Monday, June 17, 2013

What Did We Learn at Merion?

Another USGA Open, this one a little sloggier than usual on a better than usual course.  As I have written before, great old courses have been given up as sacrifice to Major Tournament golf as the players who compete in them ironically make much more of the "Game Improvement" changes in golf equipment than the foozler that one would hope that they would help.  Distance improvement and control has disproportionately been facilitated by the best players the most (COR, forgiveness, power-lofting, ball aerodynamics, etc.).

Merion has along with its shoe-horn routing, has a particularly wonderful set of greens.  Professionals do not care about stimp 13-14 on the greens, as they do not get to play such surfaces  week-to-week on tabletops with pre-determined "traditional" pin positions every year at each site.  It's not the speed, it's the contour.  Modern construction drains greens from below including the suck(sic)-air systems which control the  greens so built.  The Masters has gone this route as well, but they've also tinkered with more than the occasional green shape and contour. Therefore, an Open at a site such as Merion with its potato-chip shaped contours have progressively changing contours on seemingly continuously-sloped surfaces to lead to progressive doubt and erosion of confidence. There are at Merion, as with many a course built or tinkered by Flynn, some rather simple pin positions, but they are not for tournament play.  These chosen pins were quite remarkable, perhaps nowhere so well-illustrated as on Justin Rose's putt on the seventh hole on Sunday.  He read it correctly, hit it correctly but was not rewarded until the last quarter of a roll into the side of the cup. Perfect read, perfect speed, perfect execution and then reward.

New tournament venues for men professionals yield great insight into the skill that is green reading.  It's less coincidence perhaps that the 2010 AT&T at Aronimink, a virgin venue for the PGA Tour had as its winner one Justin Rose, our winner at Merion, 6 miles as the crow flies from Merion East.  Rose probably can't wait for a Philadelphia tournament again in the near future.  The special mix of True Classic age green design and bent-poa (can't keep it out for long) mixed grass surfaces is a special treat.  In the Philadelphia area (Locally known as the GAP, one sees various degrees of grain in the greens, historically most severely at Huntingdon Valley (guess the designer) home to some of the most sober-serious golfers of quality in the area.

Unfortunately one of two things happen to great old golf courses interested in having professionals play or even more so major hosting.  Wholesale changes (Oak Hill, Rochester, NY, Oakland Hills, Birmingham, MI,  Riviera CC, Pac. Pallisades, CA to name a few to varied degrees) or what was seen this week at Merion's East Course, Frankensteinian changes of 24 yard wide fairways, deep rough raked against the grain, literally "Orphan Tees" such as 18 (The view from the back two at Merion's 18th is not a sight for small children) and 5 as well as the hijacking of the practice green for the sublime 14th hole to be stretched to rocket-ball size. One hopes that the members at Merion have the sense to return the course to its old self as it is plenty hard and rather charming even at 6400 yards. (The relative to par scores for 3, 5, 6, 14, 17 & 18 speak for themselves.) We have heard The Open at Merion referred to as "A referendum for distance", we'll see.  Has the "proposed ban on anchoring" been a test for a proposed roll-back of the ball?

The rough was ridiculous this week, they even fertilized it on Friday.  I won't go any further. Or deeper.

This month The Golf Channel is proffering a war against slow play just as the USGA ironically rolled-out "While we're young" during an Open that no one could play quickly.  The mixed message is jarring.  Slow play works against getting and keeping players in the game.  Stimp slower, cheaper to maintain more contoured greens, no rough (No searching), less water in play - these are all things to speed the game. Shorter crooked drives are easier to find than long ones (ball roll-back).  One no less that the great Champion Jack Nicklaus has been harping on the ball for years. Little was done to address the ball directly at Merion, but it is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

So we learned
-Par is still defended at the greens
-Green Speed in and of itself is not a deterrent, it's in the contours
-Rough is tedium, breeder of slow play
-Fast Greens also slow play
-Everyone wants us to play faster, but not playing on TV (5 hour 2-balls and the last group basically 2 holes behind)
-The USGA wants to defend par, no matter what Mike Davis says

We can hope that Merion's members return the course to the state where enjoyment for more than the Top 500 golfers in the world being tested to their limits is the norm.

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