From the moment the first ball hit the ground (and ran) at this week’s Presidents Cup, fans have been talking about turf conditions. Most seem to have enjoyed how firm and fast Royal Melbourne’s fairways and greens are playing. Some have liked it so much that they’ve called for their home courses to turn the water off. In response, understandably, superintendents have taken a deep breath and explained that agronomy isn’t that simple.
Twitter users haven’t been the only ones talking about Royal Melbourne’s firmness. In yesterday’s press conference, Tiger Woods praised the Composite Course’s presentation. “It’s how a golf course should be set up,” he said. “Hard, fast, difficult, but extremely fair. And that’s what the Aussie Sandbelt golf courses have historically done.”
— Chris (@GolfGuy77) December 14, 2019
“We wish that there were more events on venues like this,” he concluded, pointedly.
It’s heartening to see these issues take center stage. At The Fried Egg, we’ve often celebrated the delights of the ground game. But golf course maintenance and setup are complex topics, and there are lots of misconceptions out there. So here are a few thoughts on what I’ve seen of the discussion so far:
Adding length is not the only—or even the best—way to challenge the pros
Tiger said it: “You don’t have to have a par 3 240 yards for it to be difficult. That 5th hole [on the West Course] is all you want in a par 3.”
Royal Melbourne is just a hair over 7,000 yards, yet the players have perceived it as an exacting test—and not because scores have been particularly high. If this were a stroke-play event, the lowest numbers would probably be well under par.
I think competitors at this Presidents Cup have felt challenged because, at Royal Melbourne, good shots and average shots have starkly different outcomes. Firm turf means that slight misses, especially into the greens, have compounding consequences. This puts pressure on players, and that pressure creates an impression of overall difficulty.
The rolling ball is the most exciting sight in golf
All forms of entertainment need tension and release in order to keep our interest. Good stories develop conflict before arriving at a resolution. Good jazz musicians use dissonant harmonies before shifting to the relief of the tonic chord.
Golf has its own version of this dynamic. The next time you see the ball rolling along the ground at Royal Melbourne, listen to the gallery. That’s tension. Then listen to them as the ball comes to rest, whether in a bunker or next to the pin. That’s release.
If golf is going to be a mass-appeal entertainment product, professional tours need to embrace and harness these kinds of emotions, not suppress them.
This is not just a tournament setup
Seeing how exciting the golf at this Presidents Cup has been, some fans have wished aloud for the courses they play to follow Royal Melbourne’s example. Others have responded that conditions this firm and fast are too difficult for the average golfer.
No doubt rock-hard greens can drive up scores. But it’s worth noting that Royal Melbourne made few changes in preparation for the Presidents Cup. A member told me that what we’ve seen on TV is more or less what he sees year-round. While the fairway grasses may be clipped a bit tighter, the greens and surrounds aren’t any firmer right now than they usually are. The member added that the West and East courses are always tough but that ordinary golfers get around just fine if they play smart.
It won’t work everywhere
That said, you can’t simply transplant the turf you’ve seen in the 2019 Presidents Cup to your home course. The Sandbelt has the ideal soil and climate for firmness, and Royal Melbourne has a far higher maintenance budget than most clubs do.
It’s crucial as well that the East and West courses were designed with the ground game in mind. They have wide fairways, large greens, and contoured short-grass surrounds that reject and collect incoming shots in intentional ways. Not all courses have Royal Melbourne’s architectural features, so not all courses lend themselves to Royal Melbourne’s turf conditions.
You’re not playing on color
But there are still plenty of lessons to learn from Royal Melbourne’s setup. One is that the common preoccupation with grass color needs to be challenged. At this week’s Presidents Cup, we’ve seen playing surfaces of a pale, occasionally tawny hue. Regular PGA Tour venues tend to have a more verdant palette.
This is not to say that brown is better than green, or that light green is better than dark green—just that we need to expand our notion of what a well-conditioned golf course looks like.
Sean Tully, the superintendent at the Meadow Club in California, put it well in our most recent podcast: “You’re not playing on color; you’re playing on turf. You can get it firm with green, and you can get it firm with brown. The most important part is to find that firmness—if it’s drainage, sand top-dressing, or different grasses. If there’s one thing Australia has got right, it’s that.”
Your super knows better
Every golf course is different. And the people who know the most about each course’s unique traits are the ones who take care of it daily. So if you’re wondering why the fairways and greens you play on are nothing like those at Royal Melbourne, your superintendent is the person to talk to.
I’m certain that no greenkeeper wants to create soft, soupy conditions. Soil and climate have their influence; so do budgetary realities. But there is one factor we golfers have a degree of control over: we can help alleviate the pressure that many superintendents feel to keep everything uniformly green.
As our friend Kevin Moore said on Twitter,“Talk to your super. Support him. Talk to your fellow golfers about the benefits of firm conditions. Explain that brown grass can be a good thing. Directly address fellow golfers asking for more green or complaining about brown grass.”
The rise of televised golf likely shaped our current, often unreasonable expectations for golf course maintenance. Perhaps this week’s showcase of Royal Melbourne—in all its pale, firm glory—can help undo them.