SAN DIEGO – Is the PGA Tour challenging enough?
That’s the question Billy Horschel pondered on the range here ahead of the Farmers Insurance Open. It took him 10 seconds to answer. That silence was telling.
“Yes, it’s a challenge out here. Yes, it’s tough enough,” he said. “Are there things we can do to make it a more consistent challenge? Yes. That’s what I’d say. On a consistent basis, it’s not as tough.”
The question was worth exploring in the wake of Jon Rahm’s viral moment over the weekend at The American Express. Falling off the pace during another week of torrid scoring, Rahm stormed off a green huffing, “Piece of s--t setup. Putting contest week.”
After a few days of reflection, Rahm didn’t cede his position. “We’re the PGA Tour. We’re the best players on the planet, and we’re playing a golf course where missing the fairway means absolutely nothing,” he said. “I just think it was a bit too easy for the best players in the world. That’s just my opinion.”
Rahm knew what he was signing up for, of course. A past winner of the AmEx (at 22 under!), he knew the conditions would be dome-like. He knew the setup couldn’t be too taxing with the pro-am component. He knew there’d be little to no rough. But that doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude him from challenging the status quo.
“I would like a setup that would challenge us in every aspect of the game,” he said.
And so I asked him (and several others) this week: If you were the PGA Tour setup czar, what would you do? In what ways would you provide a proper challenge for the best golfers on the planet?
Here's what they said it should look like:
OFF THE TEE
Pros were unanimous in their response: the answer isn’t 8,000-yard courses. Most settled in the 7,400- to 7,500-yard range as the ideal. Enough beef to require mid- and long irons into the greens, but not so long that it eliminates a portion of the field that simply can’t keep up.
“If it’s designed and set up properly, then that’s challenging enough,” Horschel said, citing shorter tracks like Colonial and Sedgefield.
Course design is an important, if often overlooked, part, too. Said Kevin Streelman: “The only thing I would say is that I don’t like when a hole like this” – here he pointed at the first hole of Torrey Pines’ South Course – “if you carry it 310 [yards], your fairway is twice the size as the vast majority of us who carry it 290. That’s when I have an issue.”
Which brings us to ...
There was virtually no penalty for missing fairways last week in the California desert, as is often the case there. Rahm specifically mentioned the 14th hole on the Stadium Course, a 390-yard, dogleg right protected by a massive pond. “It’s a hole that, usually, hitting it in the fairway is very, very important, because if you miss and you’re in the rough, it’s a tough green to hit and make a birdie on,” he said. “But this time, we were hitting driver 20 yards from the green, because there was no rough.”
Horschel said Tour veterans have told him there’s been a conscious effort to scale back the rough, that it used to be “substantial.” They told him a tipping point came in the late-2000s, after the U.S. Open at Oakmont. “Guys were tired of the hack-out rough,” Horschel said, “and I guess they’ve dialed it back too far, where you’re not getting it penalized anymore for hitting it in the rough, and you’re not getting rewarded anymore for hitting it in the fairway.”
“I’ve got no problem with how far someone hits it,” he continued. “If he hits it 350 down the middle, reward that (player). But if he hits it 350 and it's 20 yards off-line, he should get penalized. He shouldn’t have a lie that’s conducive for him to control it and spin it as if he was in the fairway.”
It’s little surprise Rahm prefers the thicker stuff, too. “I like fairways to be narrow. I like the rough to be up so you can’t just miss the fairway and go for the green with whatever you want.”
And that coincides with ...
Of course, the setup staff is mostly at the mercy of the weather, both in the lead-up to the event and during tournament week. If it dumps for a few days before the opening round, well, yeah, sorry – it’s going to be a flag-hunting contest. There’s little they can do to stop the assault.
“It’s literally all about the firmness of the greens,” Adam Long said. “If you can land a 5-iron next to the hole and it stays on the green, that’s always going to be simple and you don’t have to think. But now, instead of landing a 5-iron at the hole, if you have to land a 6-iron on this little spot in the front, that changes everything.”
