This weekend in tournament golf has offered a juxtaposition between the vibrant green of Course 3 at Medinah Country Club and the brownish hue of Pinehurst No. 2. Both courses have plenty of championship pedigree but adopt diametrically opposed styles.
Hosting the world’s best pros at the BMW Championship, Medinah No. 3 is a Rees Jones redesign from the school of long, lush, and narrow. Serving as one of the venues for the U.S. Amateur, Pinehurst No. 2 is a venerable Donald Ross design in the Carolina Sandhills. The two courses couldn’t be more different, and the styles of golf played on each have been revealing. At Medinah, long drives and lofted approaches to soft greens have dominated. At Pinehurst No. 2, firm and fast conditions and repelling greens have encouraged sophisticated and varied shotmaking into and around the greens.
Medinah’s championship lore
Medinah No. 3 has long been considered one of the world’s toughest golf courses. In the 1975 U.S. Open, Lou Graham triumphed over John Mahaffey in an 18-hole playoff after both finished 72 holes at +3 (291). That week the course played just under 7,000 yards. In the era of persimmon drivers and wound golf balls, long, lush, and narrow was the ultimate exam. Courses like Medinah assessed what used to be the toughest skills to master: long and straight drives, and long irons into perched greens from sloping fairways. At Course 3, marginal strikes often resulted in bogey.
Fresh off a late-80s Roger Packard redesign, a lengthened Medinah (7,195 yards) hosted the U.S. Open in 1990. This time around, some players had begun to use metal driver heads. With Hale Irwin winning at -8 (280), Medinah No. 3 proved to be a less exacting test.
The next time a major returned to Medinah, persimmon drivers had fully exited golf, and a new superstar had emerged. At the 1999 PGA Championship, Course 3 played to 7,462 yards. Despite the increased yardage, scores dipped again, with Tiger Woods besting Sergio García at -11 (277).
To keep up with the changing game in the aughts, Medinah No. 3 underwent multiple renovations at the hands of “Open Doctor” Rees Jones. His formula was a straightforward extension of philosophies that had worked in the past. Longer holes, deeper bunkers, narrower fairways. This recipe has made Medinah No. 3 nearly unplayable for the average golfer, but it checks all the boxes for what tournament selection committees usually look for in a “championship venue.”
The new-look, 7,563-yard Medinah No. 3 nabbed another PGA in 2006. This time around, the course squared off against 460cc drivers and solid core golf balls. It stood no chance of producing scores like those of the 1975 U.S. Open. Tiger Woods abused the place to the tune of -18 (270).
Medinah hasn’t hosted an elite professional stroke-play event since then, but it has added yet more yardage. This week, at 7,651 yards, the rain-softened Course No. 3 has been torched. On Thursday, two players matched the competitive course record of 65. On Friday, Hideki Matsuyama broke the record with a 63. This new mark lasted one day. In the third round, Justin Thomas set the course ablaze with a 61, despite hitting only eight fairways.
As of now, only one of the 69 players in the field are over par at a course once considered hard for the game’s best.
The fallout from Medinah
The assault on Medinah No. 3 could prove to be an inflection point in golf history. Following Saturday’s round, a few notable players spoke out about technology and the state of the game.
Adam Scott remarked, “They haven’t figured out yet that long means nothing to us; you can’t build it long enough…. The driver is the most forgiving club in the bag now; it’s just swing as hard as you can and get it down there far. It’s not a skilful part of the game anymore, and it’s really unfair for some guys who are great drivers of the golf ball.”
Scott wasn’t alone. Brandt Snedeker, too, had pointed remarks about modern drivers: “Now the drivers are made so easy to hit that there’s no penalty for swinging as hard as you want to at every driver because it won’t go as far off-line. There’s no penalty for really going all-out on one. That’s changed a lot. I don’t think their talents are showing up as much as they should.”
Piling on was the man who won the last two majors contested at Medinah, Tiger Woods: “Now you just pull out driver, bomb it down there, and you’re looking for three to four good weeks a year. Today’s equipment, you can maximize a driver and just absolutely bomb it, and some of the guys sacrifice stuff around the greens or short irons for the drive. The driver is the most important club in the bag now just because of the way the game is played.”
This week should put an end to the notion that longer courses are the answer. In an effort to keep up with distance gains, Medinah followed an intuitive plan: lengthen and narrow. In the process, however, the course has gotten easier for most pros and harder for most members. If anything is certain about golf, it’s that nothing is ever intuitive.
Meanwhile, because courses have gotten longer, players and equipment companies have been incentivized to get longer. With the USGA and R&A asleep at the wheel, they have done just that. The combination of the solid-core golf ball and the 460cc driver head has made ball speed a valuable—yet fairly easily purchased—commodity. This stands in stark contrast to the past, when players who could smash a driver long and straight were far and few between.
Golf, as a result, is at a crossroads. The game has changed and, without equipment rollback, will never be the same. Rollback, of course, would be the easiest way to restore shot values, but it would require an unlikely mixture of courage from governing bodies, who have proven incapable of protecting the rules and traditions of golf, and buy-in from equipment companies, who have no reason to do anything but pursue profit.
