Every July, pro golfers become more likely to drop the F-bomb. I mean, of course, the word “fair.”
When competitors in the Open Championship talk about the venue, they often rely on a framework of “fair” vs. “unfair.” At the 2017 Open, many player comments revolved around Royal Birkdale’s reputation as the fairest course on the rota. The implication was that other venues were unfair—or less fair, at least. Think of Royal St. George’s, with its blind shots, or St. Andrews, with its erratic rolls and hidden pots, or really any links, whether Liverpool in 2006 or Muirfield in 2013, with firm, fiery playing surfaces. “Good shots don’t get rewarded,” goes the whispered complaint.
So far—much to its relief, I’m sure—Royal Portrush has passed the fairness test. “The course will be very fair,” Darren Clarke told Links, “in the manner of Royal Birkdale, which is the fairest of all links golf courses.” In his press conference on Tuesday, Dustin Johnson said, “I think [Portrush is] playing very, very fair, but it’s quite difficult.” Justin Thomas, perhaps the most concerned of any of today’s pros about fairness (in rules as well as hole design), gave his stamp of approval on Twitter:
Blown away with how beautiful/good Royal Portrush is… A great, fair, proper test of golf this week. Can’t wait to get goin @theopen 💪🏽 @ Royal Portrush Golf Club https://t.co/jrlWz5rsDX
— Justin Thomas (@JustinThomas34) July 15, 2019
What, according to these players, makes a golf course “fair”?
Clear sightlines seem to help. Frequently pro golfers praise a course by saying, “It’s all right there in front of you.” The main factor, though, is something Clarke explained to Links: “Portrush’s fairways are not overly undulating, so if you hit it straight, the ball tends to stay in the fairway rather than feed offline.”
(Side note: Portrush’s playing corridors appear to have plenty of humps and hollows, which will surely force players to cope with uneven lies and tough breaks. Overall, the course strikes me as more interesting than comments about its supposed fairness indicate.)
Clarke’s comments also give insight into what pros consider unfair. When firm turf conspires with rumpled terrain, an anxious gap opens between the quality of the strike and the result of the shot. As Geoff Ogilvy said on The Fried Egg podcast, “It’s seemingly on the surface super random. You hit a shot and one time it bounces to the right, the next time it bounces hard and runs over the green, and the next time to the left. That stuff pros hate. They like to get the result from the shot that they knew they were going to get.”
So the bugaboos, it seems, are blind shots and bad bounces. Now, I actually agree with most pros that a course with too many of these vagaries would be absurd. Equally, though, a course with too few would be boring. And that’s why the oldest, most natural links courses hardly ever fail to entertain. Before the 20th century, flattening a ridge to open up a sightline wasn’t an option. Nor was smoothing out the “banks and braes” that created unpredictable bounces. The earliest golfers had to reckon with nature, and nature isn’t always fair.
It’s no coincidence that Royal Birkdale, the “fairest test,” is a mid-20th-century design. Royal Portrush, too, has relatively recent origins. In 1929, Harry Colt rerouted and redesigned the Dunluce Links, and in the decades since, the club has not shied away from change. In preparation for the Open, architect Martin Ebert built new seventh and eighth holes to replace the old 17th and 18th.
Basically, the more modern the course, the more likely it is to be deemed fair.
While understandable, that’s a worrying trend. Year after year, the Open has maintained a connection to the old ways of golf. The ground game. Rub of the green. Weather as the capricious God of the leaderboard. It would be too bad if those time-tested challenges came to be written off as merely unfair.
For one thing, a links course that possesses what we now call “quirk” (that is, blindness, firmness, and undulation) may actually be the fairest test of all. To win on such a course, you need to have control of your ball and mastery of a variety of shot types, not to mention the mental strength to move past bad breaks.
Geoff Ogilvy put it well: “Funnily enough, the quirkier it gets, by the end of the week, usually the higher the level of the player that wins…. St. Andrews finds the number one golfer in the world very often. Tiger, when he was in the most form, the two St. Andrews Opens, he just dominated them—all the quirk in the world. So I would argue that that’s more fair because the best golfers win by more.”
But I think there’s more at stake here than one tournament’s ability to identify the best player. To me, rub of the green is a beautiful part of golf. It opens a pocket of mystery in the game; it reminds the golfer that there is something—nature, chance, the divine—more powerful than his ability to strike and roll the ball.
Last week, as I researched an article on the 1875 match at North Berwick between the Morrises (Old and Young Tom) and the Parks (Willie Sr. and Mungo), I was struck by how the 36th and final hole unfolded. “Tommy overcooked his approach,” Kevin Cook writes in Tommy’s Honor. “The ball came flying in like a hornet, headed for trouble, only to take a crazy, lucky bounce—a rub of the green that led the Parks’ supporters to wonder why heaven so favored Tommy Morris.”
No doubt this result was somewhat unfair. But it also conveys a certain mysterious beauty. Four of the best golfers of the 19th century had battled, skill against skill, for 35 holes. In the end, however, an unseen, unknowable force partly decided the outcome.
Modern golf has tried to diminish that force, to give the player more control. We have developed a ball that flies farther and straighter and stops faster. We have flattened natural undulation so that accurate drives yield level lies. We have developed smooth greens to offer reliable results to well-struck putts. Now we can even tap down imperfections in our line.
The problem is, as golf gets more “fair,” it grows more predictable. And there’s little beauty in the predictable.