STILLWATER, Okla. – The adjectives being used to describe Karsten Creek, site of this year’s NCAA Division I men’s and women’s golf championships, might as well have been pulled right out of the promotional materials for this course. Words like fantastic, pristine and immaculate have been some of the most frequently used.
After 36 holes of play, the consensus here is that all is well, and that’s a big sigh of relief considering the courses and setups of recent years.
The national championships have been hosted at the same venue in back-to-back weeks for four years now, but the championship setup in two of the previous three years have pushed the limit on fair versus silly.
Karsten is known for being a challenge, so there were concerns once again about how the 2018 championships might unfold. The chatter around venues, and more specifically course setup, for the women really started in 2015. That was the first year that one course, Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., hosted both championships.
Before 2015, there was not such a tight focus on course setup. Women’s golf stuck with the traditional 72-hole stroke-play format and men’s golf continued with a longer event that involved stroke play and match play to decide a champion. Match play debuted in the men’s championship in 2009.
However, when television came on board in 2014, it became more cost effective to stage the two events at the same location. That would force the women into a format change, even though the majority of the coaches did not want any change at all.
This is when the setup critiquing began.
“Concession was a disaster for the women’s game – not the course, the course was fantastic,” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said. “Couldn’t have asked for more beautiful, better conditions but what they did with the pins and the length on some of those holes with all of those run-offs, it was brutal.”
The green complexes were as difficult as the women ever see. Firm greens and difficult hole locations punished players whose approach shots came in with a low trajectory. The match-play cut fell at 62 over.
Things quieted down in 2016 at Eugene Country Club. In fact, the venue received considerable praise. But the flood gates opened again last year at Rich Harvest Farms, where it took 55 over (just seven shots less than at Concession) to get into match play and that was with one less round being played. The Saturday round was cancelled because of inclement weather.
A major concern from coaches was that course setup would skew viewers’ perception of the women’s game. When the best players in the game are posting rounds in the 80s and when you see cut lines that many strokes over par, it’s not a true reflection of the talent level and the ability of today’s players.
In 2014, the U.S. Golf Association held the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open in consecutive weeks at Pinehurst No. 2. The difference was that the men went first.
“I think it would make more sense if they want to get the course to a certain level of difficulty for the men that they are not going to be able to obtain if the women are playing first,” Forsyth said.
As Duke coach Dan Brooks said, “I think it would be worth looking at it.”
That change would require a shift in regional play and might be very difficult to accommodate.
A change this year at Karsten Creek is that the NCAA has given Allison Brown, the head rules official for Division I women’s golf, the task of setting up the course for the women’s championship. Brown seems to have a good grasp so far.
“Control what we can control,” said Brown, who is also the Director of Rules and Competitions of the Tennessee Golf Association. “It’s a big piece of property and we are also up against the wind.”
Brown said her biggest concerns this week are green speeds and rough height.
“It’s a work in progress,” she said.
Alabama has yet to make match play in any of the three previous championships.
“It’s easy to be critical in hindsight of how it was setup,” Alabama coach Mic Potter said.
However, this week Potter likes what is unfolding. His team is in second place after 36 holes, but he sees a golf course that is very good.
“This golf course, to me, is a masterpiece,” he said. “Tees have had a nice mix. A lot of options on how you can play the hole –or 3-wood, hybrid or driver. I don’t think it can get any better than this. The committee has done a great job.”
Karsten Creek is a tough golf course for anyone who plays it. Forsyth said that is not ever the issue.
“There is not a problem when a course is difficult, the problem is when it is totally unfair,” she said. “When you hit quality shots and are punished for that, that should never be the situation. I was not there last year so I don’t know what it was, but that is what it was like in 2015.”
One of the biggest challenges in course setup is getting similar clubs in the hands of both men and women.
“I still want the public to see us shooting the same scores that the guys do,” said Potter. “I would think that you would want the same clubs into the greens that guys do. That might be a little ridiculous at times, but I think that is the best measurement.”
In Potter’s opinion, the test of a good golf course is that the best players play well and the average players struggle to keep up.
Duke’s Brooks has been outspoken on the previous championship setups. Earlier this year, he told Golfweek: “For two of the last three championships, the course has not been properly set up for women.”
He went on to mention the major talking points: lack of tees in the proper places, not enough hole locations for back-to-back events or greens that won’t receive a show with a lower trajectory.
He is not seeing any of that so far at Karsten.
“They have a college team here and it’s obvious. They have the tees that you need to set it up perfectly for a college tournament,” he said. “You have to really understand the women’s game. It’s not only shorter, its coming in at different angles.”
Brooks added, “This is set up really, really well.”
With two days of play in the books, we are seeing some teams post the highest scores of the season. Conversely, there is enough red to let us know the course is playable.
Forsyth summed it up best: “I know the course is tough. It’s not unfair.”