Mike Purkey: Solving the slow-play scourge

Gary Woodland waits to play a shot at the PGA Championship. (Charlotte Observer file photo)

Lost amid the celebration, the pats on the back and the self-congratulations on the success of the PGA Championship, an underlying problem in golf – professional and rank-and-file – bubbled to the surface late Saturday evening.

The last two groups of threesomes in the third round of the PGA Championship played 18 holes of golf in 5 hours, 40 minutes. And no one in charge said a word, at least not publicly. Of all the governing bodies, the PGA of America has the most responsibility to take the lead to solve golf’s biggest issue.

The PGA of America represents 28,000 club professionals in the U.S., who are on the front lines every day, trying to get the golfers at their courses around 18 holes in a decent pace. If you’ve ever been at a daily fee course on a busy day, you know what the pros are up against.

But to ignore such an egregious example of slow play at its biggest championship, the PGA turns its back on its own stated values. How are we to grow the game by giving a blind eye to one of the things that keep people from coming to our game and drive some people away from it.

To be fair, the PGA of America deals with this – or chooses not to deal with it – only once a year. While that doesn’t abdicate its responsibility, we can’t lay the entire blame on the slow-play problem at the feet of the club pros.

Where the real issue lies is with the PGA Tour, whose officials day in and day out are supposed to keep their players moving. If you ask anyone at the level of vice president and above at the Tour if there’s a pace-of-play problem, they will publicly deny it. They mistakenly believe that their internal policing of the time it takes to play is sufficient by itself.

They’re wrong. The PGA Tour chooses to pay no more than lip service to its own inability to have leaders on the weekend play in less than 5½ hours. The Tour hands out a few insignificant fines to a handful of dawdlers and washes its hands of the rest.

Nothing significant will ever happen concerning slow play until the Tour – or any governing body – hits the guilty with penalty shots. That’s the only thing touring professionals understand. They can pay the fines in cash on the spot with what they have in their money clips.

And that’s where the PGA of America should come in. Wouldn’t it be brave of the PGA to hand out penalty shots in the middle of its championship? Wouldn’t it tell the rest of the golf world that it draws a line in the sand about pace of play and intends to seriously do something about it?

But that’s never going to happen. There is a faction that says the best players in the world are playing for millions of dollars every week and are playing for history in the four major championships. They should be allowed to take as much time as they need. Officials of the governing bodies are reticent to affect the outcome of a championship with a penalty stroke for slow play.

And that’s why if we are going to do anything about how long it takes to play golf, we will have to do it ourselves. The USGA tried the “While We’re Young” campaign with little measurable success.

So, speeding up play will depend on you and your foursome. That’s where it starts. Play ready golf. When it’s your turn, don’t waste time. Measure the distance to the flag while someone else is hitting. Line up your putt while someone else is putting. When you’re past double bogey, pick up. When you’re out of the hole, pick up.

We all want to play real golf, but we can do so at a quicker pace. All grassroots movements start with the individual. Play faster. It will rub off on the rest of your foursome.

Pay no attention to the Tour players. Left alone, they will grind big-time golf to an agonizing halt.

 

5 under the radar at the PGA Championship

Matt Kuchar could be one of the dark horses at the PGA Championship this week. (File photo)

Somehow, the PGA Championship seems to produce champions who rank among the unexpected. For instance, like defending champion Jimmy Walker, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley. Remember Y.E. Yang and Shaun Micheel? While everyone else touts the usual suspects for this week’s PGA Championship, here are five players who are flying under the radar. One of them could be this year’s Dufner or Walker.

Matt Kuchar – Kuchar has to wonder what he has to do to win one of these things. If not for Spieth’s otherworldly turnaround at the Open Championship, Kuchar might have been Champion Golfer of the Year for his first major. But he has the perfect game for Quail Hollow – straight and steady – and would fit the mold of a PGA Championship winner.

Charlie Hoffman – One of the great stealth players on Tour, Hoffman has the knack of appearing on leaderboards, seemingly out of nowhere. He lost in a playoff to Jhonattan Vegas at the RBC Canadian Open and has yet to win on Tour this year. That could all be solved this week.

Daniel Berger – Berger has a victory this year and might have had two if not for Jordan Spieth’s bunker hole-out in the playoff for the Travelers Championship. Berger is sneaky good at a lot of things and has enough game to sneak past all the bigger names this week.

Kevin Kisner – Perhaps the most underrated player on the PGA Tour, Kisner won at Colonial earlier this year, one of the great courses for shotmakers. Kisner has more than enough game to navigate his way around Quail Hollow. He’s not a great putter but if scores turn out to be higher than normal, Kisner could be a good bet.

Kevin Chappell – Chappell won the Valero Texas Open two weeks after a top 10 in a major – a tie for 7th at the Masters. He tied for fourth at the FedEx St. Jude after having a chance to win and had another chance at the RBC Canadian Open but shot 71 in the final round. Once Chappell figures out how good he is, he will win a lot. Maybe even this week.

