When too fast is way too slow
The 1972 World Cup, played over Royal Melbourne’s venerable Composite Course, cemented the club’s reputation as having the game’s fastest and hardest greens. Arguably, too, its most difficult.
The elegant Tom Weiskopf played for the United States (with Jim Jamieson) and was set to embark on a run of career form culminating with victory in the 1973 Open at Troon.
The 6th green – of Royal Melbourne West and the original Composite Course – tips steeply both across and from back to front and was the most feared of the club’s greens.
More than 40 years later, Weiskopf remembered it well: “The only green I ever four-putted when I tried on every putt.”
Two years later at the Chrysler Classic, Lee Trevino was the famous American brought in to show off his legendary ball-striking, so “flush” that many thought it the best of his generation.
The six-time major champ finished a distant third – at 293, nine over the 284 par – behind local hero and Sandbelt master Bob Shearer.
Trevino and his parting comment – “Take a picture of me going out the gate, because you’ll never see me coming back in” – have passed, in equal measure, into infamy and lore.
At the time, the domestic tour had no control or influence over the set-up of the golf course and tournament organisers left it to clubs to present their course as they liked.
Claude Crockford, then greenskeeper at Royal Melbourne, was clearly of the belief that greens could be neither too fast nor hard.
No one spoke of the stimpmeter in the 1970s, despite it being invented in the 1930s.
The USGA didn’t recognise its existence – Augusta National still doesn’t, apparently – for decades, but in 1977 sent staff around the country to measure the green speeds of 581 courses.
The results, in this age, are both surprising and instructive:
Cypress Point 7’8”
Harbour Town 5’1”
Oakland Hills 8’5”
Pine Valley 7’4”
Pinehurst #2 6’10”
San Francisco GC 7’2”
Shinnecock Hills 7’2”
Winged Foot 7’5”
Because no one measured the greens at 1970s Royal Melbourne, it’s impossible to be definitive, but it’s a sure bet they were feet faster than the feared greens of Oakmont.
Despite the high scores, no one aside from Trevino – publicly, anyway – questioned the greens’ speed and firmness.
The next year, Billy Dunk beat David Graham by a shot and Crockford produced greens asking the same questions.
A few years later, US Open champion Hubert Green came to Royal Melbourne for the Australian PGA Championship and a member asked the American champion what he thought of the greens.
“They would be great,” Green mused, “if they had any grass on them.”
Spectators, including me, took a perverse delight in watching pros so fearful of downhill three and four-footers knowing that if they missed, the ball could trickle the same distance past.
Playing the course, you were always aware of the possibility of three-putting from anywhere and it was hardly surprising that putting was defensive, to say the least.
Adam Hadwin is brought to his knees on Royal Melbourne West's 6th hole on Sunday at the 2019 Presidents Cup. (Photo: Justin Falconer)
Legendary Peter Thomson once said: “I just tried to two-putt – sometimes even from four feet.” There were sufficient nasty, little, downhill four-footers at Royal Melbourne that it was a prudent attitude.
The result was generally high scores – the cut in the 1975 Chrysler Classic was 155 – and a few great rounds.
It also seemed to further the belief that hard and fast greens were an essential part of Melbourne golf – a badge of honour, almost.
The other inevitable result was excruciatingly slow play. The hardest thing from outside of 20 feet – and sometimes much closer – was to run the ball to the hole where it was close enough to finish out.
Most often it was mark, wait, replace, line up and, hopefully, finish. Inevitably, rounds that should have taken four hours were stretched to four and a half, five and often even longer.
At the World Cup, rounds – in fours – took an insufferable six hours as teammates conferred for way too long on everything.
Allied to the fast greens question has always been the perception a course was somehow deficient if players shot low scores and one sure way of ensuring scoring is kept relatively high is to make greens running well into the teens on the stimpmeter.
In more recent years, Australian clubs no longer have unquestioned authority over how their course plays in big professional events.
Greens have been a little slower – yet far from slow – in recent times and it hasn’t meant less interesting golf.
Downhill putts on championship courses in Australia have always been difficult because the greens on our best courses are many times tilted beyond what modern designers would countenance.
The 6th and 11th greens at Victoria are examples of greens tilted steeply from back to front, although recent alterations have lessened the slope. Players who can keep the ball under the hole are always rewarded with an easier putt, but no longer do spectators congregate, as they once did around the 6th green at Royal Melbourne, to watch the macabre spectacle of pros dribbling the ball fearfully around the hole.
In a time when the perception of golf is that it’s too hard, takes too long and is too expensive, perhaps the reverence for super-fast greens is something we should all question.
Heading back towards those 1977 American stimpmeter numbers without seeing it as somehow detracting from the golf might just make the game quicker, cheaper and easier for higher markers. Slower greens also allow architects to build more interesting contours into their greens.
And anyway, Peter Thomson always thought slower greens harder to putt for better players.