Shackelford: R&A's late course alteration at Open is most bizarre

Royal Birkdale-British Open AP Photo/Peter Morrison

Shackelford: R&A's late course alteration at Open is most bizarre

PGA Tour

Shackelford: R&A's late course alteration at Open is most bizarre

SOUTHPORT, England – Closely-mown grass out of bounds?

Ruled shortly before the start of the 2017 British Open?

In the most bizarre late course alteration since the U.S. Golf Association planted a tree overnight to stop Lon Hinkle from shortening a hole in the 1979 U.S. Open, the R&A on Tuesday took bold action for the safety of spectators.

In doing so they’ve highlighted issues related to distance and setup at Royal Birkdale.

To protect fans in the grandstand immediately off the ninth tee, chief referee David Rickman notified players and walking referees that the 10th hole fairway turf will be played as out of bounds.

The decision came in response to Jason Day’s caddie, Colin Swatton, asking about the possibility of taking an alternative route on No. 9, a difficult, 416-yard par 4. Who could blame him? The ninth hole fairway is so hard to see that the club has built a permanent viewing platform to determine when the landing area is clear. Couple that with narrowness, strong undulations and it’s little wonder why a clever caddie such as Swatton would suggest his player drive to a wider, flatter and more direct path to the green.

Day was asked about the potential tactic. He also noted that with a stiff easterly breeze and a bad bounce, it’s not a stretch to imagine a player unintentionally hitting one out of bounds at the ninth.

“If you lose one in the wind and it bounces awkwardly and you’re a foot on the fairway or an inch on the fairway, you’re out of bounds,” he said. “It’s a little unfair. The R&A have obviously made that rule for a purpose. I guess I’ll be hitting iron down there now, not taking the 10 line.”

The deeper issue here is power overtaking skill and the tepid response of regulators. This latest incident would have prosecutors charging R&A officials with multiple counts of ignoring signs of a problem.

How did we get here?

Players, caddies and club fitters were already predicting driver will be used very little this week in normal Birkdale conditions. Driving irons will be en vogue. This is hardly a surprise given that fairway landing areas are too narrow for the contours and the kind of roll out presented by Birkdale’s course manager.

“It’s pretty firm out there,” R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers said. “It’s running hard. The rough, if you run out in the wrong direction, can be pretty penal.”

With modern drivers that dramatically and vertically launch tee shots 350 yards, all supported by on-the-spot fitting and adjustments to keep players optimized, the modern big stick is just too much for this course.

Asked if this is a concern for the R&A given that the driver has traditionally allowed the all-time greats to separate themselves, Slumbers dodged the question.

“The conversations I’ve had with players is that they are really enjoying the challenge of trying to work at how to get the ball in the right place,” he said. “And at times that will lead them to hit irons as against drivers or woods.”

Or contemplating hitting driver over a grandstand into a much more receptive landing area.

As to the role of distance de-skilling the game — or having players ponder once-unthinkable alternative routes to avoid artificially narrowed landing areas — Slumbers suggested some concern.

“The second thing that I’m looking at, and spend probably as much time doing it, is this balance between skill and technology,” he said. “And whether how much the technology and skill, are they in balance, is it good for the recreational game? Is it the same for the elite game? Those two issues are what we are looking at. If you look at the data over the last 18 months, we are seeing movements, only halfway through the year. We will take a full look at the end of the year, and then come back and make sure we analyze and think about it very carefully.”

In the short term, the R&A should think very carefully about the absurdity of needing to deem fairway grass out of bounds.

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