Day Trip: Mid Pines a Sandhills Classic

 

 

The 18th at Mid Pines, with the Mid Pines Inn in the background, is one of the best finishing holes in the Sandhills. (Kevin Murray photo)

 

Designed in 1921, Mid Pines just might be the most underrated Donald Ross course in the N.C. Sandhills. Located across Midland Road from its more highly-regarded sister, Pine Needles, Mid Pines deserves every bit of praise it gets from golf insiders.

In 2013, the course underwent a head-to-toe restoration by architect Kyle Franz. Green complexes were brought back to their original dimensions and the entire look of the course was changed to re-introduce sandy native areas off fairways and near greens. Now, players can experience Mid Pines practically as it was when the course first opened.

Although the course only measures 6,723 yards from the back tees, it’s all the golf you want, even for the game’s best players. Most players will want to move up and play the white tees and even at that, you will probably use all the clubs in your bag.

First-time visitors will be amazed at the amount of elevation change at Mid Pines and golf purists will be pleased at the variety of hole designs. No two holes look the same and all play strategically different. Mid Pines is an intricate and complex mix of long par-3s, short par-4s, dogleg par-4s and reachable par-5s.

The first hole is 401 yards from the back tees and starts the round from an elevated tee. Golf Atlas says, “If this view from the first tee doesn’t make you itch to play golf, you need to find a different pursuit.”

From there, a good score will require some precise golf. Mid Pines is not long and brutal enough to beat you up. Instead, the difference between success and failure can be a razor’s edge.

As you make your way down the 18th, one of the best finishing holes in the Sandhills, with the Mid Pines Inn in view, you’ll get the feeling you’ve played at one of the best places for pure golf you’ll ever find. And you’ll immediately start planning your next trip.

Mid Pines Golf Club

1010 Midland Road

Southern Pines, NC

(910) 692-2114

www.pineneedles-midpines.com

 

 

Raintree Country Club’s superintendent super with bentgrass

Brad Fellrath, greens superintendent at Raintree Country Club. (Photo by Mike Purkey)

Call him the Bentgrass Whisperer. At a time in which golf courses in the Carolinas are running as fast as they can toward hybrid Bermuda grass for their greens, Brad Fellrath is standing pat. Fellrath, the greens superintendent at Raintree Country Club in Charlotte, remains steadfast that he not only can grow bentgrass but it can thrive in this climate.

Bentgrass has long been the preferred putting surface in golf. But in this part of the country in the summer, the oppressive heat causes untold stress to the grass and leaves superintendents no choice but to keep the grass long and the surfaces wet to prevent bentgrass to die.

Subsequently, the majority of courses in the Charlotte area have converted their bentgrass greens to one of the hybrid Bermuda grasses, which thrive in the summer heat. Even Quail Hollow Club, host of next week’s PGA Championship, converted its greens to Bermuda.

You’d think that with Quail Hollow’s budget, they could grow bentgrass if anyone could. But with they PGA coming, Quail Hollow officials decided not to take the chance of losing the greens to the heat.

Fellrath is not surrendering. Raintree’s greens are among the best in Charlotte. Certainly, Raintree’s are not the only bentgrass greens in town but Fellrath gets the nod because he has to keep up with 36 holes on the club’s North and South courses. Even in the summer heat, Raintree’s greens don’t show much stress, they are fairly firm and ball marks don’t explode.

Fellrath gets the credit. He has been Raintree’s greens superintendent for 30 years and during that tenure, he believes he has developed a method to keep good putting surfaces all year.

“Nobody around here opens their greens up like I do,” said Fellrath, whose team aerates Raintree’s greens three times a year, moving twice as much material than what is considered normal. “Because of the two courses, we can work on one course and still have another course open. And by the time that course heals – usually in a week or so – you can work on the other one. That has helped me a lot.

“Early on, if you work hard at aeration, work hard in cleaning up behind you, you get a lot less static and the members become more and more supportive. Some of the new members will say something about aeration and the older members will say, ‘His process works. You’ll be surprised.’ And they buy in pretty quickly.”

Between the summer and fall aeration, Fellrath and his team use a gentle aeration with a tine that looks like a butter knife and topdresses the greens with a light sand. “It keeps them dry and helps them receive moisture, relieves heat,” he says.

In the winter, he applies a hydrojet, injecting water into the greens, hopefully to drive the grass’ roots farther into the soil.

The club also has large fans next to a few of the greens, which help with air flow. And, Fellrath says, the elimination of metal spikes on golf shoes has made a huge difference.

“I’ve been amazed how much they have helped,” he said. “I was skeptical at first.”

All of which allows him to mow the greens at the same height all year and not have to keep them long and wet in the summer.

As a result, it has prevented the club from following the herd and converting to Bermuda.

“We haven’t had to,” Fellrath said. “We haven’t lost greens for a very long time. I just don’t see the reason to change. (Bent is) still the preferred putting surface. The new Bermuda greens are incredible. But if you don’t have any reason to change, I wouldn’t change. I think our membership would rather have bent greens.”

