The Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii didn't get underway until after a three-day delay because extremely high winds made conditions at the exposed Plantation course all but unplayable; well, it was in fact unplayable because the gusts of wind moved balls on the greens. But the wild conditions at the same time generated a healthy discussion as to what conditions best test players and make for a thorough examination of their games.
By "examination," I mean that conditions should test all aspects of a player's game, including his or her ability to adapt to varying circumstances. This can have something to do with the weather, because high winds that still permit play force players to pretty well throw out their yardage books and invent shots. It compels them to even read the wind as to how it will affect a putt. When the weather intrudes to where a golf ball won't stay on a green, though, it's time to stop play.
Let's take weather out of the discussion, then. Let's focus on the view that golf is most interesting, entertaining, and rigorous when course conditions themselves compel players to imagine shots and adapt to a variety of situations. Set up a course so that greens aren't all the same speed. Bunkers might have different sand conditions from one to the other. Fairway widths would vary from one hole to the other. The height of fairway and greenside rough would vary.
The thesis statement here is that uniform conditions lead to uniform golf. The corollary is that a course whose conditions from hole to hole vary introduces surprise while generating confusion and complexity. A player must adapt from shot to shot. A player has to be nimble. There's rarely a "stock" shot.
This was brought to mind vividly as I watched the play that did get underway before being stopped at Kapalua, and then during the two first rounds of the tournament that were completed Monday. The idea that course conditions should vary more frequently at the highest levels of tournament golf was brought home and made clear.
On one par-three Monday, Brandt Snedeker stood on the tee and tried to figure out what sort of shot to hit. The hole was cut toward the front of the green on its lower level. The hole was playing 162 yards. Snedeker chose an 8-iron. His shot was long and stayed on the upper level. Snedeker was not happy.
"Just one normal club," he huffed in understandable if all too typical tour pro reaction. He was expressing his frustration at the high winds preventing him from having any stock shots during his round. Most tour players are capable of hitting any shot with which they're faced: half-shot, punch shots, rope hooks, high, sliding mid-irons. But they prefer full swings because they know the specific yardages they can hit each club.
Snedeker's instinctive reaction fit right in with a brief Twitter exchange I'd had with John Huggan and Jeff Mingay on during Monday's play. Huggan writes a tart and sharply observed column for Scotland on Sunday, and he's the European correspondent for Golf World. Mingay is a Windsor, Ont. based course architect who, like Huggan, values variety in golf. He appreciates that golf is at its best when conditions demand that a player think and come up with a wide array of shots.
Officials slowed down the greens on the Plantation course so that balls would be less likely to roll away in the wind Monday. The wind wasn't as strong as earlier, but it was strong enough on the intensely contoured greens to affect a ball's stability on the greens if they remained so fast. The players were therefore confronted with greens that were a different speed than those they usually play.
Huggan started the discussion off when he noted:
He also tweeted that five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thomson once observed that Ben Hogan thought that anyone can putt on fast greens. Thomson once told me that the way to test the best players in the game on the greens was to slow down their speed, because they then have to think and feel how hard a stroke to make. PGA Tour greens are so uniformly fast that players develop a uniform stroke. I'm not saying putting is ever easy, but I do agree that uniformly fast and smooth greens make for a standard stroke. A player who gets on a roll can make everything. Why not force him to modify the force of his stroke when he's on?
Huggan wondered who decided that all 18 greens have to be the same speed at a tournament.
Exactly. Brad Faxon once told me that he and his fellow golfers are supposed to be the best players in the world. Ergo, they should be most adept at reacting and adjusting to varying course conditions. Faxon suggested that greens speeds should vary during the course of a round. He said there's nothing wrong, and a lot right, with the sand in bunkers varying in consistency. Again, players would have to adapt. A bunker would be what it should be, a proper hazard, that is.
Mingay agreed. He said that inconsistent greens are a tough sell today, but that bunkers should vary. Both varying greens speeds and bunker consistencies would be a tough sell, in fact. I doubt the idea would come up at a player's meeting on tour. Forget about that. Still, as Huggan added,
My final tweet was this:
But nothing will change on the PGA Tour. Players prefer uniform course conditions and PGA Tour agronomists mandate it for tournament conditions. Yawn.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein