Another week and another classic brought to its knees. And golf's big names aren't keen on the bomber's game, writes Mark Townsend
Go back just 20 years and, when asked who were the great drivers of the day, everyone would trot out the same names. You were either long – John Daly was the only player in 1999 to average over 300 yards off the tee – or you were straight. Marry the two together, like a Greg Norman, David Duval or Davis Love III, and you had yourself quite an advantage.
Think of these days and you might struggle to think of five players who could be described, at worst, average with the driver.
Yes fans want to see the long ball but then why do fans stand around the green/par 3s. If that’s all they want to see then every one should be around the tee or fairways. I believe most fans love the long ball but also love to see exciting golf shots that they can’t hit.
— Billy Horschel (@BillyHo_Golf) August 18, 2019
Which brings us to this week and a soft Medinah, one of the storied clubs in US golf. Golf Digest have had it as high as 10th of all American courses and two of the country club’s three US Opens, albeit in 1949 and 1975, have been won with over-par scores. Digest describe it as “one big, bold and very demanding course” and “insanely hard from the tips”.
Which it is if you’re the average weekend warrior. But your regular PGA Tour superstar plays a very different and pretty much unrecognisable game so they will expect to shoot the lights out on a course which has been softened and widened by recent rain. On Friday Hideki Matsuyama lowered the course record, which was equalled twice on day one, by two shots to 63, he did it again on Sunday. On Saturday Justin Thomas waltzed round in 61 on a course that measured over 7,600 yards.
“It doesn’t matter what course it is. You give us soft good greens and soft fairways, we’re going to tear it apart,” said Thomas, who went on to win at 25-under par.
He added: “It’s just how it is. We all have such great control over our ball and we know how far it’s going to go and when we’re hitting it well, obviously, but we know how it’s going to react and when the fairways are that much bigger and you put us in the fairway. I mean we’re just good, you know what I mean? It’s just the fact of the matter.”
Earlier in the week Adam Scott said much the same but, to his credit, took things on a stage.
“They haven’t figured out yet that long means nothing to us,” he said. “You can’t build it long enough.
“We just play straight, everything is straight. While there is an option to go over trees and over bunkers, it is just relentless.”
The Aussie is fast becoming one of the soundest voices in the game – in February he was, again, happy to not just stick to the script when it comes to slow play: “Make me the victim. I’ll take the penalty. The only way it’s going to work is if you enforce it.”
Back to the problem with drivers and Scott continued with more outspoken but sound advice for those on high.
“I’m not challenging them to build longer courses, I’m challenging them to build smarter courses,” he said.
“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 ball. I don’t think their talents are showing up as much as they should.
“The best way the Tour can temper the scoring a little bit is stop watering greens as much. And fairways, for that matter. Let it run into trouble. Just stop watering stuff so much. Let it go firm.”
None of this is new of course, it’s just when weeks like this happen that we get to hear everyone’s concerns again.
Remember the outrage when Ross Fisher shot 61 around the Old Course? Instead of enjoying an incredible round for what it was, the go-to opinion was that we had further proof, and at St Andrews no less, that the game was quickly being lost.
Plenty of us have spent much of the past season debating whether putting with the flag in or dropping from knee high or whether playing in shorts are the way forward while the game itself, to some degree, becomes more and more of a snooze fest.
Twenty years ago this week Tiger Woods was winning his second major at Medinah, being the only player to finish in double red figures. He began his life on tour in a very different world and he paints a similarly depressing picture of how things currently play out.
“When I first came out on tour and before me, especially, there’s a lot of 1-irons off the tees. Just kind of get it in play. Now you just pull out driver, bomb it down there, and you’re looking for three to four good weeks a year. That’s how you play. It’s not the consistency, it’s not about making a bunch of cuts. It’s about having three, four good weeks a year. That’s the difference. The guys understand that.
“Today’s equipment you can maximise a driver and just absolutely just bomb it and some of the guys sacrifice stuff around the greens or short irons for the driver. The driver is the most important club in the bag now just because of the way the game is played.”
Come the end of the week Thomas topped the 69-man field at 25-under with six bogeys. Only two players finished over par.