Date: July 19, 2015
Author: Mike Clayton @ St Andrews

CLAYTON: Catastrophe at the Old Course

Golf has its share of shambolic days resulting from a combination of things precipitated normally by the wind and fast exposed greens. We have not been immune in Australia over the years andSaturday at St Andrews was a chaotic day for all.

It all started on Friday when the beginning was delayed by the rain everyone knew was coming.

The forecasters told us on Monday there was 100% chance of rain on Friday and it came during the night, flooding the greens.

As a consequence those responsible for these things set all the pins on the high spots on the greens to keep them away from the pooling water. It worked. Despite losing three hours the rain left and play went on until after nine o’clock.

Saturday was a catastrophe however. The buffeting winds stayed all night and by morning were extreme. Now the pins, all in the high spots to keep them away from the water, were exposed and balls started blowing all over the greens. They started play but the farce of Louis Oosthuizen’s tap-in putt blowing six feet away as he was addressing it stopped the play. In the end they finished but not before nine hours of nothing.

The greens here are not excessively fast by our standards. Anything close to traditional sandbelt speeds and they would barely play golf at all on the British links but it highlights the lengths people now go to in order to scrape out and extra foot or two of speed on the greens thinking somehow it makes a better test.

We have long been obsessed with fast greens in Melbourne. It all began with Royal Melbourne’s greenkeeper Claude Crockford and his apparent belief a green could neither be too hard nor too fast and that myth has been perpetrated ever since. Why have a green at 12 feet when it could be 13 or even 14 is how many think the game should be played in Australia.

In America in 1977 the fastest green speed in the country, measured by a stimpmeter, was 9.8 feet at notorious Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania.

At the same time Crockford had his greens running in tournaments at 14 feet. Everyone followed and we all played tournaments at Huntingdale, Metropolitan, Kingston Heath and Victoria with greens at similar speeds.

It was and still is accepted in Australia, (in Melbourne more so than anywhere else) as the best way to test good play.

Of course it isn’t really. Firm greens are critical to differentiate between great, good and poor shots. The test on the links and in Australia should always be to ask someone to land a ball on a green in one place to have it finish in another. It was Bobby Jones, himself who spoke of his contempt for soft greens accepting of even the most ‘vulgar’ of pitch shots.

Excessive speeds only lead to slow play, defensive, negative putting and on days of wild weather the cancellation of play. What they also do is restrict the architect in what he can do with interesting, even severe, contours. The faster the greens are going to be the flatter they need to be and ultimately it makes golf less interesting. What they are however is a scoring defense (along with tees stretched far back) in the face of the modern ball and we well know how members hate seeing low scores on their courses. It’s as though it is somehow an affront to its integrity.

With Adam Scott and Jason Day at 137 and Steve Bowditch and Geoff Ogilvy at 139 we have a few with a real chance. It is Dustin Johnson leading at 135 but there is a ways to go and more weather to deal with, this time involving an umbrella if the early morning weather is an indication of the day.

As they say, if golf needed sun it would never have been invented in Scotland.