The Birkdale scoring was woeful because the art of links golf has been lost
Birkdale could not have been a more willing mistress.
Some background: A scorching, arid June had laid waste to the rough of England’s Golf Coast most storied links, leaving only brittle, sparse fescue of no concern to today’s robotic tour pros.
One dreamed, therefore, of the cliched ‘proper Open’ where a fast-running, baked course would demand the craft and guile we all revere. With good weather forecast, the R&A hold the course back, irrigating fairways and greens to retain a green hue and crucially a spring in the turf for fear of a dead course later in the week.
A downpour on Wednesday evening renders this strategy misguided and the course is laid bare, shorn of meaningful rough. The deliberately placid greens, stimping at no more than 10, are so receptive the ball is spinning from the fluffy rough. All bets are off.
Fast forward to Saturday and we have a weather forecast predicting winds no more than 12 mph. The course is set up at just 7,027, or to put it another way a full 1,000 yards shorter than Erin Hills (not that they ever played if from anything approaching the tips but still).
A debate raged later that day about the quality of Grace’s historic 62. Was it better than the 63s at courses with a higher par they screamed. A chronic piece of point-missing – not least because Birkdale is normally a par 72 which squeezes into an uncomfortable par 70 for Open week in much the same way as I fit into my 36-inch-waist Farahs.
No, the real story was the type of golf required to shoot -8.
As John Huggan wrote on Golf Digest: “Grace hit 9-iron or less to 10 greens en route to his historic round of 62. Only once outside of the two par 5s did he need more than a 6-iron to reach a putting surface in regulation. The longest club he hit into any par 4 was a 7-iron. On the 470-yard 18th, he hit his approach with a pitching wedge from 165 yards. The ball finished over the green.”
Yet the ‘internet lost it‘ as our social media chap is fond of saying.
The scoring is ‘insane’ they told us.
We all went emoji-mental, and used that fire GIF from the American version of The Office to articulate how god-damn exciting it all was.
I am sorry but I don’t buy it.
This is not championship golf – this is throwing velcro darts from four feet away and cheering treble 20s.
That is not to say I don’t want to see low scores – I do. I welcome a policy of leaving the course as it was designed. Let us see birdies. Let long driving, tight wedge play and relentless putting shine.
— Royal Birkdale Golf (@RoyalBirkdale_) July 22, 2017
If I had it my way, the 6th and 18th would be left as par 5s as they are supposed to be.
If we get scores of 10 and 12 under, or scores in the 50s, so what. In every sport we are seeing records tumble with every passing year, whether is the fastest serves in tennis, world records in track and field or batting records in cricket.
Human endeavour is breaking boundaries through heightened levels of athleticism, minds sharpened by modern psychology and, yes of course, equipment. We are making the once seemingly impossible more than probable.
No, my point is that I just don’t think the scoring was very good.
The real par at Birkdale was 67 on Saturday.
The arbitrary 5s are par 4s in disguise but we can’t have a par 68, can we?
Spieth topped his 2nd on to the 15th to set up an eagle on Saturday, and with the tee up that day the par-4 5th was no more than a 3 wood for the longest hitters.
One impact of the altered par is the undermining of the oft-peddled argument that that game the tour players play and those amateur golfers play must remain the same to retain the game’s integrity.
We can’t rein in the ball, or cool down hot drivers, or deaden trampoline-faced irons, they say, because that would make the game harder for the club golfer when the game needs to be as appealing as possible. We are already playing a different game though.
I don’t play courses where thousands of spectators spot my ball and trample the rough down for me. I don’t get drops on to short grass from beneath tour trucks.
If Spieth had been playing in Birkdale’s July medal on Sunday he would have lost five balls in 13 holes, possibly six.
The game is not the same: the par of the course is different and they are playing with a human equivalent of those bowling alley gutter cushions lining every hole.
So, why did Stenson’s one-year-old scoring record, set at a breathless Troon, remain intact?
Well, I don’t think tour pros can cope with even this brand of Links Golf Lite. Moreover, I don’t even think they are trying.
A moderate wind blew for a few hours on Friday, the rains came for slightly longer and that was enough for many of the world’s best.
Charl Schwartzel followed his opening 66 with a 78 and said he “just can’t play in the wind”.
Justin Thomas, he of 59 and 63 fame, opened with a 67 but threw in a nine at the 6th in his second round en route to an 80 and missed the cut. Nine.
I am sorry, lads, but it just wasn’t that hard. I think the truth is that the Open stands out as an event requiring a very particular set of skills in the same way that Wimbledon does in tennis and I don’t think that many see the merit in altering their technique, honing their shot-making, for one or two weeks a year.
“The new golf balls are much harder to hit lower, but because they are so much more stable in the wind I don’t have to alter my game as much I did 20 years ago,” Robert Karlsson told Bunkered. He’s a veteran with a links pedigree that includes winning the 2008 Dunhill.
While our outgoing Champion Golfer of the Year, Henrik Stenson, said: “Because we can control the ball flight, we try to prepare for the Open the same way we would any other tournament.”
I think this lack of nuance in preparation, a lack of appetite perhaps to fit links wheels to the F1 chassis of a tour pro built for drop-and-stop parkland, means that many are missing an opportunity.
It feels like if any of the world’s top players set their stall out and said the Open is the one for me it would reap dividends.
Less than a month ago, man porn Roger Federer skipped the French Open to hone himself for the grass courts of Wimbledon.
Yes, it was partially to protect an ageing body but also to prepare properly for the slam he had most chance of winning.
Recognising his main rivals were out of form, unfit or out of their comfort zones he knew this was a great opportunity to add to his glittering major haul.
So when he once again glided to victory, seemingly without breaking sweat, it must have felt like one of his easiest victories to date. The parallels of the peculiarities of the particular playing surfaces are valid.
For grass court serve and volley, read links golf bump and run.
Kuchar (incidentally the ‘other’ amateur at Birkdale back in 1998) came an affable second, but who did not have their head in their hands watching him pull a wedge out from the fringe of green after green?
Once a year, a different type of player – or perhaps just a better prepared player – has chance to shine but as every year passes more players seem less equipped.
We have our winner though and the romantic in me hopes that once he had recovered from the back bump, Speith cashed his Travelers cheques and holed up at Waterville or Lahinch for a month, summoning the spirit of Old Tom and becoming at one with his inner punch shot.
I doubt it though. I think he is just lucky.