Swing Thoughts – Leaves of Grass; Mike Davis, USGA

By John Ehle

The completion of the 2011 U.S. Amateur on Sunday seemed to leave some unanswered questions regarding the scores recorded and the difficulty of Erin Hills. Some of my golfing pals believed that the scores reflected a vulnerability that may not bode well for the 2017 U.S. Open venue which has been touted as having the potential to be one of the most difficult courses in the world. Was Erin Hills defenseless?

Erin Hills played long enough, methinks, at a record 7,760 yards….the longest Amateur set-up in history. Without revisiting that old chestnut called “balls that fly too far”, let’s look at what Mike Davis and his blue-jacketed co-conspirators did to challenge the world’s finest amateur players.

Most importantly, they did not present a penal set-up. That was not their goal. This was not intended to be U.S. Open Lite. The fescue fairways were mowed down short and kept dry; characteristics only made possible by prohibiting cart use and leaving ample landing areas. Fescue grows vertically and it’s resilience is amplified by its affection for and resistance to hot, arid conditions. Tightly mowed fairways are extremely fast and long. Drives in the neighborhood of 375 yards are not unusual in these conditions, so these “kids” can reach 650 yard par 5s in two. It’s true that Mike Davis has been known to watch video of what golf balls do after they land on fairways. It’s who he is.

The rough can be grown out and the fairways narrowed considerably increasing the likelihood that more golf balls will find the cabbage. It was not so they did not. The greens were probably Stimping at around 12. If they had wanted to push that number to 14 they could have. Remember Shinnecock? Those greens were on the edge of being dead.
Greens on golf courses are always two days from being dead if they are not maintained properly. Verticutting and topdressing them add to the speed and rolling them can exacerbate the already slick conditions. Topdressing is akin to playing basketball on a court which is covered with marbles. Verticutting subtracts organic matter, leaves of grass, reducing the opposition to the will of the golf ball. Less resistance, more speed. There was little evidence of effort to create that sort of mayhem on Erin Hills’ greens.

Erin Hills can be stretched out to 8,400 yards. My math suggests that the unexplored remainder of around 640 yards could be very creative during set-up…not to mention pin placements, which can be mean-spirited. Set a pin on the edge of a precipice at your club and sit back. It doesn’t take long for the hue and cry of “foul” to go up. Drop a golf ball on a modest slope and watch what happens. If it rolls out further than 3-4 feet, that is probably not a great candidate for a hole location. A rollout of 12-15 feet probably suggests that an invitation to visit with the Golf Committee is imminent.

The days of setting up golf courses with the intention of humbling the world’s finest golfers seems to be over…at least for now. The Amateur at Erin Hills ushered in the Mike Davis era at the USGA. Let’s hope that his run is as long and refreshing as its finely-crafted beginning.

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