Senior Amateur course setups: Messing with Mother Nature

I have had many discussions with senior golfers about how their tournament courses should be setup. While nearly everyone has had an intelligent, well-thought opinion, I’ve felt as if I’m at the entrance of the Capitol Building listening to lobbyists putting forth their agenda. I’ve concluded that a consensus is impossible as all these experienced players have unique points of view that they hold dear. Some advocate a setup that suits their game. Others prefer ones that they’ve enjoyed at certain points in their tournament life.

Having played tournaments on courses that challenged and thrilled me – as well as on some that I wanted to return to that night with a flamethrower – I’ve come to my own conclusion about how the Golfweek event courses will be presented. Below are some rules that I use as guides and will let you know what to expect when you enter one of these tournaments.

1.) The course is the course – of course, of course. I live in Pittsburgh where there is a nice little track called Oakmont Country Club. In my opinion, Oakmont, under everyday or U.S. Open conditions, is the toughest great course in the country. It is a wonderful experience to play there, but it reminds me of what a runner said after finishing a marathon. “It’s like repeatedly smashing your thumb with a hammer. It feels great when you stop.”

There is no distance nor hole locations that would make this course easy. Show up there any day in the summer with normal green speeds, roughs at their standard height and the tees set at 5,000 yards – scores will still be on the high end of the senior spectrum. At 6,500 yards, the winning score with routine pin placements would be over par well into double digits.

Golfweek doesn’t start with preconceptions as to what players will shoot. Some courses will play hard and some easy. I suggest competitors look at the schedule of 40-plus tournaments and understand that, just like the PGA Tour, some will give up lots of birdies and others have built-in hammers.

2.) Mother Nature rules! Wind, rain, drought, temperature and the growing seasons will often dictate how a course plays. Those of you who played through the 1 1/2 inches of rain that fell on the second day of last year’s Golfweek Sr. Tour Championship at The Slammer and Squire G.C. in the World Golf Village played three courses in one round. At the start of the day, the course had dried out because of the wind that came up in the first round and continued overnight. This was helpful as there had been 10 inches of rain there over the previous 17 days. At about 11.m., a steady rain started. This made the course play easier for an hour or so as the little bit of hit-and roll on the greens disappeared and dart board conditions were in play. The rain became drenching as the day went on and by the time the final group had about five holes to go, I gave serious thought to halting the round due to unplayable conditions (more about why I didn’t stop the fight later).

With the players and course soaked to the gills, scores skyrocketed. Most experienced players know how to keep their hands and grips dry and can play well in the pouring rain, but the ground was so waterlogged that making crisp, precise contact became almost impossible. The greens also changed speed as more rain fell. This is a tough adjustment during a round. In those conditions (with preferred lies), the course favored long-hitting pickers. Big divot takers and those that depend on roll for extra distance had a really rough time.

3.) No goofy golf. I believe a player who has control of their ball flight and a good short game should shoot a good score. I don’t want any putts rolling up to a hole and trickling back or dropping off 10 feet away after passing the hole by a foot. We want good play to yield good scores and sloppy rounds to pay the price.

4.) Distance and scores have little correlation. From the PGA Tour level on down, the length of the course is a bad predictor of which players will do well in a tournament. Studies have shown this time and again. In senior amateur golf there is a wide range of how far players can hit it within each division. I attempt to set up the course so the average-length player in each division will use most of their clubs for shots into the green after a solid drive. This means that the bombers will be playing more short clubs and the shorter hitters will have longer clubs in their hands more often. If you’ve just turned 65 and were a long hitter in the senior division, you will find yourself the J.B. Holmes of the super seniors. A player who is 64 may feel like Calvin Peete amongst the seniors, but probably without his consistency and accuracy.

I know many of you won’t believe me, but all of the following factors will affect scoring more than distance:

  • Rough height/thickness;
  • Firmness/speed/consistency and smoothness of the greens;
  • Wind;
  • And how the ball rolls after hitting the fairway and green surrounds.

When a course is very firm, fast and windy, it will play very short and very hard. Soft and slow conditions will increase the effective length, but scores will come down.

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I was sitting in the interview room prior to the 2007 U.S. Open when Padraig Harrington (pictured) was asked what he thought about No. 8, a par 3 that could be stretched to 300 yards and played slightly downhill. Harrington didn’t recall the hole immediately and was prompted by the press. Many players had called it a relatively easy par 4. Harrington, a very bright man who thinks things through, just shook his head and said “no big deal.”

“It’s a 3- or 5-wood to a big green that is the flattest on the course. There is lots of room to land the ball short and run it on. There isn’t much that can go wrong if I hit it offline. I might make a bogey, but that’s about it. There are 14 other holes that I’d be concerned about making par before that one. Maybe there won’t be a lot of 2’s, but it’s no big deal.”

