Rory McIlroy says ‘uniform’ PGA Tour setups are a good thing. Are they?

rory mcilroy caves valley

Rory McIlroy at the BMW Championship on Friday.

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If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear half the field at the BMW Championship are Caves Valley regulars. In the first round alone, there were 23 scores of 67 or better on the handsome Tom Fazio design and just 10 percent of the 70-player field failed to break par.

Beginner’s luck?

Nah, just an insanely talented group of golfers blowing into town and having their way with a Tour venue, just as they do at so many other Tour stops throughout the year — and sometimes, as has been this case this week, on a golf course most of the players have never seen or played before.

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Whether Tour setups generally are too “easy” for players who can hit 340-yard tee shots and 220-yard 7-irons is not a new debate.

At this very event two years ago — conducted at Medinah, outside Chicago — Justin Thomas posted 25 under for the week, including a Saturday 61. (To be fair, conditions were damp, as they are in Maryland this week.) Musing on the low scoring at Medinah, Adam Scott said: “If a golf course is soft, we’re just going to tear it apart. They [the PGA Tour] haven’t figured out yet that long means nothing to us; you can’t build it long enough. … I’m not challenging [PGA Tour officials and course designers] to build longer golf courses; I’m challenging them to build smarter golf courses.”

Rory McIlroy was asked Thursday, after an opening eight-under 64 at Caves, whether the FedEx Cup Playoffs setups should be tougher. Sure, the fields are loaded (if limited), but shouldn’t the courses on which these marquee events are decided also have more teeth?

Rory McIlroy at Caves Valley this week.

getty images

At times, the FedEx sites have been stout, McIlroy said, pointing to last year’s BMW Championship at Olympia Fields, where just five players broke par for the week on the Chicago-area course and Jon Rahm shot an opening 75 — and still won. But largely, McIlroy said, there aren’t many bentgrass sites in the Northeast and Southeast that can challenge pros when the weather gets hot and sticky.

“It’s not going to have the characteristics that you want to have a really challenging golf course,” he said, meaning fast and firm. “I don’t really know where you could go this time of the year where that’s not going to happen without it being like over on the West Coast or Northwest or whatever.”

But then he said something even more revealing, in terms of how he views the Playoff events compared to the four majors.  

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“I certainly think the FedExCup Playoffs are different than the majors in terms of the…” And here he began to stumble, careful to deliver the right words. “This is going to sound a little — not bad, but I think [the Tour] is more of an entertainment product rather than the majors. The majors are set up a little bit differently and it’s supposed to be the toughest test that we face all year. It’s a little bit different. A lot of the golf courses we play are uniform and you get the same conditions each and every week, and players like that. I like that. I like that you don’t have to come and spend three or four days at a golf course learning it every week, and if you’re playing week to week, to have setups like this is a good thing.”

Is it, though?

Shouldn’t players feel compelled, if not obligated, to do their homework to unlock a course’s secrets? And wouldn’t more setup variety, in fact, be a positive for both players and fans alike? More exacting setups — like we see at Hilton Head, Colonial and Riviera — would weed out the bomb-and-gouge crowd and bring more precise players into the mix. Fans, meanwhile, would get a look at more styles of play, which, one certainly could argue, would make the Tour a more interesting “product.”

The players hold the chips, of course, which means don’t expect any radical setup changes anytime soon. In a 2019 GOLF.com poll of 52 card-carrying Tour pros, three-quarters of them said they believed that Tour setups are “about the right difficulty,” with only 21 percent saying they believed setups are too easy. “Setups are too long,” one of the dissenting pros said. “There’s not enough rough and they don’t penalize bad drives enough.”

Indeed, that is generally the setup formula from week to week on Tour: long, manageable rough, fast greens. The result: red numbers. Lots of ’em.

Hey, at least we still have the majors.

Alan Bastable

Golf.com Editor

As GOLF.com’s executive editor, Bastable is responsible for the editorial direction and voice of one of the game’s most respected and highly trafficked news and service sites. He wears many hats — editing, writing, ideating, developing, daydreaming of one day breaking 80 — and feels privileged to work with such an insanely talented and hardworking group of writers, editors and producers. Before grabbing the reins at GOLF.com, he was the features editor at GOLF Magazine. A graduate of the University of Richmond and the Columbia School of Journalism, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and foursome of kids.