Tight, torturous Le Golf National sets new bar as Ryder Cup host site

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Tight, torturous Le Golf National sets new bar as Ryder Cup host site

2018 Ryder Cup

Tight, torturous Le Golf National sets new bar as Ryder Cup host site

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Le Golf National fulfilled its Ryder Cup marching orders: seat over 50,000 spectators, produce dramatic matches and bring the Ryder Cup back to Europe.

Just one more thing: make the European Tour a bunch of cash and keep the Ryder Cup as the premier event. Especially with all the piles of cash saved on portable restrooms and trash pickup. But first, about the carnage inside the ropes.

On the list of what ailed the United States in the latest losing excursion across the Atlantic, a failure to fully prepare for the narrowness of Le Golf National or the often-shocking over-reading of putts will vie for the top spot atop the list of 2018 failures.

It is not as if U.S. captain Jim Furyk failed to tell the team what was coming. The course setup ploys may have been the worst-kept secret in golf given Le Golf National’s place on the European Tour schedule: narrow fairways, high rough and slightly slower greens than normal.

“I gave them as much info as I could,” Furyk said ahead of competition. “But they are all professionals and they are all going to learn the golf course and prepare for it in their own way, and I want them to do that, as well.”

Midweek, Team USA members who had never seen Le Golf National’s 7,183 yards of artificiality on steroids, found out what they were in for.

“I had a couple [of players] that walked up to me yesterday and said, ‘Wow, you said it was going to be tight, it sure is,’” Furyk said.

Sep 29, 2018; Paris, FRA; Europe golfer Tommy Fleetwood plays from the rough on the sixth hole during the Ryder Cup Saturday Morning matches at Le Golf National. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Much was rightfully made of the narrowness here, most of it artificially created with a purpose in mind. Landing areas were tightened by the European Tour paint guns, though modern driving distances also created pinch points unforeseen by the architects. But modern players have seen narrowness before. The rough density was excessive, particularly on this side of the Atlantic where they love their natural golf and once railed against the American harvesting of tall grass.

On either side of the Le Golf National landing areas sat a nasty 3-inch wide swath of heavily fertilized fescue and rye grass, before transitioning to silly hack-out stuff that caused several lost ball searches. Wedge out sideways stuff.

“When this course was set up by Captain (Thomas) Bjorn, he probably looked at the stats of the Americans,” said NBC’s Johnny Miller as the U.S. was getting swept in Friday foursomes.

For the 2017-18 PGA Tour season, the United States team’s driving accuracy was 58.23 percent for an average rank of 133rd. Only four of the Americans in France finished inside the top 100 in fairways hit, and none were inside the top 50.

Bjorn and friends successfully engineered a setup to neutralize any thoughts of bombing and gouging. Only a couple of decades ago, it was America harvesting the tall stuff to irritate swashbuckling Europeans.

Both sides felt the pressure off Le Golf National’s tees, but it was the Europeans who overcame it best.

“The toughest thing around here is driving,” said Tyrrell Hatton after Saturday morning’s four-ball win with Paul Casey. “But yeah, for me, I would say that is the toughest test this week is obviously making sure you’re in play.”

Narrowness was not the only kryptonite for America. The Le Golf National greens, not to be confused with the Old Course’s in the contour or character department, befuddled the players in their relative dullness.

“They’re over-reading these greens,” said Butch Harmon while working for Sky Sports. “The Americans just don’t know the greens.”

So flat in spots they seem laser leveled, the Americans regularly missed on the high side as late as Sunday singles when a late-morning mowing had the greens rolling slightly faster. Still, the lethargic-by-modern-standards Stimpmeter reading of 10 feet, 2 inches proved another wise move by the setup masterminds since the European Tour players generally see slower week-to-week speeds.

PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 30: Justin Thomas of the United States reacts during singles matches of the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National on September 30, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Following the loss, Furyk downplayed questioning of player preparation after it was pointed out that Justin Thomas, the lone American to play this year’s French Open, went 4-1.

“I had more players show up for that practice round than I could have hoped for, and we were prepared,” Furyk said. “I feel like we played our practice rounds and we understood the golf course. We got out-played.”

As a Ryder Cup venue, Le Golf National’s clusters of dangerous holes with multiple finishing hole greens in view played out as cinematically as expected. With 18 huge Jumbotron screens, greenside amphitheaters housing thousands of energetic, impossibly tall viewing structures and crystal-clear days, the place seemed made for a 4K world.

As a fan experience, reviews ranged from mixed to poor, with never-ending reports of overwhelmed infrastructure. By day’s end, the venue was littered with piles of trash thanks to a minimum of receptacles. The sight of male fans openly urinating in nearby creeks, sometimes within a wedge shot of the action, suggested a few more of the European Tour’s Ryder Cup millions should have been spent on proper preparation.

Still, television audiences watching in the early U.S. hours finally got to see Ryder Cup golf on a venue shaped with match play and High Definition in mind. For older players who’ve been subjected to a long list of mediocre venues on this side of the Atlantic, Le Golf National raised what was a very low bar on Ryder Cup venues.

“Greatest venue, the greatest stadium any of us have ever played,” Furyk said in the closing ceremonies. “I don’t think we could have a better crowd, a better venue. We were treated great this week, maybe except by the European Team.” Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the November issue of Golfweek.)

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