Cmon, dont dive into denial again. We all know the real definition of golfer is person who plays golf and wants to hit the ball farther. And as it turns out, the problem isnt what youre hitting, but what youre hitting on.
Watching Oakmont toy with the worlds best in the U.S. Open reminded me that as tough as hard-and-fast golf courses can be, they also offer a number of advantages. Chief among these is bounce, roll, release, zing, pay dirt ' call it what you will. On firm turf, the ball bounds forward energetically. Its exciting to watch, and even more exciting to experience as a player.
My most recent first-hand brush with bounding came a few weeks ago at Bandon Dunes, the peerless golf resort in southwest Oregon. Coastal winds and the kind of turf ordinarily associated with British Isles courses quickly taught my compatriots and me an important lesson.
At Bandon, American-style fly-it-in golf has you looking back at the hole from behind the green on your third (or fourth, or fifth) shot. To get the ball close to the hole, you need to apply the kind of judgment links golf courses famously demand. Where do I land this thing to have it skip-jump-roll to the flag?
Great thing was, it sometimes ended up being 40 yards short. Feel weird? At first, yes. Then it felt great. What have I got, 240 to the pin? No problem; Ill just smooth a 17-degree hybrid, land it in Harrisburg, and watch it roll all the way to Center City Philadelphia. People who have played in the United Kingdom report the same kind of experience. Once you learn to play as the locale requires, the fun quotient rises dramatically.
So why cant it be this way all the time and everywhere? In many places, it can. It depends on where we play and what the turf is like. Cooler-weather grasses allow for more of this kind of thing than those that tolerate southern heat. And it depends as well on something called thatch.
Thatch is the accumulation of organic matter that builds up between the crown of the grass plants and the soil, said Tom Alex, CGCS, golf course superintendent at the Grand Cypress resort here in Orlando. Bermudagrass, which tolerates Florida heat well, thatches up pretty quick, and that affects firmness. Even courses that play firm in other seasons face different challenges in the warmer weather.
At Bandon and in the British Isles, youre playing on fescue and turfs that dont have a lot of thatch, said Paul Jett, CGCS, superintendent at Pinehurst No. 2. In the summer, its tough to keep Bermudagrass from being spongy. We have to water more for [grass] plant health.
Bermuda is a spongy grass, Alex said. You can de-thatch it and get the kind of firmness youre talking about. But its hard to manage, very expensive to maintain. The superintendent has to be very aggressive.
And he has to be allowed to be aggressive. It takes a willing membership, Tom said, to put up with that disruption to the course.
Its kind of a Catch-22, Alex said. In order to get that coveted bounce, the members might have to make some sacrifices in convenience. And even if they do, firm Bermudagrass turf poses other challenges. Downgrain, bump-and-runs work very well on thatch-free Bermuda.
But into the grain, Alex said, that ball could hit and pop straight up into the air. Its a problem cooler-season grasses dont have.
Add to that a longer active grass growing season in the southern United States ' about 10 months compared to about five up north ' and you can see why thatch can be a hassle.
But playing on softer Bermudagrass is better than no golf at all; I think we can all agree on that. But if we in the hot climes want to have our cake and bump-and-run it as well, we might have to change our mindsets a little. Or our color palette.
The No. 1 challenge is golfer expectations. [Hard and fast] is not what everybody pays for, said Jett. Unless they want to play on brown.
Whoa. Dont reach for the blood pressure cuff just yet. Hear the man out.
I dont advocate the kind of thing we saw at [the Open Championship at] Royal Liverpool last year, Jett said, referring to the widely tan (but playable) turf brought on by western Englands record heat wave. But an occasional spot of brown; thats O.K. Not every piece of turf needs to be emerald green. And it doesnt hurt the plants, especially Bermuda, which is so heat-tolerant. Next time water hits it, itll green right up.
Its an old battle ' water resources, player demands, the antiquated idea that only wall-to-wall green is a playable, fun golf course ' but its more relevant today than ever. Water and the energy to move it around are not always in ample supply. The game needs an injection of movement and added fun to attract more people. Its time to revisit the idea of green versus brown.
And nothing could be more convincing than an 8-iron that gets you where it usually need a 6-iron to reach. Play it hard, play it fast, play it a little tan.
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