The Beauty Of Slower Greens
Although I wasn't exactly sure why, the British Open at Hoylake was extra satisfying to watch this year.
There were some obvious attractions, like Rory McIlroy in full flight, Sergio Garcia looking like he might actually win his inner battle and Rickie Fowler's distinctive verve. But then I usually find myself captivated by the individuals who contend in majors, whoever they are.
The course itself wasn't that alluring. Royal Liverpool's two late par 5s invited some bold strokes and intriguing possibilities, and the links with the cool motto of "Far and Sure" produced another historic winner to validate its recent return to the regular rota. But the holes and the lay of the land are a bit dull visually.
Then I realized what had really provided the fun: the greens. Or more specifically, green speeds that allowed players to pop their putts boldly. By the major championship standards we have grown used to and for too long seldom questioned, Hoylake's were slow -- about 10.5 on the Stimpmeter. But as representative of the corrective that golf needs, they were perfect.
Major championship golf has gotten out of balance as those Stimpmeter readings have edged toward the teens. The Masters is celebrated for how players are often forced to lag 15-footers. As majestic a venue as Pinehurst No. 2 was for the U.S. Open, the extreme slopes in its green complexes were made too penal by fast green speeds. I appreciate rewarding players for the ball control and management needed to avoid problematic spots. But the game becomes a boring spectacle when too much fear squeezes out imagination and aggression.
Because of the constant possibility of heavy wind, links courses have to keep their green speeds at barely more than 10, even for majors. It's no accident that the greatest putting exhibitions I've ever seen have been during the British Open, in particular Seve Ballesteros in 1988 at Royal Lytham and Ian Baker-Finch in 1991 at Royal Birkdale. At Hoylake it was Fowler who delightfully kept stepping into medium-length putts with much the same brisk, confident manner that makes him an appealing personality. Watching his ball seemingly hunt the hole after a palpably positive stroke was the very definition of putting like a kid.
"On 15- and 20-footers, you could use a little more right hand and hit them with good 'make' speed," said Fowler, who one-putted seven straight holes on the final nine. "You're not scared of those like you are at Augusta."
The fact that McIlroy, whose putting is generally considered a relative weakness, actually was T-3 in the championship in one-putts is evidence that being free of the burden of having to make a lot of slick five-footers -- as well as the burden of handling his deflation when he didn't -- helped McIlroy be the breathtaking bomber who, with less fear of three-putting, also makes his share of long putts.
It was a pleasure to watch the ball keep going into the hole at Hoylake. But even on misses, the enlivened pace that resulted from more tap-ins made the viewing experience discernibly more enjoyable. What most slows the professional game is the excruciatingly rhythmless dance of marking, lining up and activating full routines on second putts that are outside gimme range. At Hoylake the body language on the greens was more positive, as the reduced time around the hole kept players in a better flow to make repetitive, aggressive swings from tee to green (the final twosome Sunday played in 3:48). Yes, slower greens make golf more athletic.
Like everything that has to do with the playing field at the highest level of golf, there would be plenty of objections to slowing down the greens at the three majors held in America. There is no doubt that winning scores would go down, which many traditionalists would oppose. And there is the argument that fast greens require more skill, both to hit shots into and to putt on, and thus crown more deserving champions.
I happen to disagree, and would hold up McIlroy at Hoylake as Exhibit A. But even if I'm wrong about that, few would argue that recreational golf -- the game that the rest of us play -- needs an adjustment. If "too long, too expensive and too difficult" is indeed an increasingly held view of our game, then the game's leaders should pursue measures that make it faster, cheaper and easier.
Just about the most direct way to begin achieving these goals is to slow down the greens. And if the other majors learn from the British Open, it will become more fun to watch the best in the world.