The senior and super seniors in these tournaments are good players. Distance plays some role in determining a winner, but consistency of ball-striking, staying away from big numbers and great putting wins.

5.) We are guests. Unlike the professional tours, we don’t have the luxury of coming in weeks, months or years ahead of the tournament to oversee a course’s conditioning. The management, golf and maintenance staff are usually very accommodating in allowing us to set tees and hole locations, but the course has to be set up as it is found.

6.) Let’s have some fun. Golfweek knows that the competitors in its senior events are accomplished players. I believe that competition, enjoyment of the site and camaraderie are the main reasons most of you play. I try to set up the course to be challenging and fun. There will often be a reachable par 4 or a very short par 5 in each tournament round if I can find a good risk/reward reason to do so. A loose guideline for hole location difficulty is six easy, six medium and six hard. Still, I’m never worried about a pin that’s too easy and will stay away from any that are so difficult that there is no other option for a player who doesn’t want to try to hit a perfect shot. I’m not setting up the USGA Senior and none of you are feeding your families by playing in these events, so I’m happy when Erik Myrmo shoots 64 at Eagle Falls on a course that was vulnerable because there was no wind. I imagine Myrmo had a lot of fun that day and hope he had some amount of fun during his day one 75.

7.) The nuts and bolts of setup. I spend at least two full days on site figuring out the setup. I’ll meet with the director of golf, his/her staff and the superintendent to go over the guidelines I want to use and find out what they can – and will – let me do. I find out if there are unusual situations on the course.

  • Is there ground under repair out there and is it marked?
  • Is there a hole where play tends to backup?
  • Which way does the prevailing wind blow?
  • And many other bits of information about that course.

Many courses rotate pins front to middle to back over a three-day period. We have to find placements that fit that rotation. The staff at the sites are “golf people.” They have many events and, once they understand what we’re looking for, are very accommodating. I ask that the green speed be kept the same for the tournament days as it is for the practice round. Sometimes I’ll ask for a little more or less speed than their normal daily setup if it fits into the overall philosophy of how a Golfweek tournament course should play.

I’ll try to play the course early on the first day and plot tentative hole and tee locations. The second day I’ll spend the morning watching practice rounds to make sure I’ve correctly estimated where the drives will finish and what clubs will be used into the greens by all types of players. After that, I’ll paint the locations, preferably accompanied by one of the golf staff who knows any eccentricities of a fairway, green surround or putting surface.

8.) Things change. I’ll arrive at the course at least two hours before the first tee time and check with the superintendent to see if everything is where it should be or if conditions require altering the setup. Most alterations will involve moving tees forward or back due to the wind forecast. Since weathermen are always right, the course will play exactly as predicted. Sometimes greens have been scuffed and a hole location needs to be moved. I hope that no changes are necessary and take a quick run around the course to double check the pin sheet.

I’ve explained in a complicated manner how Golfweek tries to provide a fun environment by applying a few simple rules. I’m always interested in how the contestants feel about how the course is presented to them. Please feel free to engage me in a conversation about a particular course or the overall philosophy.

If we disagree, it’s not likely we’ll change the other’s mind, but we can enjoy the process.

• • •

Finally, for those of you who suffered through the second round at The Squire and Slammer, here is why play was not stopped. We had an 8 a.m. shotgun for the final round that could be moved back a maximum of only 45 minutes because the course had significant post-shotgun tee times booked.

The prediction was for continued overnight rain, and because it was a shotgun, the maintenance staff was going to have to be in overdrive to get all 18 holes ready for the start. There was not going to be enough time to get the last group (it had five holes left when I would have ordinarily stopped play) out on Sunday morning and have them finish, allow the staff to do their job and start at 8:45. It was uncertain that we’d be able to play Sunday, but I chose to operate as if we would.

If I had known on Saturday that the rain would continue to the point that Sunday’s round would have been canceled, I would have halted play Saturday. The staff was willing to get out early Sunday and work on the final five holes to allow the last groups to complete their second round and we’d have had a 36-hole champion. I opted to put those last groups through an ordeal in favor of being able to have a 54-hole event. I think I made the right decision, but feel for those that had to muck through. The last groups were super seniors, and while one can never be sure, Rich Anderson’s margin of victory makes me believe playing in those conditions (he was in the last group) didn’t affect who won the event. Others may have had their outcomes affected and I do empathize.

The senior amateur “tour” has so many great tournaments and the vast majority of them are very well run. Not all of these events will share the Golfweek philosophy of setup, but for me, one of the great attractions of golf is the variety of courses and conditions.

If this wasn’t true, it’d just be bowling.

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