Cameron Smith, Jon Rahm and Matt Jones combined to shoot 99-under par last week at the Sentry Tournament of Champions on a Kapalua golf course that’s as big as the scenery that surrounds it.
All three players broke the tournament scoring record and the PGA Tour record for most strokes under par in an event. And two of them – Rahm and Jones – didn’t win.
Or, too easy?
More to the point, it’s another week of evidence of just how good the best players in the world are.
Put them in the right spot – Maui is always the right spot – give them soft conditions, wide fairways and no bothersome wind and it will look like street racing on Saturday night, accelerators punched to the floor and no reason to look back.
It’s worth pointing out that Kapalua’s Plantation Course is a par-73 (it has just three par-3 holes) and the 526-yard par-5 fifth was playing driver-short iron for almost every player. Still, had it been a par-72 Smith would have been 30-under par.
If every week were like last week at the Plantation Course, the professional game would lose some of its appeal. It’s like watching a basketball game with no defense. The constant scoring is fun until it’s not.
It’s why many – myself included – feel like the game has swung too far from what it’s intended to be. Power and technology have become overwhelming advantages, warping how the game is played. It’s more muscular, less artistic. That dreaded concept – analytics – has become part of golf’s vernacular.
“You get the same golf course with no wind, what do you expect? You have 50-yard fairways, soft greens, we’re going to shoot low. It’s just kind of how it goes.” – Jon Rahm
So have swing-related injuries, at least it seems that way, Bryson DeChambeau’s wrist issue is preventing him from playing two events in a row at the moment.
The point here isn’t to fight the distance argument again – that is ongoing and will hopefully result in some reasonable change in the relatively near future – but to acknowledge where the game finds itself today.
“You get the same golf course with no wind, what do you expect? You have 50-yard fairways, soft greens, we’re going to shoot low. It’s just kind of how it goes,” Rahm said.
Look at what Dustin Johnson did to an autumn-softened Augusta National 15 months ago.
Watch what they do at the American Express this week in Palm Springs, California, if the usual “golf in a dome” conditions exist. The 59 watch may be as common as after-Christmas sales.
“Golf fans just need to understand what causes scores. I think everybody, they just see, ‘Oh, they’re hitting it so far now, that’s why it’s so low,’ ” said Justin Thomas, who shot one of the three 12-under 61s at Kapalua.
“It’s like, no, it’s so low because it’s so soft. And if you give us soft conditions, fairways this big, courses this short, we’re going to shoot nothing. Then if you give us not very much wind, we’re going to shoot even lower.
“So you look at a place like Pebble Beach. Pebble Beach is 68- or 69-hundred yards and when it gets firm it’s all you want. But you give us a place, what, Erin Hills was a bazillion yards and it was soft and Brooks (Koepka) shot 16 under.”
At the game’s highest level, players can control virtually everything. Spin rates. Launch angles. What they eat for lunch and dinner.
So far, no one has figured out how to control the weather, though SubAir systems do a good job of mitigating wet conditions.
If nature cooperates and tournament courses are firm and fast, the scores are going to be higher. A windy day or two changes everything.
“You have what’s probably a lot of purists of the game who are probably going, ‘Oh, you got to roll the ball back, shorter drivers, do this, do that,’ ” Rahm said.
“The simple fact is, since Tiger started playing golf you are getting people that take this game a lot more seriously. Everybody thinks about it more like athletes. So the level of the game of all of us is a lot higher than it used to be.”
Then there is the course-design element. When the PGA Tour rolls into Riviera Country Club next month, it will offer a master class in how a course can dictate the action more than the players. Shorter courses – Colonial and Harbour Town come to mind – place the premium on strategy more than power, particularly if there’s a little breeze.
No one has ever said golf is too easy. It just looks that way sometimes when we’re watching players stack 64s like they’re poker chips. At its core, the PGA Tour is in the entertainment business. Birdies are good entertainment.
“It’s all about how firm or soft it is and I think (people) need to accept it,” Thomas said. “It is what it is and respect good golf. But if they don’t like it, then I guess (it’s a) so-be-it kind of thing.”
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