Course set-up has long been a topic of hot conversation on professional Tours all over the world. But it is important for every golfer. No matter how well or badly you perform, having fun and finding the game more interesting is a lot easier to achieve when the playing field is set-up properly.
Okay, let’s eliminate pro events for a minute. The greatest “normal” course set-ups are those found at Royal Melbourne, Augusta National and the Old Course at St. Andrews (pictured). They are all in the top-10 in the world and all three have wide fairways. But they can have those wide fairways because the turf is typically firm and the angles into the greens matter. As a result, there are hardly any lost balls. And people can putt from well off the greens. In other words, all three promote the ground game that anyone from top professional to high-handicapper can play.
That notion hit me properly during the 2014 US Open at Pinehurst. I was sitting in the bar with a friend when we started a conversation with the couple sitting at the next table. They were “snowbirds” from up north who wintered every year in North Carolina. So, they played a lot of golf at Pinehurst.
Anyway, they asked me what I thought of the No. 2 course where we were playing the tournament. I told them I thought it was amazing, but that it was so hard it “did my head in.” I found it really, really difficult. Later in the conversation I asked them which course they played the most at Pinehurst (there are eight). The lady – who played to a 21-handicap – said they tended to gravitate towards No. 2, because she found it “the easiest.”
That blew my mind. But she kept talking. “The fairways are wide,” she said. “There are no forced carries from the tees. There’s no rough. And from 50-yards out we can putt onto the greens. We don’t know what you guys are trying to do with your lob wedges and stuff. We putt from just about anywhere, make our bogeys and we go on.”
“By that measure, set-up as it was for the US Open, Pinehurst No. 2 might be the best course in the world.” – Geoff Ogilvy
Finally, I understood how important that all is. It was a “light bulb” moment for me.
By that measure, set-up as it was for the US Open, Pinehurst No. 2 might be the best course in the world. I’ve played a lot of courses and found No. 2 to be brutally difficult, yet this couple found it to be the easiest on the property. All of which only underlines just how important course set-up is. Get it right and you can bring all standards of player together. While it really mattered to me how well I hit the ball in order to create the proper angles into the greens, none of that stuff mattered to my new friends. They could play their games just as happily.
Anyway, while Royal Melbourne, Augusta, Pinehurst and the Old Course are all very different, but ideally they all have the key important factors: firm greens and width. That pre-supposes the right sort of weather, which can never be guaranteed. But let’s assume the environment has allowed our course to be set-up without manipulation of the fairway widths, length of rough, location of tees, preparation of bunkers, pin positions and green speeds. (To be honest, we are only “playing’ with the last 20 percent of course set-up. God takes care of the first 80 percent).
Still, the architecture is part of the equation too. The more intelligent the course designer has been, the easier it is going to be to set-up the course to its best advantage. Set-up is that important. To a very large extent, it dictates the style of player who ends up winning. Combine the best architecture with the best set-up and you are more than likely to identify the best golfer in the world at the end of 72-holes.
By that measure, the Holy Grail of set-ups has, over the years, been the Old Course. Most of the time, the No.1 player on the planet has won the Open there. Or, a player who is amazingly gifted and has all the shots. Seve Ballesteros won there in 1984. Nick Faldo was the dominant player in the 1990s and he won there. And Tiger won twice in the early 2000s when he was clearly No.1. Over two Opens there, no one else could get within 15 shots of him.
The firmness of the turf is so important in achieving all of the above. The firmer a course is – to a point at least – the more it matters how balls land and where they land. If the ground is soft, it doesn’t really matter how the ball arrives – high or low, draw or fade. Shots will pretty much stop where they land. That’s still a skill and there are many players who are good at that – landing the ball on a certain spot. But only a few, when the ground is firm, can land the ball on that spot, then make it do what they want after that happens.
“The best course set-ups allow the best golfers to show why they are the best.” – Geoff Ogilvy
It’s all about flight control, trajectory and spin – the things all golfers idolise and the things that the best golfers are best at. Which is why the best course set-ups allow the best golfers to show why they are the best. Augusta National is a great example. Almost every year it provides an exciting finish, almost always involving at least five of the top-10 players in the world. Being able to set-up the same course every single year is such an advantage in that respect. They have the formula figured out. They know what works and what doesn’t.
The other three majors are not blessed in that respect, which is why we see some odd Opens, US Opens and US PGAs. Not odd winners, but odd tournaments. But that is not to say that all three have not had great moments, set-up wise.
For example, the US Open is typically presented in a way to identify the player who can hit the most high-quality shots. Narrow fairways. Long rough. Really firm greens. It’s a test of execution involving straight driving and great putting. And nearly always on one of the world’s great courses. Pinehurst. Winged Foot. Pebble Beach. Shinnecock Hills. Oakmont. All are brilliant. The downside is that the USGA seem to have a thing about players shooting really low scores.
Having said that, my favourite US Open set-up came at Torrey Pines in 2008. Which is ironic as that was never my favourite venue when we played there on the PGA Tour every February. But in June 2008, the ball was going a little longer. The turf was better in the summer. It was just nicer to play. Throw in the intermediate rough and that US Open was more fun. All because the set-up of the course was better.
For one thing, the exciting and risky recovery shot – one that was almost always eliminated at any US Open – was in play. If you had the skill to hit the right shot at the right moment, you had a chance.
All in all, it comes down to this.
The bottom line for anyone setting-up a course should be “how do we find the best golfer this week?” The guy who brings all the mental and physical tools – how do we find him? It’s that simple. Yet, too often, that message is ignored and the mantra becomes, “how do we create the highest winning score?”
Anyone adopting that philosophy needs to talk to that nice couple I met in Pinehurst.