Golf Gets Lost in the Sand

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 16 2010 3:17 PM

Golf Gets Lost in the Sand

Another golf major, another unheralded champion. A tweet from New Yorker writer Tad Friend summed it up best: "golf post-tiger: major championships now in receivership at the unloved law firm of mcdowell, oosthuizen, and kaymer." Martin Kaymer, a young German, beat Bubba Watson in a three-hole playoff a playoff that should have included Dustin Johnson. The long-hitter from South Carolina* was assessed a two-stroke penalty on the final hole for touching his club to the ground in a sand trap. A no-no in the rules of golf, as doing this could improve your lie.

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The penalty was ridiculous. DJ had hit the ball into the gallery, who had to carve out a space for him to swing and aim for the green. The ball looked like it was sitting in a patch of dirt, when, in fact, it was in the remnants of a sand trap that spectators had been shuffling through all week. The course at Whistling Straits has an uncountable number of bunkers. PGA officials defended their decision by saying that they had told all the players to watch out, because every bunker will still count as a bunker. To which I say, if a professional golfer can't tell that he's standing in a bunker, it's not a bunker.

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On to the more pressing question: How did Moneygolf fare in the tournament? Last week, I published a series on the new golf statistics that show it's the long game not putting that most determines who consistently triumphs on Tour. And, indeed, the long hitters cooperated with the thesis and kindly dominated last week: Bubba Watson is the second-longest driver on tour, with Dustin Johnson ranked just below him. Tiger also lived up to Moneygolf's findings that his long-iron shots are the bedrock foundation of his excellence. His week was sunk by terrible driving and just so-so putting.

But the real issue looming here, and the place where Moneygolf can help, is the notion that a golf major should be a "true test of golf." Whistling Straits, a Pete Dye-designed course commissioned by the plumbing magnate Herbert Kohler, was a the real loser on Sunday. It's a long, modern course filled with all sorts of eye candy (all those bunkers) and borderline gimmicks like blind tee shots. It represents a trend to make golf courses longer, hillier, more "fearsome" more like Golden Tee. The result is the golfers don't so much play the course as it plays them. And it obviously makes it hard for short-hitters to stay in contention (kudos to Steve Elkington on keeping up).

Maybe it's time to halt the arms race in golf between the pros and championship golf course designers who are using length to keep the pros in check. We should rediscover the pleasures of shorter courses, where the entire field has a shot. If the pros go out and destroy the course with low scores, that's not something to be frowned upon, or a black spot on a course's reputation. That may just be a "true test of golf" we're watching.

Click here to listen to Stefan Fatsis, Josh Levin, and Mike Pesca discuss the PGA Championship on Slate ’s sports podcast, "Hang Up and Listen."

*Correction, Aug. 25, 2010: This post originally misidentified Dustin Johnson as being from Southern California.  

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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