The Game Before The Game
Setting up courses on the PGA Tour is more complicated—and more scrutinized—than ever
To J.B. Holmes, one of the longest hitters in the game, too many PGA Tour course setups discriminate against players like him. "You get on some courses, and it takes the driver out of your hands," Holmes says of fairways that narrow past the 300-yard point. "I'd like to see [more courses] opened up a little bit."
Bob Tway, who ranks 134th in driving distance, disagrees. "On most tour courses," says the 48-year-old, eight-time winner, "you have 25 yards of fairway, then you have a bunker, but if you can carry it 320 yards, [the landing area] widens to 45 yards." Two rational, soft-spoken pros. Two diametrically opposed views about course setups. "We have 250 guys out here, and maybe we're all a little bit selfish," admits Steve Flesch, a 10-year veteran and member of the tour's Player Advisory Council (PAC). Selfish perhaps, but considering the effect on their livelihood, it is understandable why the hundreds of course-setup decisions PGA Tour tournament officials make weekly are scrutinized by the players—not to mention sponsors, television partners and host venues aware of the impact on their sizable investments.
Throw in dramatic technological and agronomic advances that have transformed the game recently—the tour driving-distance average was 289.1 yards in 2007, nearly a 22-yard increase from 1997—and the art of preparing a tour layout has never been more complicated. "Course setup has been discussed almost as much as pace of play," Joe Durant says of his recent stint on the PGA Tour Policy Board. "Of course, the two are intertwined. The push is to play faster and yet everything we do out here makes things slower—longer courses, more rough and tucked pins."
The tour's tournament officials, a roving band of 16 rules experts best known to spectators for monitoring play from a golf cart until summoned to intervene in a ruling, annually manage more than 40 events.Two primary tournament directors, Mark Russell and Slugger White, split duties week-to-week overseeing rotating teams of officials who handle advance planning, player relations, course preparation and rules officiating.
"You think baseball umpires are worrying about where the players' wives park?" Russell says, smiling when it is pointed out how many duties the staff deals with in addition to course setup.
Russell and White determine duty rotations that are changed every few years to keep the officials fresh. An advance man is designated for each event, visiting at least once several months prior to arriving more than a week before play starts. He handles tasks ranging from painting hazard lines to making sure the media center is ready to go. The advance man also ensures that months of preparatory visits conducted by the tour's 11-person agronomy staff match the planned-for green speeds, bunker-sand depth and rough heights. At tournament's end he files a report with suggested adjustments from the officials, including proposed changes to fairway contours.
By Monday afternoon preceding a traditional 72-hole event, the remaining field staff of seven arrives to begin final preparation. Supervision of hole and tee placement is split with one official per nine holes. They scout their four best hole locations Tuesday morning, then meet that afternoon with the tournament director to spell out their strategy. The flow of each day's setup is coordinated to make sure they are not presenting a test favoring an abundance of, for example, holes tucked in the right corner of greens that reward a high fade.
Throughout the process, executives at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., remain intentionally out of the loop. "It's not really their deal—they're not out here," says Russell, who has worked for the tour since 1980. "Just like I'm not trying to find a sponsor in Tampa, they realize setup is our expertise."
The relationship between the unionized officials and the tour administration has been marked by labor-relations tension dating to the Deane Beman era, with the friction culminating in a lawsuit rules officials filed in 2003 disputing overtime-pay eligibility. The officials lost the case in a 2006 trial.
Course setup-related communication between players and tournament officials also is a bit murky. For several years players could fill out weekly surveys, but few took the time. "It was accomplishing nothing," says Russell, who has an open trailer-door policy, something many veterans noted when complimenting the field staff. Players also can talk to player-relations liaison Sid Wilson, who typically mingles on the range and in the locker room before a tournament begins. "If it's about course setup, Sid will write something in his notebook and then say, 'Go talk to Steve Wenzloff,' " says PAC member Geoff Ogilvy.
Wenzloff is the tour's "design services" specialist who sits on a newly formed advisory committee that will monitor course-setup issues. The committee includes Russell and White; consultant Phil Blackmar, a three-time tour winner; tour chief of operations Henry Hughes; and recently hired competitions director Tyler Dennis, who will serve as a Ponte Vedra Beach-based voice for the field staff.