In 1984 we played the New South Wales Open at The Lakes. The course set-up was the debate of the week as the greens were as hard and as fast as we had ever seen in Australia. Royal Melbourne with its famous green at their fiery best was never more severe.
The pre tournament predictions of high scoring were generally pretty accurate. Peter Senior was one of only two players who broke the par of 292 when his final 69 saw him in at 290. In what is still arguably the finest score ever shot in Australia Ian Baker-Finch shot 69,70,68 and 70 to win by thirteen shots.
It proved the course was playable but the greens probably crossed the fine line between demanding and silly.
Firm and fast golf is the most fun to play and the most interesting to watch but there is a fine line and championship golf in Australia has crossed it a few times. Bob Shearer shot an opening six under par 65 at Royal Melbourne in the Chrysler Classic, finished on 284 and won by seven shots. It was the same year Lee Trevino, who finished eleven over and in third place told the local press to get a picture of him going out the gate ‘because you won’t ever see me coming back.’ Shearer’s domination over the Composite Course was almost at the level Baker-Finch’s touched ten years later.
The Players Championship this week in Florida offered Jason Day a chance to show off why he has played the best golf in the world since The Open Championship at St Andrews. He opened with 63 and 66; two extraordinary rounds on what was once the hardest course on the tour. It has been softened significantly since the early years when Jack Nicklaus once said ‘I was never much good at stopping a five iron on the bonnet of a Volkswagen.’
The game too has changed beyond recognition. Formerly a long course we saw players hitting short irons into most of the par fours and during the third round Day was on the par 5, 16th with a three wood and an eight iron.
The wind came up on Saturday but it was the greens giving the players fits. It took precision of the highest order to get irons close to the hole and there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking the best players in the world to play golf ultimate golf.
Three, Hideki Matsuyama Graeme McDowell and Ken Duke, broke 70 but it was Duke’s 65 which showed us two things. The fist was he proved the course was ‘playable’.
The second was not matter how ‘unplayable’ the course someone will do what a player on a great run often does and shoot a score beyond the imagination of every single player out there. Baker-Finch did it over 72 holes in Sydney. Greg Norman’s single round of 63 at Turnberry in 1986 was another crazy round.
One wonders how setting greens set up on the very edge of sanity is driven by clubs trying to ensure their courses are not ‘burned up by the pros’ as if a low score is somehow a commentary on the worth of a course. Does anyone want to argue Turnberry is deficient in any way because Norman did 63?
Increasingly we are going to see the arrangers of championship courses resort to extremes of length, the growing of high rough and greens running at excessive speeds to combat the effects of the modern golf ball. Combined with drivers with heads resembling frying pans we see formerly great tests rendered obsolete if the measure is the intent of the original architect is the measure.
Sadly high rough, great length and excessive greens speeds are not particularly conducive to the making of interesting golf but they are driven by the ravages the ball has wrought on the golf courses. Nor are they characteristics likely to popularize the game amongst the vast majority who play it.