5/24/19

May Musings: The real effect of Bethpage Black’s setup

On narrow fairways, Brooks Koepka, an underrated Long Island gem, and other topics

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It’s crazy to think we are halfway through the season’s majors. What a start it’s been: Tiger is back on the quest for Jack’s record, and Brooks has emerged as a generational player, capturing his fourth major in less than two years. Here are some thoughts and notes about a number of current topics.

A setup for few

For the past few years, certain analysts have preached narrow fairways and thick rough as the keys to curbing the dominance of power off the tee in tournament golf. Last week, at the PGA Championship, they got their wish at Bethpage Black. The course topped out at 7,400 yards and had 26-yard-wide fairways bordered by punishing rough.

But this setup did the opposite of what many expected. It played right into the hands of the bombers and limited the number and variety of competitors who had any chance of contending.

The Black’s tight fairways and dense rough, combined with fronting bunkers on many holes, made for a week of aerial approaches. While the A. W. Tillinghast routing has superb variety, playing in different directions and across different types of terrain, the setup made the course seem repetitive.

This view of the 4th hole at Bethpage Black shows how constricted the fairways are. Photo credit: Jon Cavalier @linksgems

It was like condensing the Major League Baseball strike zone by 50%. Doing this would favor power pitchers and power hitters. With a smaller zone, precision pitchers who live on the corners of the strike zone would find their jobs harder. So would contact hitters who specialize in hitting hard-to-reach pitches and finding holes in the defense. With more pitches coming down the middle, only pitchers with electric fastballs and hitters with a ton of bat speed would thrive.

Something similar happened at Bethpage Black last week. It was a championship that only the most powerful could win. Take three-time major winner Jordan Spieth: he put together a historically great putting performance, but never once was he truly in contention.

It is illuminating to compare Bethpage Black to another venue where Brooks Koepka won a major: Erin Hills. Both courses are big ballparks that yielded winning scores of 272. At the 2017 U.S. Open, just as at the 2019 PGA Championship, Koepka exploited his power, hitting driver everywhere to gain an advantage. On both occasions, he led the field in greens in regulation.

But there was one major difference: whereas the average fairway width at Bethpage Black was 26 yards, it was 50 at Erin Hills. I believe this additional space helped the shorter hitters more than it did the bombers. Say you’re on a 500-yard par 4. If you find the rough after a 320-yard drive, you’re okay. But if you’re in the rough after a 290-yard tee shot? Not so much.

From 180 yards, players like Koepka, DJ, and Rory are usually hitting an eight-iron, which they can elevate even from gnarly rough. A 210-yard approach from the same rough, typically played with a long iron, is a different proposition. This is the shot we saw all week, the one that most players were lucky to advance 100 yards.

Rough is a fine penalty for a miss, but the reality is that everyone, even the most accurate driver, is going to miss a 26-yard fairway a lot. For a player who averages 270 yards off the tee, which would put him toward the bottom of the tour in driving distance, the average dispersion (that is, the range of misses from right to left) is 60 yards. He is likely to miss a 26-yard-wide fairway about half of the time. Meanwhile, a player who averages 320 has a dispersion of about 75 yards. All else being equal, he will probably hit one or two fewer fairways than the shorter hitter. That’s not enough for accuracy to make up any meaningful ground on power.

In comparison, the fairways at Erin Hills, which averaged about 50 yards in width, afforded both short and long drivers an opportunity to hit almost every fairway if they drove it well. At the 2017 U.S. Open, there were plenty of players who didn’t have good ball-striking weeks, and they had to deal with penal native rough. Just ask Jason Day or Dustin Johnson, two bombers who missed the cut.

On the other hand, shorter and more accurate players could contend thanks to the short grass. They had a realistic chance to find all of Erin Hills’ fairways, and from there they could show the skills that helped them rise to the top of the game. Long courses with thick rough and narrow fairways do the opposite; they place central importance on distance and choke out other skills.

Consider the variety of players who did well at Erin Hills in the 2017 U.S. Open. On Sunday, the leaderboard featured longer hitters—Koepka, Justin Thomas, and Hideki Matsuyama—as well as shorter hitters: Brian Harman, Bill Haas, and Brandt Snedeker. All three of the latter players hit over 80% of their fairways in the tournament. Of the 11 players who finished T-9 or better, four were in the top third of the field in driving distance, four in the middle third, and three in the bottom third. Ultimately, Brooks won thanks not only to his power but also to his accuracy. He ranked seventh in driving distance and fourth in accuracy—an incredible feat.

