ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Rory McIlroy’s rant on the last night of the recent Alfred Dunhill Links Championship concerned how the setup at too many of the European Tour’s tournament courses is not sufficiently demanding. Carnoustie, one of the Dunhill links, and the Renaissance Club, home to this year’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, were two venues to be mentioned by name. “It’s tough when you come back (to the UK) when it’s like that,” McIlroy said in part. “I don’t feel like good golf gets the respect that it deserves.”
Commenting on social media, Ernie Els and Edoardo Molinari agreed. Els, a four-time major champion, suggested that all of the European Tour’s bigger events should be played on courses closer to major championship level, while Molinari, a three-time European Tour winner, made the point that tougher courses make for a better spectator experience.
Others homed in on the poor timing of McIlroy’s comments, coinciding as they did with a week when amateurs were in the field.
Yet perhaps the most striking thing to come out of all of the above was just how far golf has set sail down the bifurcation route before officialdom has given the go-ahead to the idea of one thing for the professionals and another for the amateurs.
For years, the USGA and the R&A have pondered a 10 percent distance rollback in the balls used by the professionals by way of an alternative to fiddling with perfectly good courses to make them appropriately tougher. However, at a time when the pondering is still ongoing, golf has arrived at the point where the kind of course required at the top no longer bears any resemblance to what is needed by the majority. McIlroy and others like him want sterner tests; the rest are looking for easier.
The “easier” bit is indeed the “easier” bit in that there is nothing to stop the golf industry from forging ahead with what it feels it must do if the game is to survive.
Bodo Sieber, the CEO of Tagmarshal, the pace-of-play management system which was tried out at the recent BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, has made it his mission to sort out the slow play which is everywhere apparent: “People love golf when their round goes smoothly and hate the experience when it all takes too long.”
Software can work wonders at every level and, where it is starting to merge with the new and shorter courses which are all the rage, a picture is finally emerging of a game beginning to marry with the times.
Forrest Richardson, the American golf course architect, uses the word “rightsizing” to describe what is now in vogue on the architectural front.
“Rightsizing works amazingly,” he says. “The newer generations have been brought up with everything smaller – their cars, their work weeks, their snippets of news. … It only makes sense that the golf they play calls for shorter, faster and more compressed experiences.”
Iceland has led the way in attaching less relevance to golf being 18 holes. Currently, the nation has 15 18-hole courses as against 50 nine-hole courses, while they are happily prepared to opt for as many (or as few) holes as will fit on a spare plot of potentially good golfing land. Presumably, the World Handicap System, which is due to be unfurled next year, will slacken the rules to accommodate what might be the first of many such arrangements.
The traditional members’ courses in the UK will probably stay as they are while worrying about memberships which are not getting any younger. Some of them, though, will be hoping against hope that officialdom gives the nod to that aforementioned 10 percent rollback, which could prompt a return of some of the great events they hosted in the past.
“Rightsizing works amazingly. The newer generations have been brought up with everything smaller – their cars, their work weeks, their snippets of news. … It only makes sense that the golf they play calls for shorter, faster and more compressed experiences.”
Meanwhile, the major championship venues will never be entirely redundant in regular weeks. Aside from members, there will always be enough of those would-be Rorys who want to be able to compare themselves to the professionals.
The venues in question must get things right for the dream-seekers as they do for the stars and, here, Pebble Beach would seem to have mastered the art as well as anywhere. Besides being equipped with Tagmarshal software, the club asks that visitors read up on what goes into making a round at Pebble take four hours in the morning and still less than five hours when it starts at noon or thereafter. The instructions include the following:
“If a foursome falls more than two shots behind the group in front, a player assistant will give the group a pace-of-play reminder. A forecaddie will be sent to assist the group if it is still out of position after two holes; and, after three holes, the group will be asked to move ahead or be given the chance to restart their round at the end of the day.”
That’s telling them. Because of what is involved, a green fee will cost $550 but, if it results in the golfing experience of a lifetime, not too many will complain.
One way or another, most of golf is moving in the right direction even if the game’s headlines continue to focus on the great names.
It may not be fair, but whose eye is not more likely to be drawn by the news, “Rory McIlroy rips European Tour course setups” or “McIlroy is latest to hit out at slow play.”
Top: Carnoustie during the 2019 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship