Date: May 20, 2019
Author: Mike Clayton

CLAYTON: Koepka made of rough stuff

In Australia we have a connotation of “target golf” which is somewhat divorced from the reality of what we have just watched this week at Bethpage Park and the PGA Championship.

We mostly think of target golf as playing to soft greens with high shots splattering into over-watered targets with the consistency of a basket of wet washing.

Much – but not all – of American championship golf takes it to another level by making the fairways narrow targets lined by thick grass and then greens, mostly quite soft, surrounded by yet more long grass.

If you hit the targets – fairways and greens – you can play. Miss and you hack out.

The fairways were so narrow at Bethpage that champion Brooks Koepka hit less than six of every 10, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he drove poorly.

So far does he hit, that accuracy is a necessary trade-off and one all the best players are almost obliged to make.

Short – and in this era, 290 yards is short – isn’t getting anywhere on the modern tour.

In Australia, the fairway bunkers are a significant defence of our championship courses, but at Bethpage they were welcome refuges from the tall grass surrounding them.

Curiously, Americans prefer their fairway bunkers in the rough, while we in Australia almost always run the fairway edges right to the border of the hazard.

Regular readers of this column will well know my thoughts on the state of the modern game and how so many see this arrangement of holes being the only defence against modern equipment in the hands of bulls of men such as Koepka and Dustin Johnson, who were first and second today.

Both, along with Masters champion Tiger Woods, will be at Royal Melbourne in December for the Presidents Cup and if anyone was silly enough to arrange our best course to look like Bethpage, it would be a shocking distortion of an amazing golf course that remains one of the world’s very best.

The golf at Royal Melbourne is also played to targets – to fairways and then greens – but there is leeway and freedom from the tee and any number of brutally difficult short shots around the greens, but not one of them hacked out of long grass with a three-quarter backswing and a lob wedge.

The ultimate targets, the famed and feared greens, are more like roads than wet towels.

Bethpage was brutally difficult championship golf, but golf played on a distortion of the game – a game never intended to be so penal and devoid of interesting – as opposed to punishing – recovery shots for players out of position.

The problem is the reality of the golf we will see at Royal Melbourne will be largely a form of “pitch and putt” given how short the course will play for the strongest group of men ever to play the game.

We have seen some strong, long drivers play in Australia over the years. Men such as Sam Snead, Jimmy Thompson, the Dutchman Martin Roesink, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Tiger Woods and, of course, Greg Norman.

None, though, have been as long as Koepka or Johnson and it will be both instructive and shocking to see the variety of pitching clubs they will surely hit into Royal Melbourne’s greens.

Some will argue – as they will at Bethpage – that the scores are the ultimate measure of the worth of a course and so long as the scores are high, all is well with the world.

The PGA uses confined targets and long grass. Royal Melbourne uses the game’s most difficult greens to require approach shots sufficiently close to the hole to reasonably hope of one putt.

Koepka was brilliant all week, especially at the start when 63 and 65 pretty much finished the hopes of the rest. Johnson, surprisingly, was within a shot after a quartet of back-nine bogeys by the leader and his own birdie at the difficult uphill 15th, but he immediately made a pair of bogeys and that was it, effectively.

Koepka now has won two US Opens and two PGA championships, the same number of majors as Raymond Floyd, a wonderful player who won his fourth not far from Bethpage at Shinnecock Hills when he was 43.

Koepka isn’t yet 30 and given how he has so dominated major championships these past two years, we assume there are at least a handful more to come.

Someone once asked Lee Trevino if he was a “great player” and one of the game’s genius shotmakers thought his six majors was on the edge of greatness.

Koepka isn’t there yet, but it’s hardly an unreasonable assumption he will win more and, along with Woods and Johnson, will head a formidable US team at Royal Melbourne.

The golf will be wildly different from the form of it he mastered in New York and, dare I say it, wildly more interesting.

And if the ball were to fly 30 yards less, it’d be more interesting again.