20 Aug 2019 | Feature stories | Professional golf |

CLAYTON: Medinah mauling the last straw

by Mike Clayton

Justin Thomas_image

The 1975 US Open at Medinah immediately followed the infamous “Massacre at Winged Foot” where Hale Irwin’s grinding seven-over-par 287 on one of the hardest golf courses in the United States was good enough to win by two shots.

It spawned the now famous quote from USGA blueblood Sandy Tatum, who, in answer to the question of whether officials were trying to humiliate the players, he replied: “No, we are just trying to identify them.”

Many thought 1974 a reaction to the previous US Open at Oakmont – another of the game’s most searching examinations – where Johnny Miller played arguably the game’s greatest round; a 63 comprising long, straight drives and a mix of incredible long, medium and short irons fired straight at the flags.

Lou Graham beat John Mahaffey in the 1975 playoff at Medinah after they tied at 287, but the par was 71. Clearly it was a difficult golf course, stretching out in excess of 7000 yards, the measure of a long course in the 1970s.

It was difficult enough for the unflappable Jack Nicklaus to bogey the final three holes to miss the playoff by two shots. Ben Crenshaw missed it by a single shot after playing the weekend in 76-74 and dumping a 2-iron into the water fronting the 17th green. Tom Watson, who won the British Open a month later by beating Jack Newton in a playoff, finished three behind after a 78-77 weekend.

If Nicklaus was the gold standard of playing championship golf under pressure, Medinah was right there – along with Winged Foot and Oakmont – if difficult golf was the measure.

By the time the US Open returned to Medinah in 1990, the course was 200 yards longer, the cut came down from seven over to one over and Irwin won his national crown a third time, shooting 280.

Now, almost 30 years on, the game has changed beyond recognition.

Engineers showed manufacturers how to make a “two-piece” golf ball play like a wound ball, the ball of choice at 1975 Medinah.

Probably half the field still played persimmon drivers in 1990 with the rest – many because they were being paid to – playing the then “new” metal heads. The ratio of steel-shafted driver to graphite was likely the same, but a 15 years later graphite shafts and titanium heads were the norm.

Current drivers have become weapons of power unimaginable to generations past.

Great drivers such as Nicklaus and Greg Norman lost their advantage as hitting the sweet spot on a modern “frying pan” became much less onerous a task and the result of shots missing it are more than acceptable.

“With today’s equipment,” said Tiger Woods this week at Medinah, “you can maximise a driver and absolutely bomb it. The driver is the most important club in the bag now just because of the way the game is played.”

Adam Scott, another brilliant driver, also weighed in: “If a golf course is soft, we’re just going to tear it apart. They just haven’t figured out yet that long just doesn’t mean anything to us. You can’t build it long enough.”

Of course, the driver was always important. But so, too, were long and middle irons and the longest players who mastered the use of the most difficult clubs to use – Jones, Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Faldo (OK, not so long) and Woods – dominated the game.

“Now,” said Tiger, ‘you just pull out the driver, bomb it down there and you’re looking for 3-4 good weeks a year.”

It’s the ultimate result of the most powerful golfing country being obsessed with the marketing of distance and the selling of hope to millions of golfers all looking for the elusive extra few yards.

It’s always been thus.

In 1968, the First Flight company ran an advertisement (pictured left) in Golf Digest asking: “Will First Flight force America to build longer golf courses?”

It’s a chase and a marketing campaign without end and while it wasn’t First Flight which forced the changes, championship courses have all been compelled to make an attempt to keep up.

Those to truly benefit from the technology are the tour pros who now “bomb” the ball so far that Norman’s 1985 driving average (277 yards) is now exceeded by five women on the LPGA tour and only four players (of 195) this season drive the ball shorter than Norman. (For those who didn’t see Greg play, his driving was staggeringly good – and long. For those of you who did, you remember how impressive it was.)

The BMW Championship this past week at Medinah made us yearn for December’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne – or switching channels to watch the US Amateur from Pinehurst – where hard, treacherous greens and the usual seaside winds will add an extra dimension to the game, one making it infinitely more interesting to both watch and play.

The greens in Chicago last week were soft, the ball finished close to where it landed, there wasn’t any discernible wind to consider and of the 70 players, only seven shot Graham’s 287 or higher – all on a course 500-600 yards longer than yesteryear.

Of course, this isn’t the USGA setting up a US Open, but rather the PGA Tour which is more interested in “entertainment” than a winning score close to par.

But the combination of the driver technology that Tiger clearly laments and the modern ball has rendered a 7600-yard course with soft greens defenceless.

Nothing plays as it was intended by the great designers and while they expected technological advancement, it’s gone far beyond what is reasonable.

“Today, many are trying to obtain a temporary advantage by buying the latest far-flying ball on the market. It is often suggested that we have already got to the limit of the flight of the golf ball. I do not believe it, as there is no limit to science.”

Alister MacKenzie wrote this in the early 1930s, and while he advised clubs to leave room behind tees so they could be moved back in the future, he never thought to advise them to buy the houses on the other side of the fences beyond.

While the golf at Royal Melbourne will, as always, be brilliant to observe, we will see a course playing so short it would be unrecognisable to its architect.

Nor do we have to wonder what he would make of it all.

Apoplectic is hardly an exaggeration.

Justin Thomas was unquestionably brilliant this past week at Medinah, where he answered all the questions the course posed. His 263 represents amazing golf, but is it a full 24 shots more compelling than Graham’s 287 was 44 years ago?

The question for the game, for the professional tour and the administrators in New Jersey and St Andrews is: How will you manage the technological assault on the game’s great courses and a game so out of balance at the top level?

Or do they abdicate their responsibility to restore the balance MacKenzie and his great contemporaries understood and built?

The evidence of what we watched from Medinah is the golf isn’t so interesting when the questions are so easily answered with power and wedges.

Fellow Golf Australia columnist John Huggan didn’t even need all 280 Twitter characters to sum up what so many think about the current state of things.

Huggan wrote: “Re Medinah. The low scoring is not really what causes the head to shake. No. It’s the way in which those scores are being compiled. No subtlety. One strategy. Very little thought. A dumb-downed version of a great game.”

You can disagree all you want, but he’s right.

Sadly. Mike Clayton is a columnist for Golf Australia, a former touring professional and a long-time supporter of Australian golf. Mike's opinions are his own, but Golf Australia welcomes his input into discussions on the game's future.    

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