A question for Tom Mackenzie and Martin Ebert, the international golf course architects who have advised on seven of the 10 courses on the Open Championship rota across the past few years: To what extent is the name Bryson DeChambeau coming up in their thoughts about Open venues of the future?
For the record, Pádraig Harrington, in joining the BBC’s radio commentary team during the last round of the PGA Championship, had suggested that there could be nine or 10 DeChambeaus on tour in the next 10 to 20 years. The Ryder Cup captain had no complaints about the American’s bigger, stronger approach – he was all in favour and compared it to what Tiger Woods had done to raise the game to fresh heights when he arrived on the big stage.
Mackenzie and Ebert agreed that it is for the good of the game when a new and different player comes along. However, in the case of DeChambeau, they wanted to reserve judgement. The DeChambeau approach was not, at least as yet, winning majors. Yet if that were to happen – or rather to be allowed to happen – of course it could affect the Open rota.
“It’s horrid to think that the writing might be on the wall for the Old Course,” suggested Mackenzie.
“Of all the Open courses,” said Ebert, “the Old Course is the one where almost all possibilities have been exhausted when it comes to finding extra yards. It’s definitely the most vulnerable. Do you move the bunkers forward to stop the ultra-long hitters from flying over the top of them? Moving bunkers has been done before, while some have been filled in over the years. But moving bunkers around the place is not something you do lightly on this particular links, although I must point out that we do not advise on the Old Course.”
Gary Player has addressed the subject of St Andrews’ future from time to time but Mackenzie’s and Ebert’s thoughts are their own and, as you would expect of two such highly rated individuals, neither ventured an opinion lightly on the most famous links of them all. Again, both were taking in the many different factors – including the wind and the sheer fame of the place – which go into winning on that hallowed turf.
It was Ebert who recalled an article penned in 1938 about a “super championship course” at St Andrews, one of 7,405 yards which would draw on holes from the New and Jubilee courses. The idea that a longer course was needed for championships was voiced again that same summer. Then came World War II and it was rarely mentioned again.
“We want the professionals to have to stand on the tee and think about their options.” – Martin Ebert
The Old Course is bound to be exercising the minds of the R&A and the USGA at the moment. Indeed, the release of equipment standards research topics related to their Distance Insights Project had been due in March, and now have been put back to March 2021. It may be just as well. It will have allowed them the chance to think more keenly about the problems presented by DeChambeau.
If the two architects were compiling a wish list of what they would like to see in the forthcoming document, their overriding hope would be for the powers-that-be to encourage more in the way of strategy,
“We want the professionals to have to stand on the tee and think about their options,” said Ebert.
Which, of course, brought them straight back to DeChambeau and how, after one of his drives, he can dip into his large collection of wedges and find one which will marry precisely with the distance he has left. By way of combating that bit of golfing cheek, Mackenzie and Ebert believe that there should be a revision in how many clubs a professional can have in his bag.
They are convinced that it would work for the better if a top player were allowed no more than two wedges, and fewer clubs overall. Though Mackenzie thought 10 would be about right, Ebert felt that seven clubs would represent the kind of game-changer golf needs if strategy is to make its return.
“Unless the elements are creating a bit of trouble,” said Mackenzie, “golf on TV can be boring. If you reduce the number of clubs, there’s so much more to talk about. Take the 17th at Sawgrass. How much more fun would it be to watch a Bryson or a would-be-Bryson having to manufacture a shot rather than bring out a wedge which will do the thinking for him?”
The pair went back to last year’s Open at Royal Portrush, where Shane Lowry played the game as it used to be played. To them, watching the Irishman manoeuvre the ball was sheer magic.
When it comes to an adjustment to the equipment itself, Mackenzie and Ebert see no better way to make a man think twice about going for broke off the tee than by putting a more flexible shaft in his hands to blunt the advantage afforded to ever increasing swing speeds.
Meanwhile, in the course of their everyday business, these busy architects are designing courses for the future with more par-3s – five or even six – by way of adding interest. Here, they cite the 123-yard Postage Stamp at Royal Troon as a hole where spectators think nothing of making the 40-minute trek to the end of the links to wait for the next exciting happening around this deliciously elusive little green.
For a longer and equally taxing short hole, they switched to Calamity, the long short hole (236 yards) that is the 16th at Royal Portrush.
Ebert, in particular, remembers how disappointed he felt when, for the purposes of the 2019 Open, the officials did not want the hole to be played at a length where it might just call for a driver for the shorter hitters in the field. “‘Why not?’ is what I was thinking to myself,” he said. “After all, that used to be the case many years ago.”
He remembered a story told to him by the legendary Irish golfer Joe Carr of his winning year over those links in 1960. At one point, Carr had found himself playing against a shorter hitter who allegedly knocked a wedge from that hole’s back tee onto a forward tee before going for the green with his second.
How much, Ebert wondered, would that have been a talking-point?
For now, the most important talking point of the lot has to focus on saving the Old Course. DeChambeau, whatever else he has done, certainly has unleashed a serious warning shot across the bow.
Aerial view of the St Andrews courses during the first round of the 144th Open Championship at The Old Course in 2015 (David Cannon, R&A via Getty Images)
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