Firm and Fast Equals Long and Wrong

It’s not fair, not even close. As if PGA Tour players don’t have enough benefits – they have custom-fit equipment and balls fit to their specs and swing speed, they practice with brand new balls (not rocket range balls) on pristine practice tees, and they play their tournaments on courses that are practically all in immaculate condition.

No wonder they’re so good. But the one advantage they have and we don’t that counts the most is this: Tour fairways are set up for maximum roll. At the Sony Open in Hawaii, Tour players were getting 30, 40, sometimes 50 yards or more of roll on the fairways of Waialae Country Club. Even balls bounding through the minimal Bermuda grass rough were rolling out 30 extra yards from when they landed.


The question is: Do you get that much roll on the course you play? The answer is: Of course not. Thirty or more yards of roll make most players on Tour hit the ball 300 yards or more off the tee. And that’s a sizeable advantage, even on the longest Tour courses. Think about it. A 300-yard tee shot on a 440-yard par 4 translates into driver and 9-iron or even pitching wedge. Even at the first hole at Waialae, a 480-yard brutish par 4, 300 off the tee leaves 180 to the green, which means 6-iron or 7-iron for the pros. And proving that even Tour players aren’t the greatest in the world with medium-to-long irons, the first at Waialae is among the hardest to hit in regulation on the entire Tour.

According to stats on Golf Channel, the Tour average for carry through the air with a driver is about 269 yards, give or take. Give them 30 more yards on the ground and you’re right at the magic 300.

Yes, the ball goes farther and, yes, equipment is better. But Hall of Fame course architect Pete Dye was asked more than once what was the greatest technological breakthrough in golf in the 20th century and his answer was “the lawn mower.” Fairways are mowed closer today on Tour than greens were cut in the 1960s and ‘70s. Greens stimped about six or seven in those days. Some Tour fairways today are faster than that.

You don’t get that much roll at your course because the superintendent cares what the course looks like and plays like every week of the year, not just one. Members at clubs where the Tour plays by and large hate the Tour coming to town because it ruins their course the day after it leaves. Fairways and greens are so starved for water prior to and during tournament week that they practically brown out before your very eyes.

Whether you know it or not, Tour players have a hand in the way tournament courses are set up. They want their courses firm and fast and they claim it’s because tee shots can bounce through doglegs and into the rough. Don’t buy it. “Firm and fast” is a euphemism for “deep and low.” Drives go deep and scores go low when courses are set up the way they like.

At your course, your superintendent keeps water on the fairways and greens  to keep grass healthy and growing. If your super let your course get the way Tour courses do the day after the pros leave, you’d fire him before sundown. Firm and fast means dead and gone, especially in the summer heat.

If you want a real measuring stick for how far Tour players drive the ball, look at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. The three host courses – Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Del Monte – are in the moist Monterey Peninsula that makes conditions soft and spongy. Driving distances at Pebble in February are in the 260- to 270-yard neighborhood for most of the field because the guys get practically no roll on those fairways. If the weather gets real wet, look for the PGA Tour field staff to move tees forward on the longest holes. They don’t want players to hit long irons and hybrids to par-4 holes.

If you watched the ADT Skills Challenge on NBC, you’d have noticed that long drivers such as Kenny Perry and Fred Couples – both of whom can move it 300-plus on Tour – were having trouble getting 270 or 280 yards in the competition. That’s because they only got 10 yards of roll on the soft fairway at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. Fred Funk’s first effort in the Challenge went 240 yards and he managed only 250 with his best hit. Watch reruns of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. They play courses that are maintained the normal way, not the Tour way.

If you really want to put the skills on display of the best players in the world, don’t regulate their grooves. Slow down the fairways. Then you will really find out who the shotmakers are. Who are the best long-iron players on Tour? No one knows because no one hits long irons on par 4s. Turn par 5s into three-shot holes and give those holes to the best wedge players.

Firm and fast might mean big stats and low scores, but soft and slow means challenging and fair. The PGA Tour has chosen. Too bad you don’t have the same choice.

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