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Monster's Claws Trimmed, Players Making Moves at PGA Championship

By: Jay Flemma


Here's four words I'll bet you never thought you'd hear uttered joyfully on a golf course: Thank goodness, it's raining.

To be precise, it's pouring. It's raining bricks and bats. The lightning crashes and the thunder rolls. Two holes opened up in the roof of the media tent, sending journalists scrambling like rabbits for plastic bags to protect their laptops as water seeped in steadily. Players and caddies grabbed players' bags and equipment and scattered like sheep for the nearest refuge, and a phalanx of PGA of America officials mobilized and passed out ponchos and tarps.

It's the best thing that could have happened to this tournament

For two full days, The Monster mashed the field. To be exact, it wallpapered the clubhouse walls with the players, and it did it so thoroughly, so completely, there were no lumps and all the stripes were perfectly vertical from ceiling to floor. Nobody does that any more, not even the real class decorators.

Barely a dozen players shot under-par rounds the first two days. Only one man, J.B. Holmes, was under par after 36 holes. Not a single club professional out of the 20 who started the tournament made the cut. The playing conditions generated so many uniformly scathing comments from players and pundits alike, Oakland Hills' officials realized they had a problem.

Last night, they cut some of the shaggy rough and, more importantly, watered the greens. It was the right decision. Before today's deluge hit, Andres Romero tied the competitive course record with a 5-under 65 and Camilo Villegas was working on a 4-under 66 with four holes to play. Fredrik Jacobson, Graeme McDowell and Prayad Marksaeng were all 3-under for the day well into their rounds and had climbed back into contention at 3-over, just four shots off the lead.

Then a torrid all-day rain raced through the area. It subsided momentarily, and the players were sent to the practice range in an attempt to outrace both the next storm and darkness. Ten minutes later, they were called back as another storm out of the pages of the Book of the Apocalypse roared like a lion in the sky. Grab a Snickers, you're not going anywhere.

Still, everyone agrees, we needed this; something had to give. The course was right on the edge of a Shinnecock Hills-like debacle. Players were totally on the defensive, playing not to make bogey and lose, rather than playing golf and trying to win. The naked truth is…that's boring. The U.S. Open learned that lesson, made an adjustment, and, with the rough graded so that the penalty incurred equaled how far you hit it off line, players had room for some birdies, which meant there were roars at the U.S. Open for the first time in ages.

Now the PGA Championship, struggling to shed its image as the least venerable of the four majors, faces the same dilemma. Part of its makeover has been the selection of former U.S. Open venues such as Baltusrol, Southern Hills and Oakland Hills, courses they hoped would dispel the image that the PGA was just a harder version of an ordinary PGA Tour stop.

"The usual setup for the U.S. PGA is more like a tough U.S. tour event," began reigning two-time consecutive British Open champion Padraig Harrington. "This year and the last couple years, it's gotten more like a traditional U.S. Open type test. It's nearly more a U.S. Open than the U.S. Open at the moment, if that makes sense. It's like they switched the two of them around this year," he finished tartly.

Ron Whitten said the same thing in his preview piece in Golf World. He predicted plus-5 as a winning score, four strokes more than the present highest score to par of 1-over. Had the rain not come and tournament officials not seen the writing on the wall, he might have been right. In the 50 years the event has been played in stroke-play format, the winner has finished over par only four times, and not since 1976 when Dave Stockton finished 1-over.

"The golf course changed dramatically from Wednesday to Thursday and even more dramatically from yesterday morning to today," said Jim Furyk. "There were a lot of holes where birdie wasn't even in the cards - maybe half of them. You look at 18. I hit two great shots and I still needed a little bit of luck with my 5-iron kind of for the ball to bounce off the collar for a 5-footer. It hangs up in the rough and I'd be lucky to make a par. That's probably not what you want in a setup."

Asked if it was unfair, the normally chatty Furyk was unusually laconic. "This is the golf course we were dealt."

For Furyk, that's an epic tirade. He's intelligent, conversant, candid, but most of all, pleasant. It's one thing for a prickly player - for instance Robert Allenby - to rap some knuckles. He said they took an "okay golf course and turned it into a load of crap." But if you are normally looking for an intemperate tongue-lashing, you'd do better to ask a graven image rather than Furyk. That may be why the issue has merit.

Lorne Rubenstein, Canada's pre-eminent golf writer, provided this excellent analysis:

"Ross wanted the course to have width so that players could work their way into the fascinating greens by playing angles and to be able to use the slopes in and around them. Instead, the fairways are so narrow, and the rough so high, that the course tests only accuracy off the tee and the ability to hit high shots into the greens. The lack of width and the endless rough are far more insulting to Ross's design than the course's length.