You don’t have to think.
A couple players mentioned that, repeatedly. That they want to think. That they don’t just want to grab driver, hit wedge at the flag and try to make birdie. That makes the game one-dimensional, unimaginative, monotonous.
Firm greens mean “it’s more of a challenge of attitude to ball-striking to putting,” Brooks Koepka said. “Missing on the correct side, all these different things, it puts more of an emphasis on that when it’s tougher. When it’s easier, everyone is firing at flags and there’s no penalty for missing the green. Then you see the guy chip in and you’re like, At the U.S. Open that’d never happen. You never chip in from off the green while short-siding yourself.”
So, Koepka typically doesn’t bother with the track meets. He recognized those don’t fit his style of play, and he avoids those venues, if he can. Tiger Woods adopted a similar strategy in his heyday. Look at the Tour courses on which he’s had the most success: Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, Firestone, Augusta National, Muirfield Village. Not a cupcake among ’em. Course difficulty (and his superhuman physical gifts) helped separate him from his peers.
“I’m not gonna win, man, if it’s 30 under par, 25 under par. That’s just not me,” Koepka said. “Monday qualifiers, if I had to do that every day, I’d be lucky to qualify for two of them. I like it when it’s tougher. You gotta grind. It’s more of a mental challenge than just teeing up driver, wedging it on and it’s a putting contest.”
The issue goes deeper, more foundational, with Horschel saying the Tour could be more selective with its venues. “Let’s go to courses that, on their own, are a tough challenge,” said Horschel, citing the addition last year of Caves Valley, site of the BMW Championship, where 27 under par played off. “Not a course that we have to come in and really do a whole bunch to: get the greens firm, get the greens fast, grow the rough up, hope for ideal conditions. Because if not, the course is gonna get eaten up.
“If you’re always betting on ideal conditions to get the winning score where you want, you’re gambling. So, let’s not make it where we have to have everything perfectly lined up to make it challenging. Let’s choose some venues that are challenging on their own before we come in and spice it up.”
As with most hot topics, a dose of perspective is needed. Golf is an outdoor sport that follows the sun (and thus the heat and humidity). Equipment advances keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Tournament fields are deeper than ever before. And amid all the handwringing about scoring, it’s worth remembering that – save for Cameron Smith’s record week on a wide-open resort course without the typical winds – the winning scores have fallen in line with the recent averages at those tournaments (all 20 under or lower). Players who sign up for the Tour’s soft launching know what to expect; on the eve of last week’s AmEx, in fact, Rahm said: “You know you’re going to have to surpass the 20-under barrier.”
Still, Rahm’s frustration underscored how each week the Tour must strike a delicate balance between serving up an entertaining product for a global audience and properly testing the world’s best.
“There’s no one way to do it, and that’s what’s great about the Tour,” Streelman said. “Maui was a putting contest, and that’s a skill – to be comfortable in that degree of excellence. Last year’s U.S. Open out here, you’re testing accuracy and distance control and green-reading – it’s a full test of all your skill sets. You’re challenging the best players in the world week to week, just differently.”
There won’t be any kvetching that the setup this week is toothless. (The average winning score of the last eight editions: 12 under.) Pebble Beach can turn nasty with the proper weather. Riviera is never a pushover. The brutish Florida swing awaits.
And so that brings us back to the original question: Are Tour players being consistently challenged enough?
“Absolutely,” Long said. “It’s the hardest game in the world. Nobody out here is complacent. Nobody out here is winning every week; nobody top-5s every week, either. It’s all hard.
“We’re all out here Monday-Wednesday preparing for a reason. We don’t show up Wednesday night because we know it’s easy. It’s the hardest game in the world, it’s never perfected, and there are way too many variables to always be good at it. Let’s just dial all the hysteria back a little bit. It's all a little overblown.”