Added on July 30th, 2017 by Lorne Smith
Posted in General, Greenkeeping, TV Coverage

Was the BBC coverage of The Open Championship as tired as Martyn Slumbers, the CEO of The R&A, was quoted as suggesting?

I watched a couple of the two-hour BBC evening summaries introduced by a lively young newcomer, well versed in neutral but enthusiastic media-speak. Poor old Peter Alliss not long ago called ‘the doyen of golf commentators’, was reduced to just two comments that I can remember, admittedly amusingly cynical, about the dress of certain players.

Ken Brown kept turning up, seemingly winking his eye at us, talking about the course but as usual with no mention of the most crucial issue of agronomy that today defines Royal Birkdale as one of the finest GB&I courses, following an horrendous saga of having to dig up their greens. (Read the FineGolf review of Royal Birkdale for the full story).

In past years the most interesting and knowledgeable commentator has always been Mark James. I saw him checking out the greens on practice day but no sight of him on television this year.

I have never seen so many putts go in when watching the pros both at Royal Birkdale and for The Open Final Qualifying at Notts GC at Hollinwell. Both courses are now high in fescue/browntop bent grasses (I guess in 2010 the fine grasses at RB were about 50% and it is now up to around 80% with a high amount of fescue) which give the truest performance and not just in the dry summer but all year round. And that for RB in a normally pretty wet area of the country!  (generally the drier east coast courses in England/Scotland have more fescue).

Jordan Spieth with Claret Jug

If there was one aspect of Spieth’s game that excelled, it was his putting. Those enormous putts on the sixteenth and seventeenth that won him the Championship were of course lucky but he took advantage of the quality of the fescue/bent surfaces, running at around ten foot.

The pros are so used to putting on Poa annua greens, shaved for tournaments to run above eleven foot, with which most recreational players cannot cope, comment about how slow the Birkdale greens were, was common. The issue of speed of green is another instance of how Elite golf is now so different from recreational golf. It is excellent that The R&A is siding with recreational golf speeds as the norm. The real importance is the trueness of roll all year round and good quality comes from fescue/browntop bent surfaces rather than weed Poa annua.

Chris Whittle, the course manager and his team, using low-input, traditional greenkeeping with lots of regular aeration and top-dressing, have over the years gradually changed the soil biology to one that encourages the deep-rooted, fine, perennial grasses and stresses out the shallow-rooted  weed, annual meadow grass (Poa annua).

It was good to see leading agronomist Alistair Beggs in the summer STRI Bulletin magazine writing an article on Birkdale titled “Changing Grasses” and saying “Chris embarked upon an agronomic journey, which is arguably one of the greatest achievements in modern greenkeeping”.

We will be talking about others and how to do it, at the FineGolf  ‘Running-Golf Day’ partnered with Notts GC at Hollinwell on Sept 4th. A few places still available, contact lorne@finegolf.co.uk

A less challenging aspect to Birkdale, by comparison with other quirkier links, is the predictability of its fairway stances. The fairways are predominantly flat which the pros love as it makes it easier and more methodical for them.

Another aspect and it was spoken about earlier this year, is that Birkdale with its ideal wispy fescue rough in many parts, following a lack of spring rain and consequently less growth, was going to be easier for the big hitting pros who tend to spray their ball or run them out across the famous Birkdale long par four doglegs.  As Tim Rouse (PGA Director and well regarded club and teaching professional) commented to me; to run the ball into the rough on one side of the fairway on many holes was the percentage way to play the course this year. Perhaps it is called good course management!

The other two ‘weather’ problems were that there was too much rain in the weeks prior to The Open Championship which greened the fairways and reduced the natural fiery nature of the links, though even on Wednesday there was still quite a lot of bounce in the aprons and greens even if it unfortunately had gone by Saturday.

The second was the amount of rain during the Championship itself, particularly overnight, so the greens on the last two days were softened and the pins vulnerable to attacking play, rather than the ball having to be run-in, which requires greater skill and imagination.

Soft, true greens coupled with no wind on the Saturday produced a birdie fest,

with the pros using their enormous carries and angel-raping approach shots to stop the ball quickly.

Nevertheless a light breeze of around 10/12 mph wind on the Sunday reduced the number under par to a mere handful  and started the Sky commentators talking about the brutal difficulty again. Does it make us feel smugly smart to suggest that a 2o to 25mph wind is the ideal for good golf? Perhaps, but the Sky boys, so often commentating on the usual ‘target-golf’ courses on which the pros play most of their tournaments, through whatever reason miss out explaining the interesting differences in how fine grassed, firm running-golf course need to be played and rather than complaining about the difficulty of the wind, enjoy how to over-come its challenge.

They of course can see the difference but are they interested in talking about where that difference arises from and how the running nature enhances the challenge of the course design? It seems not.

There was a discussion within the PGA, R&A and Sky recently about creating a new marketing format, where the three televised Championships, the Irish, the Scottish and the ‘British’ Opens which all now are played on ‘running-golf’ courses and consecutively, creating a group of tournaments to be called the

‘Links Tour’, emphasising  their different character.

This could have opened up some really interesting issues for debate and investigation on air rather than just repeating the stale ‘in the moment- who is winning?’ format so beloved of television producers who display little respect for the knowledge of their viewers. (FineGolf suggested ‘The Running-Golf Tour’ as the name and adding in the televised Dunhill which is also played across three further running-golf courses in Fife at the end of September).

Sadly the initiative has not yet been taken up by the broadcaster. Nor it has to be said anybody in the greenkeeping fraternity leadership even spoken about it. If nobody is trained to speak to camera about ‘running-golf’ one can hardly blame the TV producers retreating into the old cop-out refrain that ‘golfers are not interested in grasses and greenkeepers are just cutters of any old grass’.

Perhaps the primary problem here is that most of Sky’s regular coverage is of ‘target-golf’ and they do not wish to highlight its easier two-dimensional (length & direction) aspect in contrast to three dimensional  ‘running-golf’,  In addition with chemical companies being major sponsors, the short term commercial business needs are put ahead of the long term need for golf to take every opportunity to re-invent itself for the modern market where

golfers are looking for “firmness, trueness and sustainability (low input, lower costs) of golf course performance as well as speedier golf “.

 

To finish, one should mention that The R&A is lucky to have courses like Royal Birkdale on which to stage their money making jamboree. The members play off fairway mats from the previous October and have the enormous site-build obstructing play on the course since April. It was very sensible of the R&A’s Championship Committee Chairman to publicly thank the members for hosting them. It is likely that The R&A will need to take more notice of the local members’ needs in the future, so they don’t have to rely on the egos of Club officials for future invitations.

Note: It seems the BBC has not given up completely on golf and is covering live the US PGA Championship August 10 to 13th.