Last week’s PGA Championship had a more one-dimensional leaderboard, one filled with bombers. Of the 13 players who finished T-8 or better, eight ranked in the top third in driving distance, five in the middle third, and none in the bottom third. Of all the players in the bottom third of the field in distance off the tee, the highest finisher was Chez Reavie, who placed T-14, ten shots behind Koepka.

Contrary to popular belief, width actually helps shorter, more accurate hitters. It allows their other skills to shine and gives them an opportunity to compete with today’s power players.

A. W. Tillinghast built Bethpage Black with fairways as wide as Erin Hills’. After construction, the Black boasted fairways more than 60 yards wide. Over the years they shrank, and the dogmas of championship golf architecture justified their size. Wider fairways would offer a greater variety of players a chance to contend, and would ultimately make for more compelling championships.

Brooksy

At the start of 2017, Brooks Koepka missed four of six cuts before going on his now-historic run. It has been incredible to watch. I see Koepka as the superstar that golf needs. He speaks his mind, and he seems capable of striking a sense of inevitability into his opponents’ minds. His comments leading up to this year’s PGA were telling: majors, he said, were in fact the easiest tournaments to win. It’s one thing to say that; it’s another to deliver immediately after.

What most impresses me about Brooks is his well-rounded skill set. His game has no holes. He’s one of the best drivers of the ball, an elite iron player, surgical with a wedge, and stone-cold on putts inside 10 feet. It’s why he can contend in every major and at every type of course. He triumphed at big, wide Erin Hills, at difficult and strategic Shinnecock Hills, and at narrow, execution-centric Bellerive and Bethpage Black.

Among golf’s other superstars, only two rival Koepka’s all-around game: Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas. You worry about the consistency of Rory and Rose’s putting, and about Spieth’s lack of dominant power. It’s unclear whether any of them have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with Koepka consistently on the biggest stages.

As a young man of 29, and a late bloomer compared to many of today’s stars, Brooks is still coming into his own. He plays smart golf, possesses elite talent, and, most importantly, has an apparent drive to be great. And his greatness isn’t about racking up PGA Tour wins; it’s about winning major championships. Like a great swimmer, he peaks when it matters. In general, sports thrive on having an alpha dog. Golf seems to have found one after a decade of searching.

Best course vs. best work

Should an architect’s “best course” be considered his “best work”? In some cases, perhaps. In most cases, I don’t think so.

Recently, a friend of mine, Jon Cavalier, posted some beautiful photos of Fishers Island and wrote, “Of Seth Raynor’s 100+ courses, few would argue that the crown jewel is Fishers Island Club.” Fishers does tend to be regarded as Raynor’s masterpiece, and I agree that its architecture and routing are supreme. It may be his best course. For me, though, Raynor’s best work can be found at places with less topographical and scenic interest. Take the Country Club of Charleston, host of next week’s U.S. Women’s Open. There, with a mostly flat site, Raynor had to rely on his architectural prowess to create interest.

So while it may be nitpicky, I think it’s important to distinguish an architect’s premier golf course from his “best work.”

New stops

With new events in Detroit and Minneapolis, the PGA Tour has finally committed to a pair of the Midwest’s premier cities. I am particularly keen to see the Motor City’s new event, which will take place at the end of June at Detroit Golf Club, a Donald Ross design restored by Bruce Hepner. It’s great to get golf back in a city where there will be excitement and at a course with architectural interest.

The Creek

National Golf Links of America and Shinnecock Hills cast long shadows over the neighbors. Long Island is the American mecca for great golf. The sandy, rolling terrain and the history of great architects who have worked on it put the region in a category of its own. Yet most of its courses go unrecognized because of all the attention lavished on the National and Shinnecock.

When in town for the PGA Championship, I checked out the Creek Club, a recently restored C. B. Macdonald design. It was wonderful. The first five holes wind through the parkland portion of the property before the 6th and 7th descend a sandy dunescape to the Long Island Sound. There you find some of the most dramatic and scenic holes in America.

The 15th, which starts the climb back up to the clubhouse, is one of my favorite iterations of the Double Plateau template. This short-ish par 4 takes full advantage of the dramatic, sloping land. A good drive leaves a wedge from a sidehill lie to a green that sits on a ridge. The movement of the land makes each of the green’s three small plateaus very difficult to hit.

If you ever have the opportunity to play the Creek, go.

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