—The Comedy of Errors III, ii
The guest wanted the 3-iron. Already, after only six holes of Course 3, we were at loggerheads, after he’d shaken me off twice on club calls. The first time had been on Medinah’s second hole, a brute of a 3-par over water to what’s virtually an island green. Our group was playing the white tees, however—due to the age of some members of the foursome—so, given that it was only 135 to the front of the green and my player was an 8 handicap, I thought a 9-iron would be plenty of club. Because he hit the ball on the top of the clubface (instead of the bottom where the mass of the clubhead is), it wasn’t. Twice.
The second time was on the second shot to the first 5-par, the fifth hole. Having 260 in from the middle of the fairway, uphill, he wanted to hit a 3-iron. This, despite the fact that, as I told him, there was no necessity to hit such a long club since there was no chance of reaching the green and the risk that, because such a long club is difficult to control, the possibility that an erroneous shot might end up in thick trees or even, possibly, out-of-bounds. Nonetheless, he hit the 3-iron which, perhaps predictably, hit the trees on the right and, less predictably, rebounded out into the fairway—to about where a decent 6-iron would have put him. I did not, despite my own inclinations, point this out to him.
Now we were on the approach to the sixth, after a mediocre drive that left him nearly 220 yards to the center of the green (even from the whites Medinah is long). But he was only 195 yards to the front of the green, with a pin in a difficult middle-left location that meant any ball past the hole would leave a tricky putt. The wind was directly behind. Thinking only of the distance to center, he wanted the 3-iron.
I ventured that I was not convinced the 3-iron was not correct. Immediately concluding that I wanted him to hit more club—he had only a 1-iron in the slot between the 3 and the driver—he said he did not like to use his 1-iron. (At which pointed I wondered to myself, not for the first time when confronting an amateur’s bag, why he had it.) I said, quite the contrary, I was thinking about less, rather than more, club, for the reasons I’ve already delineated. This did not appear to compute for him—he appeared ready for a throw-down over hitting more club, but unable to understand why I’d like to hit less.
The approach on the sixth hole on Course 3 is often long, but the hole, uphill on the tee shot, is downhill for the second. Nothing intervenes between the player and the green down the fairway, and in the front of said green the fairway is pitched, which often throws the ball forward onto the green. Particularly downwind, as we were, the shot often requires less club than the inexperienced player might suspect. This was one of those times, I thought.
I bring this story up not only because it happened a few days ago, but also because of a comment I came across quoted in John Huggan’s often-informative and usually-amusing golf column in The Scotsman. Huggan is interviewing Gil Hanse, designer of Castle Stuart—site of this week’s Scottish Open and a course that’s been called the best British course built since the Second World War. Castle Stuart is a links course, unlike the course that’s been the site of the Scottish Open for years, Loch Lomond, which is an American-style course.
The quote that interested me from Huggan’s interview was this one, where Hanse talks about what makes Castle Stuart different from most American-style courses. “It is odd,” said Hanse, “that so many people don’t realize how interesting and difficult short grass can be when used as a hazard.” In support of the point, Hanse recalls the playoff in the 1989 Open Championship (which we know over here as the British Open).
That playoff ultimately rode on the moment when Greg Norman “had missed a green but had nothing but short grass and a bank between him and the hole”:
He stood there and thought about it. Then he switched clubs. Then he thought about it more. Eventually he just chunked the shot. The best player in the world had been perplexed by the subtlety of what was in front of him. His mind was full of doubt.
Apparently, Hanse has applied the lesson to Castle Stuart, which has very wide fairways but yet still, in Hanse’s estimation, will present its own difficulties because, despite their width, the effective fairway—i.e., the best place to approach the green—won’t be any wider than the best players are used to playing. But by being so wide, the fairways will allow those players with the skill to play interesting shots even after missing the “correct” landing zone.
That was the original theory behind Augusta National as designed by Alistair MacKenzie and Bobby Jones: to allow multiple lines of play to the same hole instead of the architect dictating the player’s shot. But American golf—even Augusta is radically different than the course envisioned by its founders—has largely lost the insight: golf courses like, as Tom Doak has observed, Firestone (and Course 3) have told the golfer how to play them rather than allowing the player to choose among various options. But as my anecdote about the sixth hole is meant to illustrate, even Course 3—and especially since the renovation—still makes use of short grass as the best, because most deceptive, obstacle.
What happened to the guest is, of course, anti-climactic. After insisting on hitting the 3-iron, the ball took off, landed in front of the green, and took a huge jump forward. It certainly reached the pin; in fact, as you probably already know, it rolled well past it. Eventually it came to rest in the rough just over the green, perched on a cliff above the hole and leaving an incredibly difficult downhill putt with a severe break that, again predictably, the guest left short (fearing the slope). As you’ve probably also already realized, he missed the downhill eight-footer for par.
What the anecdote also, and perhaps more importantly, illustrates is something of the myopia of American golf—a myopia that was perhaps also displayed recently during PGA Tour player Bubba Watson’s recent Parisian adventure. Watson, according to many, acted out the European fantasy of the Ugly American while playing the French Open at the course that will be the site of the 2018 Ryder Cup competition, Le Golf National. When asked about his tour of Paris prior to the tournament, Watson said that he seen “the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch, whatever” and that he been to “it starts with an L, Louvre, something like that.”
Watson’s remarks would be merely a faux-pas, but some see in them a sign of something greater. Chubby Chandler, Rory McIlroy’s agent—he’s also Charl Schwartzel’s agent, which means that he’s on track for the Agent Slam this year—said in response to Watson (and his T-102 in the tournament) that it’s indicative of how Americans “don’t see any reason to play outside America.” And Jack Nicklaus himself sees in Watson a measure of how American golf is losing competitiveness: “Too many Americans know little beyond American golf.” What the golfers Nicklaus is speaking of don’t know, I’d submit (and I’d enter my guest as an exhibit in such a case) is how to play short grass—which American courses, too often, fail to use properly.
Maybe that’d explain why American teams, after decades of dominating the Ryder Cup, have been relatively unsuccessful (4-10) since at least the “War on the Shore” on the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island in 1991. Maybe that record will only change when American golfers are no longer surprised when their caddies tell them that a 220-yard shot only requires a 5-iron. Until then, when I think about the Ryder Cup and American success in it (or lack of it), I’ll think about the look on that guest’s face when I suggested it—and the look on his face while he watched his ball jump past the hole.