So if rollback is off the table, what can we do to shake up the weekly driver-wedge competition on the PGA Tour?
Two initial alternatives
First, as I have suggested before, we could modify par. This would combat perceptions that courses are too easy and perhaps prevent them from being altered in order to “protect” an abstract number. It would do little, however, to bring back the missing pieces of the game, notably long irons and shotmaking.
Another, more robust alternative is to rethink course setup. This week’s U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst has been fantastic because of Donald Ross’s turtle-back greens as well as the firm and fast conditions. This type of setup magnifies and rewards precision and shotmaking. Trajectory, spin, shot shape all need to be considered.
Unlike Medinah, Pinehurst No. 2 is a championship course that challenges the world’s best but remains playable and enjoyable for the retail golfer. It’s important to note, though, that Pinehurst’s sandy soil, imperative to its links-like conditioning, is available in only a few parts of the world. So firm and fast, while crucial, can only be achieved when location and weather both work in the tournament’s favor.
A modest proposal
To restore skill and shotmaking week in and week out in the elite game, the load will fall on course setup. But before we get to a potential solution, let’s sum up the issues we’re facing:
- As Tiger Woods, Adam Scott, and Brandt Snedeker each claimed, technological advances have made the driver the easiest club to hit.
- The long iron has become a tool reserved almost exclusively for long par 3s and second shots on par 5s.
- The low-spin, high-launch ball has curbed the art of shot-shaping.
When laying out a course, especially one intended to host championships, an architect seeks to test all golfing skills: driving, long irons, mid- and short irons, wedges, short game, and putting. Today’s distances have rendered this type of full examination nearly impossible under normal conditions. As Medinah has shown this week, the entire philosophy of “championship golf” may need an overhaul.
First, we need to make the driver less important. In a round of golf today, players typically have 14 chances to hit driver, and let’s assume the average Tour pro hits it about 11 times per round. If, as Adam Scott said, “It’s not a skilful part of the game anymore,” we should emphasize it less. To do so, we could limit the use of the driver to five, six, or seven times per round by—and here’s the key—actually shortening many of a course’s holes for tournament play.
Another casualty of distance gains has been the art of the long iron. Pros can attack even 220-yard par 3s with 6- or 7-irons. To add opportunities to examine a player’s ability to hit the toughest shot in golf, we could, just for one event, convert two par 4s into 250- to 270-yard par 3s.
The low-spin, high-launch ball has made nearly every shot in golf easier. The one big exception is the 30- to 60-yard wedge. On this shot, modern technology actually works against the player. Just think: when was the last time you saw a pro rip a wedge back off the green? Right, you haven’t in a while—because the ball spins so much less. This development has made distance and spin control easier for full shots, but it has increased the difficulty of feel-based, in-between shots, particularly those over hazards.
This is why the love for No. 10 at Riviera has grown so much over the past several years. At this hole more than any other on Tour, we see 30-yard pitches to a green that slopes away from the disadvantaged angle. It’s probably the toughest wedge shot PGA Tour players face all year. So by creating more driver-pitch holes—again, by shortening the course—we could reintroduce options from the tee. Pros will have to think twice before bombing it up somewhere near the green, especially if that play leaves them with a tweener wedge to a short-sided pin. Suddenly, decisions and strategy will come back to the game.
A modest example
To illustrate what this kind of abbreviated setup would look like, let’s use Augusta National.
Important note: I am not saying we should set up the Masters specifically in this fashion—more just showing how my proposal would work at a course that everyone knows.
No. 1: 360 yards, driver → pitch or long-iron → wedge
No. 2: 575, driver → long iron
No. 3: 270, long iron or fairway wood to reach, or short iron → wedge
No. 4: 240, mid-iron
No. 5: 495, driver → mid-iron
No. 6: 180, short iron
No. 7: 320, driver → pitch or long iron → wedge
No. 8: 570, driver → fairway wood/long iron
No. 9: 360, driver → pitch or long iron → full wedge
No. 10: 495, driver → mid-iron
No. 11: 260, the most fun long iron in the world
No. 12: 155, wedge
No. 13: 510, driver → mid-iron/short iron
No. 14: 320, driver or iron → wedge
No. 15: 530, driver → mid-iron
No. 16: 170, short iron
No. 17: 290, fairway wood
No. 18: 465, driver → short iron
Yes, this is a crazy setup, but it would achieve the goal of testing a balance of skills. Navigating such a course would require the player to hit an array of long irons, mid-irons, short irons, wedges, and drivers—a far cry from today’s typical driver-wedge-fest. The pros wouldn’t necessarily have driver taken out of their hands; they would just have to decide whether it would be the prudent play. Particularly at Augusta, players might be dissuaded from going with the big dog in certain situations because of the complexity of the greens and surrounds.
By using more short 4s and long 3s, we could produce more situations in which players have to hit shots the right distance and on the proper line. We could create a game of fewer stock shots and greater precision, a game for which players might actually ask for a spinnier ball. Of course, this solution would violate traditions of championship par and scoring records of old, but as we have seen at Medinah this week, that ship has sailed.