Don’t know about you, but I am fascinated by the prospect of the women’s U.S. Open being played on the same golf course (one week later) as the course used for the men’s Open. (For those who have spent the last week being mesmerized by ice dancing and defective Russian plumbing, that course will be the fabled Pinehurst #2.) Here are some things this format might reveal:
- There is no such thing as gender-neutralizing a golf course by means of adjusting length. If the men play a par 4 from 500 yards, and turf/terrain/wind conditions are such that the average male pro drives it 290, that leaves the man with 210 yards, which might be a 5-iron. If the average woman drives it 245, and you only shorten the hole by the 45 yard difference, the woman is left with the same 210 yard approach shot, which for her is a 3-hybrid if she is long, but more likely a metal wood. You would probably have to shorten the hole at least 80 yards in order to allow the women to approach with a 5-iron and achieve the USGA’s goal of making the hole play the same for the women as for the men. On top of that, the women do not hit a 5-iron with nearly as much elevation and backspin as the men, so that a tucked pin-placement that is reachable for the men might be virtually un-reachable for the women because of the shape and contour and speed of the green. Advantage: men.
- You cannot move the bunkers like you can move the tee boxes. If the fairway bunkers (and problematic slopes) are set up to complicate the landing areas for a man with a driver, those landing areas will not even be in play for the women if you shorten the tees enough to leave them with an approach shot with the same club. The women would easily fly a bunker placed at 300 yards from the mens’ tees, if the women got to tee off from a mere 220 yards from that bunker. (Remember, their tees would need to be 80 yards farther ahead, in my example.) Advantage: women.
- Back in the days when the women pros were much, much less skillful than the men when it came to short game and putting, a wise pro (I think it was Trevino) noted the seeming paradox: aren’t the women supposed to be more precise and delicate, even if less powerful, than the men? He observed that the answer is, yes, but men are stronger, and strength is a major advantage in the short game, because it makes the putter and wedge so much easier to control. Trevino may well have been spot on; despite the enormous advances in the women’s game, the statistics bear out the Trevino theory by showing that the putting/chipping statistics continue to show a very substantial edge for the men. That difference could assume enormous importance at a course like Pinehurst #2 because of the Donald Ross greens, whose dome-shaped surfaces, speedy runoffs, and either shocking or subtle contours give a disproportionate advantage to the players with the best short games – not to mention the players who can put the most loft and spin on the iron-shot approaches. Advantage: men. On the other hand, a creative course superintendent can reduce – or even eliminate – this advantage, simply by letting the greens and surrounding run-offs grow a lot longer, and thus slower.
So, the women will actually be playing a different course, one that is an easier driving course but a harder approaching course and is likely to be more challenging to their short games and putting. Calling Pinehurst the “same course” for the women as for the men is, realistically, pretty silly. One can only hope that the differences in set-up are not too obvious.
That is not to say it is a bad idea to use the same course. I think it is a great idea, at least for women’s golf. If they can leverage the advantages of set-up – not just the easier driving setup but a completely easier setup of greens and surrounding areas – they might be able to produce scores as low as the men’s scores. (I predict that they will.) Of course they are never going to convince the unsophisticated male golfer (is that a redundancy?) that the women are as good as the men, but that is not the point. This has the potential to become just as significant an advance for women’s golf as Annika Sorenstam’s performance in a men’s tour event: the point is not whether the women can beat the men at the men’s game, it is enough merely to show that the women can compete and that it is fun to witness the attempt. I, for one, cannot wait to see it.