicky creatures, and many weekend hackers think the pros should feel privileged just to play the sport for a living. What we fail to understand, however, is that these players are at the top of their sport for a reason — they’ve worked countless hours perfecting their game, and getting thrown for a loop by the tournament’s organizers — whether that loop involves putting on gravel or failing to be able to putt due to gale-force winds, is legitimate grounds for being upset.
And yes, the winds that suspended play on Saturday at St. Andrews were indeed gale-force.
In a nutshell, the problem was this.
Play was suspended for rain on Friday, leading things to get backed up. By Saturday, some players hadn’t even finished their second round, and were sent out early to do so. The R&A felt that, despite supremely high winds, the course was playable (and they apparently tested this: “We putted and we marked balls and we placed them back and we putted again,” Dawson said, “and while it was very windy, we did not get one ball to move at that time of the morning right up to quarter to seven. So we took the view that the course was playable.”). Players were only out for about half an hour, but the damage was done, mentally if not on the leaderboard.
The list of aggravated players is long, and this post is already far too long. A quick Google search will find you handfuls of players upset with the R&A’s handling of this golf tournament, which, for only the 2nd time in its 144 iterations, was subjected to a Monday finish.
Could this have been avoided?
Yes. In two ways.
Way #1 — play 36 holes on Sunday.
It might seem a lot to ask now, but in the early years of professional golf, tournaments routinely concluded with a 36-hole Sunday finish. It wouldn’t have been impossible, especially with Scotland’s long summer evenings, to get everyone out for 2 loops around the Old Course and crown a champion on the traditional Sunday.
Tom Rinaldi pushed Jason Day for an answer on the 36-hole Sunday vs Monday question, and Day finally conceded that he’d like to pull an Ernie Banks and play 2 on Sunday, feeling his physical fitness would give him an advantage. Many of the players in contention were in their prime, with Irishman Padraig Harrington the only 40-something to hit the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday (although eventual winner Zach Johnson is 39).
This would have added an incredible sense of history and drama to the proceedings, since you’re essentially compressing two days worth of competition into one. Someone buried deep in the pack might have caught fire for a day, steaming up the leaderboard on the back of a flurry of birdies. Top players would have had enough holes to falter and recover. Heavyweights like Spieth, Johnson, and Jason Day could have traded two rounds-worth of punches. Cinderellas like Paul Dunne and Ollie Schneiderjans could have been the subject of breathless live tweets and hastily researched trend pieces, only to be dumped like bad habits as the pressure of the moment finally overcame them.
And at the end of the madness, walking up the 18th fairway in the fading (but not gone!) Scottish light, the heroes of this marathon Sunday could have put their stamp on this historic day, carrying on the Scottish tradition of waking up at the crack of dawn and playing until the sun sank below the rugged hills.
If it’s not obvious, that would have been my pick. Other benefits to this idea include a huge television audience on Sunday due to less people being at work, not messing up players’ schedules for the upcoming week’s tournament, and happy players.
Way #2 — slow the greens down.
“If there’s nae wind, it’s nae golf.”
Wind is an essential part of the links golf experience. Links courses are, by nature, open and relatively flat. A windless links course is an exposed links course, a declawed tiger lying on its back waiting for a belly rub.
The joke of the day on Saturday at St. Andrews was that the Old Course was the only course in Scotland that was closed that day. The balls were running off of the greens because the greens were cut too short. The greens were cut that short because modern players, with their modern equipment and modern muscles and modern, spring-loaded golf balls, have rendered many of the Old Course’s obstacles obsolete. It’s a driver-wedge course now, and lightning-quick greens (running at around 10 on the Stimpmeter, which is fast for a links course), are the R&A’s only protection against an avian massacre.
So, since the ball couldn’t very well be changed with no notice, the only other option would have been to let the greens run at around a 6 or 7 and hope the wind protected the old lady. We saw so much b-roll of windswept links before the tournament, it was a shame that the very thing ESPN was promoting was the thing that ruined it.
Ashley said it best.
Like I said 20 minutes ago when you started reading this, professional golf is in a great place. It’s hard enough to play the game, let alone watch it, so fans of the sport who want it to grow in the future should be thrilled with the crop of young, exciting, interesting, controversial, and above all supremely talented stars who are making headlines week after week.
These are the people we should be reading about. We shouldn’t have to read about dark finishes, broccoli greens, and balls slipping away from would-be markers on errant wind gusts. A sport’s ruling body should be a lot like a referee in one way — if doing their job right, they should be almost invisible.
Thus concludes my rant. Thank you for listening.