"It's easy to see how the course should play. The rough to the right of the 12th hole, for example, is full of humps and bumps. It should be fairway, not a stifling mane of high rough. Ross meant for the ground contours to matter, not to be covered by rough that looks like a hairpiece alongside every fairway and around every green."

The same is true on the par-4 15th. There is supposed to be fairway to the right of the centerline fairway bunker. That's the play for members and short hitters. With rough there, that option is eliminated. The course suffers because corridors of play that Donald Ross intended players to employ have vanished like a rabbit in a conjuring trick.

For this weekend, the problem is solved. With the course softened, we'll finally see scores more akin to a PGA Championship and less reminiscent of a U.S. Open. Much of the Monster's fangs will be dulled, particularly on the greens where iron shots can now be controlled and where the slightly slower green speeds mean players can be aggressive, both on approaches and while putting.

But the issue remains going forward. When you set up a golf course to be a center-line, single option, long, hot grind - when it comes to the reception form players, fans, and pundits - cold winds blow and hot water runs deep, because at a major championship of American golf, instead of fostering an atmosphere where the players are encouraged to play creatively and aggressively, they are instead handicapped; forced them into a boring, dictatorial, learned-by-heart dirge - "hit it here, then hit it here, then scrape a par." Although we are told by broadcasters in stentorian tones that "this is the way a major should be," there is a groundswell among rank-and-file golf fans that the time has come to dispel that myth and improve major tournaments at the same time. As Golf Observer's David Barrett quipped, "Only straight is not so great. The Masters has turned into the U.S. Open, and look how exciting that has been the last two years."

While some people mindlessly parrot the tired and misguided opinion that the U.S. Open - and even other majors - need to be excruciatingly difficult to truly test the games of the contestants, at one of the flagship events of American sports - wouldn't it fair to expect more birdies, not less? Do you think more birdies would be less exciting? No, the U.S. Open has evolved from a hard test of golf become a cheerless grind; hard for hard's sake with no rhyme or reason other than to make sure no one breaks par. We care more about the winning score than the winning player…and it doesn't have to be this way. Fans pay green money to see the greatest magicians in the game provide downright celestial play on the grandest stage the game has to offer.

Instead, for some cockamamie reason, at the flagship events in the golf world, we seek to suppress scoring? Some people say that, "For one week I'd like to see the pros struggle like me," but why at the height of the sport? We don't raise the hoop, broaden the paint, and call more traveling and ticky-tack fouls in the NCAA Championship game, do we? We don't suddenly move the mound closer, the bases further away and the foul poles closer together at the World Series, do we? We don't stop calling pass interference and narrow the football field so that no one scores 55 points in a Super Bowl ever again, do we? Of course not.

Yet in golf, people are actually getting less excitement for their dollar than at any other major sporting event all because people don't question the ridiculous mantra of "harder is better." This should not be the case in the sport's showcase events, the height of the season, and the celebration of crowning a king.

At the Super bowl, World Series and other sporting championships we are watching players succeed and ascend to the pinnacle because they are able to show us the talent that made them beat everyone else in the first place. But in golf, we get to watch them play the USGA's obstacle course and survive to be last man standing. 0-0 ties condemned soccer to the life of a red-headed step-child in America and unless we change this zany policy, people will find golf just as boring, if they don't already.

To paraphrase Russell Crowe in Gladiator, if you want to grow the game, "This is not it. This is not it!" If I want to watch guys stub chips, shoot 82 and three-jack all day, I'll bring my camcorder along next time my lunkhead golf buddies play on the weekend. See how many hits that gets on YouTube.

"When you trick up the course, you get weird winners," observed veteran sportswriter Art Spander. "It's become an incredible grind and it rewards guys like Simpson and Janzen." Hey Art, don't forget Andy North and Steve Jones and Cyril Walker.

Before the rain came, this tournament was not about how many birdies you got - its how many bogeys you avoided. How exciting is that? All the movement is downward with only a little percolation as players bob to the top like corks before taking on water again, sinking deeper and deeper in the dark country of the leaderboard's netherworld. By day's end, the second-round scoring average of this PGA Championship, a bloated 74.85, was the highest all year on tour relative to par. Over those two days, Nos. 17 and 18 yielded a total of three birdies combined.

"I think there should be some tough holes, but I don't think it should be, 'I hit a perfect shot and made double-bogey," agreed Holmes, a two-time PGA Tour winner. "You've got long rough on every hole, is the frustrating part. When it's completely unfair on some holes, no, a major shouldn't be like that."



Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.