News & Opinion

PGA Tour’s return won’t be short on irony

Four-balls exhibition later this month at Seminole and season restart at Colonial in June will show how shot-making demands of early-20th-century designs can do more than sheer length to cut long drivers down to size

Irony’s wicked sense of humor has been delivering knockout punches all spring, stymieing a world accustomed to moving faster by the minute, then transforming fresh air into a precious commodity. It’s all about the appropriate amount of distance these days, an issue the USGA has been grappling with for years. Whether it’s 6 feet at the grocery store or 350 yards off the first tee, the search for common ground has become a slippery slope.

Fort Worth Invitational
Narrow driving corridors, such as what India’s Shubhankar Sharma tries to negotiate in 2018 at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, define the layout. The 1936 John Bredemus-Perry Maxwell-designed course stands out on the PGA Tour because it minimizes any advantage that long drivers might hold elsewhere.

At the risk of associating golf with far more important matters, irony will play a crucial role when the professional game attempts to resume later this month. The recently announced skins four-ball featuring Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff will be staged at Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla., a Donald Ross masterpiece that barely measures 6,800 yards from the tips. And the PGA Tour, logistics permitting, will return to action June 11 at Fort Worth’s Colonial Country Club, a 1936 John Bredemus-Perry Maxwell design that is considerably longer than Seminole but remains true to the same shot-making sensibilities the USGA is trying to preserve.

It is with an anachronistic twist that two old-school ballparks, both of which claim strong ties to the immortal Ben Hogan, will serve as the settings for the game’s journey out of the coronavirus wilderness. Two historic venues – one the site of a longtime tour stop, the other averse to the glare of the public spotlight – that might be considered vulnerable to advances in equipment technology and bigger, stronger athletes.

Does the ball go too far? Within the industry, it depends on who butters your bread. Kevin Na, who annually ranks among the tour’s shortest hitters, was the only player to finish in double digits under par last year at Colonial. He won by four over Tony Finau, who is ridiculously long. With all due respect to Na, Fort Worth is one of the few towns where he could win by such a margin, or, for that matter, beat a field full of guys who hit it 25 yards past him.

Colonial is where Annika Sorenstam chose to compete against the big boys back in 2003, which tells you all you need to know about the course’s emphasis on hitting golf shots, controlling flight and shape, choosing the right club, etc. A month before Sorenstam’s historic leap, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson unveiled the “new” Augusta National, phase one, which included 300 yards of additional length and ample tree removal.

Johnson’s tinkering, commonly referred to as “Tigerproofing,” was perhaps the game’s most misguided attempt at repelling the so-called dangers of excessive length. Mike Weir, who ranked 68th in driving distance that year, prevailed in a playoff over Len Mattiace, who ranked 153rd. It rained all week at the ’03 Masters, meaning 7,290 yards was playing more like 7,590, yet four of the top five spots on the final leaderboard were occupied by men with relatively modest power.

Because we’ve never seen a professional golf tournament at Seminole, it should be quite interesting to watch how the oceanside gem holds up against McIlroy and Johnson, two of the longest hitters on earth. The situation reminds me of the 2013 U.S. Open, before which purists spent months ruminating the potentially toxic effects of playing the national championship on a Merion Golf Club layout of less than 7,000 yards.

Justin Rose won the gathering at 1 over par. The field failed to produce a scoring average of less than 74 in any of the four rounds; 8 over was good enough to make it to the weekend. Time and time again, we’ve been warned of the oncoming hazards created by tour pros driving it 20 yards farther than they did 20 years ago, but that’s a mere 7.3 percent increase over what amounts to almost a full generation of competition.

There’s a Chicken Little mentality here that is somewhat understandable, but there are ways to discourage errant bombers and protect the game’s integrity without getting into a legal tussle with the club and ball manufacturers. It’s called rough, and we still don’t see nearly enough of it, primarily because the PGA Tour doesn’t see scoring dropping to absurd levels.

Seminole and Colonial are two relatively undersized golf courses designed to reward accuracy and control. Riviera is another. The great venues have a way of taking care of themselves, but because golf is first and foremost a recreational endeavor, tour pros spend a majority of their weeks competing on layouts built with the 12 handicap in mind. Otherwise, the game probably would be in worse shape than it is.

Much of Hootie’s handiwork at Augusta was quietly undone in the early stages of the Billy Payne era, restoring the angles of attack on numerous holes and seducing players into risk/reward propositions after missing a fairway. Those angles were a huge part of Bobby Jones’ strategic philosophy, which is why so many tour pros were miffed when Johnson decided to draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

“If they want to make golf courses harder for long hitters,” Jeff Sluman once told me, “they should make them shorter, not longer.”

How’s that for irony.

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