And the members have Fellrath to thank.

 

5 Holes to watch at Quail Hollow, site of the PGA Championship

Quail Hollow Club, host of the PGA Championship, is perhaps best known for its three-hole finishing stretch, known as the Green Mile. To be sure, holes 16-18 will be pivotal in determining the PGA winner. But here are five holes at Quail Hollow that deserve watching, as well.

No. 1, par 4, 524 yards: The PGA Championship gets off to a brutal start with the first hole, which is a brand new hole and a par 5 for the Quail Hollow members. If players hit the fairway, it’s likely a long iron second shot. But if they find the thick Bermuda rough, getting to the green in two will be a real problem. Making a bogey – or worse – is a tough way to start your round, especially in the last few groups on Sunday.

No. 7, par 5, 546 yards: This will likely be the easiest hole on the course. Just about everyone in the field should be able to get to this par-5 in two shots from the fairway. However, there’s a creek on the right of the fairway and a pond on the right that needs to be dealt with. And missing the fairway will necessitate a layup. But it’s an exciting hole to watch.

No. 11, par 4, 462 yards: About 40 yards was added to this hole in the recent course renovations. And the changes make this a much tougher hole. Not only is the tee shot more difficult but the sloping green makes it imperative that you leave your second shot below the hole. After a birdie on the par-5 11th, you need a par at the 11th to keep the momentum going.

No. 13, par 3, 208 yards: The green complex at the 13th is one of the most difficult on the course. Players will come into this green with a mid-iron to a long iron and most players will be happy to get their tee shot into the middle of this green. If not, you will pay a penalty. If you want to watch players practice their short games, park at this hole for a while.

No. 14, par 4, 344 yards: This short par 4 will entice the player to do something he might not normally attempt. It’s downhill and right to left and most certainly, this hole will be set up at least one day to encourage players to drive the green. But with firm greens and water on the left, a tough decision will have to be made, particularly among those who chase the leaders on Sunday.

Mike Purkey: Is Spieth ready to be compared to Nicklaus, Woods?

Jordan Spieth of the United States smiles during a news conference after winning the British Open last week at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. (AP Photo/Dave Thompson)

The comparisons have been fast and inevitable. Now that Jordan Spieth has won three majors before age 24, he has been included among golf new Big Three – Spieth, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Spieth is the second youngest to win three of golf’s four major championships and will attempt to complete the career Grand Slam at the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Nicklaus was the youngest and completed the Grand Slam in 1966 at age 26. Woods was 24 years and six months when he collected his Grand Slam major in 2000.

“I’ve answered this question a few times a couple years ago, so I’ll be careful with my answer,” Spieth told the media at the Open Championship. “It’s amazing. I feel blessed to be able to play the game I love, but I don’t think that comparisons are … I don’t compare myself. And I don’t think that they’re appropriate or necessary. So to be in that company, no doubt is absolutely incredible. And I certainly appreciate it. And we work really hard to have that, with that being the goal. Therefore, I enjoy moments like you saying that.

“But I’m very careful as to what that means going forward because what those guys have done has transcended the sport. And in no way, shape or form do I think I’m anywhere near that, whatsoever. So it’s a good start, but there is a long way to go.”

In a very big way, to compare Spieth with Nicklaus and Woods is blatantly unfair, particularly to create similarities with Woods, who dominated the game so completely and set a standard that could be unreachable for this generation of players.

Physically, Spieth and Woods could not be any more different. Woods overpowered the game with his strength and length. Spieth is not the shortest off the tee but he’s not nearly the longest, either.

But they do share traits. Both are outstanding iron players and it’s a toss-up as to who has the best short game. And as great a putter as Spieth is, Tiger was probably a hair’s breadth better. But no more than that.

Woods and Nicklaus had the best minds in the game, by far. But Spieth isn’t far behind. In fact, Spieth is mentally the strongest player of this generation. He is the most dogged and determined of any player in today’s game.

You hear it all the time from coaches in team sports: They want their players to compete on every play. Spieth does that. No matter the odds or the situation he’s facing, he’s completely invested in every single shot.

That’s how he won the Open Championship. After falling almost completely off the rails, he made a bogey at the 13th at Royal Birkdale when he should have easily made a 6 or a 7. He then produced one of the most remarkable stretches in major championship golf, going 5 under over the next four holes to eventually win the title by three strokes.

When Spieth arrives at Quail Hollow, he will find a long, physically demanding course. If he is to win and complete the career Grand Slam, he must improve his driving. At the Open Championship, he hit only 24 of 56 fairways and that won’t lead him to the Wanamaker Trophy at the PGA.

Brutal, thick Bermuda rough will penalize those who are wayward off the tee and that includes Spieth, no matter how good his short game and putting are. He must find a way to get the ball in the short grass if he is to have a chance.

But if the Open Championship proves anything, we are to never underestimate Spieth, no matter where he stands on the leaderboard. He never gives up or gives in. Ever.