USGA Setup Snags and Rollback Reinforcements: A Pebble Case Study

Digging in at the 11th hole to illustrate the impacts of narrowing fairways and the distance gains on the PGA Tour


On a docile day, Pebble Beach still presented tough scoring conditions for the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open. There were only two scores better than 69. The greens are firm, but what’s apparent is how different the course can play when those targets are being approached with clubs greater than wedges with shots that do not parachute down from the sky.

In the first round, the best women in the world had to hit extremely precise shots in order to score well. The lower trajectories, tucked pins, and narrow fairways created a challenge where absolute perfection was required to get a scoring chance. I don’t want to overreact to one round, but today was a reminder of how the game used to play for all players.

A shining example of this new dichotomy is the short par-4 11th. This is a hole that the PGA Tour routinely feasts on but played as one of the tougher holes on Thursday. The USGA set the flag in the back right of the green, which is a similar place to the final round of this year’s AT&T Pebble Pro-Am.

Put simply, this pin was inaccessible for the women in the first round. The combination of firm conditions and a narrow fairway resulted in no way to obtain an angle to effectively approach the green (more on that in a minute). As a result, only three players out of 155 were able to hit an approach inside eight feet. Only eight players walked away with a birdie and most were the result of running in a long putt.

During Sunday’s round of the PGA Tour’s Pebble Pro-Am, 21 of the 75 players made birdie and the hole location was much more of a dart board with over a dozen players hitting it within eight feet of the target. A few factors, including softer conditions and a wider fairway, must be acknowledged but the real separation occurs with the high trajectory and long distances that modern equipment has afforded the men’s game. Playing from roughly the same tee box, the elite men had approximately 40 yards less, on average, into the green, despite most not hitting driver. Thursday was a real eye opener for how distance gains have impacted the men’s game and what makes the women’s game so compelling when they visit courses of note, such as Pebble Beach. (Toggle the gallery below to go back and forth for a plot from the women on Thursday and the men’s PGA Tour event.)

The frustrating part of the women’s round at the 11th hole is that USGA setup decisions gave them almost no chance to hit it anywhere close. Fairway narrowing is an epidemic in championship golf and limits the potential outcomes for a hole. Fairway narrowing by the USGA subdued the 11th’s architectural brilliance. They brought the 11th fairway in on both the right and left sides. That decision took away the line of charm to Thursday’s tucked back right pin. With a proper fairway width, a wise and capable player would have the option to play up the left side of the fairway to gain an angle to hit it close. Playing from what is usually the middle of the fairway with firm greens and thick rough, the players had no chance to do this in the first round.

I personally watched Lydia Ko, the third ranked player in the world, hit a wonderful approach from the left half of the narrow fairway (just about position A) and end up 30 feet away. A review of the Shotlink report shows that, despite having a short-iron approach and calm conditions, almost no other players were able to get anywhere close either. Using the original mow lines, which afforded nearly 15 more yards of fairway up the left, would have created an opportunity to hit a great shot with a real reward. Narrowing made this hole more difficult, sure…BUT it also took away the chance for a smart player to thrive and separate herself. (Toggle below to go back and forth for a plot from the women on Thursday and the men’s PGA Tour event … the difference is stark!)

The best women in the world are extremely precise and I understand why the natural inclination is that fairways need to be narrowed to “test them.” A well-designed golf course with wide fairways would actually test their precision abilities and golf IQ by challenging them to find the lines of charm.

Another example of this would be the eighth hole this week at Pebble Beach. The shark tooth shaped green creates a dynamic where you should want to approach from the left when the pin is right and from the right when the pin is left. Unfortunately, the USGA comically narrowed the fairway, taking away the chance for a player to play either left or right (next to the ocean cliff). Instead of the potential for this wonderful switching strategy being executed with the women’s best players hitting hybrids into one of the world’s most picturesque holes, we get them all playing from the same 20-yard wide area. Here’s an image of this little plot of fairway from the drone on the TV broadcast.

Rather than players potentially skirting the ocean’s edge, we get poor shots not scaring the adjacent great hazard but rather lush green rough, which often requires a chip out.

One round into the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach, we learned that golf architecture still matters for the best women in the world. It also requires a setup staff to emphasize it. But we can see how the architecture DOES still matter and that’s great news. It should boost enthusiasm for a potential rollback in the men’s game and promote the movement that not every golf course should be reduced to driver and wedge.