It’s a twist on the old “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” fairytale with one glaring exception – nothing feels just right. Not when the high wire between meandering old and high-flying new is as treacherous as an unplayable lie.
In 1914, the architectural dynamic duo of Charles Blair Macdonald and Seth Raynor cut the venerable Old White Course into the West Virginia countryside. In 1960, Arthur Vernon Macan dug Shaughnessy out of the rugged Pacific Northwest mountains. Both are wonderful layouts, neither deserves to host a PGA Tour event.
In short, the Old White is too soft, Shaughnessy is too hard and the middle ground that could bridge the gap is dominated by the big-hitting, bomb-and-gouge likes of the modern professional.
This is not a new concept just a newsy one, with Shaughnessy’s smack down of the world’s best at last week’s Canadian Open and Stuart Appleby’s closing 59 at the 2010 Greenbrier Classic still prominent talking points.
Last year, the Old White ranked 42nd out of 52 courses in scoring average (68.536), a birdie bonanza that was capped off by Appleby’s sub-60. While the par-70 Shaughnessy ranks as this season’s third-toughest track with a 72.521 average and was fittingly won, on the first extra hole, with a bogey.
Some will say the two storied layouts were victims of poor setups, but the questionable setups were simply a symptom. The ailment is a modern game that has relegated many of the classics to museum-piece status.
The Greenbrier, which briefly hosted a PGA Tour event in the late 1950s, returned to the fold last year, but soft conditions and a cautious setup resulted in the Bob Hope Classic – Eastern Flight. At Shaughnessy, officials played defense, pinching fairways to the size of shoe boxes and growing more grass than the Cali Cartel.
There was, critics will say, nothing wrong with Shaughnessy that a few extra lawnmowers couldn’t fix, and officials are optimistic that the Old White, with new greens and an additional 243 yards, is ready for Round 2.
“First, there's not going to be any 59s shot,” said Tom Watson, the Greenbrier’s pro emeritus since 2005. “The greens are a lot firmer. The ball is not going to stop. . . . It's like playing the links greens where they really are hard and they release.”
Perhaps, but the fine line officials must toe at these classic venues is such that it’s becoming more and more difficult to get things, well … just right.
Too easy, and Appleby is making four trips around the “Old White Flag” with just a single bogey. Too hard, and native son Mike Weir is seeking medical attention after losing his golf ball, and maybe his season, in the shin-high rough.
Some scoff at the marketing manhandling that clumsily attached the “TPC” suffix to the Old White name. Maybe it’s the TPC network that should be offended. Some of the Tour’s signature Mc-layouts are soulless and unimaginative, but they are big ball parks that were built to keep 300-yard drives in play – no set-up tricks or fertilizer required.
There are some classics that remain relevant without the aid of an extreme nip/tuck. A recently completed renovation at Pinehurst No. 2 actually turned back the clock some 40 years and most agree Merion Golf Club, at a wee 6,500 yards or so, will hold its own when the U.S. Open returns to the Philadelphia gem in 2013. But they are the exception to a disturbing rule.
The game’s policymakers say distance gains have ebbed, but Tour statistics suggest the long continue to get longer.
The current Tour average is 289 yards, the longest average ever, and there are 15 players who are currently averaging drives over 300 yards, the most since 2007. By comparison the driving average in 2001 was 278 yards and just a single player (John Daly) was averaging drives over 300 yards. A decade before that, the average was 260 yards and not single player was in the 300-yard neighborhood.
Dialing back the equipment Tour types use isn’t the only answer, but it’s a start. Manufacturers have resisted the bifurcation of the Rules of Golf for years. Who would want to buy the same golf ball Rory McIlroy uses if the one you can pick out of the 2-for-1 bin at Wal-Mart goes farther?
Never mind that bifurcation already exists, albeit for just a few more years, with professionals and top amateurs not allowed to use the same aggressive groves that Joe 18-Handicap can in his Friday four-ball. Never mind that bifurcation has existed for years in baseball, with professionals wielding wooden bats while collegians and amateurs enjoy the pop of metal bats.
There are other factors behind the distance gains in recent years. Golf courses are conditioned much better today than they were just 20 years ago, and the Tour has not one but two travelling fitness trailers, but trying to keep any player not named Tim Herron out of the gym at this point is a non-starter.
Officials can slow down fairways, but a long-term solution is going to require that the powers that be speed up equipment rollbacks. The world’s best will still be at the top heap, they just won’t be launching moon balls from Vancouver to West Virginia. And maybe the likes of Shaughnessy and the Old White will be just right, again. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate fairytale?