There’s lots of chat about distance these days, how far the ball goes, how high-tech the equipment is, how fit and strong the players are, how obsolete some of the great courses are becoming. There’s lots of thought, expertise and money going in to resolving this apparent conundrum but surely the solution is relatively simple? Nothing as banal as making the players wear boxing gloves or wellies tied together or asking the right-handers to play left-handed and vice versa and insisting on blindfolds on every par 3 – might be a relief at the 12th at Augusta National.
No, why not just stop manicuring the courses beyond the wildest imaginings of a super model? Put them into lockdown with the rest of us, let them get a big shaggy, a bit ragged round the edges, a bit less uniform, a bit less perfect. Do all the greens, masquerading as snooker tables, have to run at the same speed ? Does every bunker have to be immaculately raked, so much so that it’s a shock if a player fails to get up and down from a greenside pit? Does rough have to be graded centimetre by centimetre, inch by inch? Is heather planta non grata?
Isn’t there an argument that the top players and the courses they play on are too pampered? Of all the golfers in all the world aren’t they the ones who need the least help? They can still have their coaches, agents, psychologists, fitness trainers, caddies – heaven forfend that they should have to make their own decisions, unaided, out there on the wild and woolly fairways.
Of course that would mean a change of tack for the tournament organisers, the greenkeepers, the course superintendents and for us telly viewers, who have become used to near perfection. A less pristine Augusta might, in fact, come as a relief to greenkeepers all over the world, who are mithered by their members, who, having watched the Masters, want immaculate fairways and greens at all times, irrespective of the time of year, weather conditions or resources.Dustin Johnson, the Masters champion and undisputed world No 1, won on a course that the players said was “in fantastic shape, with great facilities and difficult greens”. He and his brother, who caddies for him, found it hard to read the greens at Royal Greens but he played well enough and holed enough putts to win by two shots from Justin Rose and Tony Finau. The form Johnson’s in at the moment he could win anywhere, with anything, even on a ploughed field using a spade.
And that’s another thing, perhaps players don’t need as many as 14 clubs, perhaps we could be limited to, say, 10 – all of us, not just the big boys. That might bring back a bit of creativity, those awkward in-between shots that require a bit of fiddling and finagling – the sort of thing that separates the best from the rest. As a 10-clubber myself (a by-product of back trouble many years ago and now just a habit, super-duper trolleys notwithstanding), I can confirm that it makes decision-making at my lowly level much easier. It also means that there are shots that are beyond my capabilities but that would be the case however many clubs were in my bag.
Chatting to a friend the other day (it was his birthday), he mentioned that one of his grandsons is working in Saudi, at Royal Greens, a top-notch greenkeeper who’s built up his experience all over the world, in America, Australia, New Zealand, the Maldives, nothing but the best. Not bad for a lad who started at Wishaw in Warwickshire with hopes of winning the Open. That’s the great thing about golf, there are loads of fantastic job opportunities for those of us who won’t be major champions.
The members of BIGGA (the British and International Golf Greenkeepers’ Association) in the UK have been working harder than ever during the pandemic, especially before the latest lockdown took golf off the agenda almost everywhere. Just keeping the courses playable was a big ask, never mind making them pristine. According to research by Sports Marketing Surveys (SMS), between May and October last year there were 15 million extra rounds, 180 billion extra footsteps, 270 billion extra divots and 150 million extra pitchmarks. Per course, that works out at 1000 extra rounds, 12 million more steps, 18,000 more divots and 10,000 more pitchmarks.
Just think about those numbers for a minute and whenever you’re back out on the course, remember to replace your divots properly and repair your pitchmarks. It’s the least we can do.
It’s always good to catch ’em young and then, with luck, you’ll keep ’em for life. I heard Tom Fazio, one of the world’s great golf course architects, who’s been in the design business for six decades now, say that it’s his ambition to live long enough to get all the way to the front tees. His sons are still young enough and good enough to head for the back tees every time but their dad is wise enough to be working his way forward, so he can keep enjoying his golf.
Whether Annika Sorenstam, who is now 50 and retired from tournament play in 2008, is wise to be heading for the back tees again, we’ll find out in a couple of weeks when she competes in the Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Florida. It’s her home course, so she couldn’t resist playing in her back yard, with half an eye to sharpening her game in preparation for the US Senior Women’s Open later in the year. It’ll also give her children Ava and Will a chance to see their mama in what was once her natural habitat, an arena she dominated with an attention to detail and mental fortitude that few could match.And, to finish, a bit of blue sky and sunshine from down under, where Dennise Hutton is in full swing at Bonnie Doon in Sydney, inspiring the next generation.