Tour Confidential: Course-setup rage, LPGA outlook, wild caddie moves
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we break down course-setup comments by Jon Rahm and Tyrrell Hatton, the LPGA’s season-opener, wild caddie moves and more.
1. At the PGA Tour’s American Express (won by Hudson Swafford), world No. 1 Jon Rahm, in a fan video published to social media, was overheard saying to his caddie: “Piece of [expletive] setup. Putting contest week.” This comes on the heels of record low scores at the year-opening Tournament of Champions and a birdie blitz last week at the Sony Open. Is Rahm right? In scorable conditions, do PGA Tour events simply come down to who’s putting best — and, if so, is there anything wrong with that?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): Yes, he’s right. And this is bound to bother Rahm more than any other player in the world, simply because he’s the best player in the world. He has routinely shown that when conditions are tough, when courses are difficult, he’s going to finish in the top 10. Cream rising to the top, they say. There’s nothing wrong with this happening at a handful of events over the course of the season. The issue is that it happens too often. Where players are not asked to work the ball both ways, to make difficult club choices off every tee box, to use different trajectories into greens. Organizers of the event seem to love the PGA West setup, though. This isn’t changing.
Michael Bamberger, senior writer: No, all golf scoring is interconnected. The putting contest is grounded in how close you hit it. How close you hit it is related to where you hit your tee shots. BUT I totally understand what Rahm is saying. The harder the course, the smaller the number of people who can win. These desert courses are as easy as it gets, on Tour. That’s OK.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): And on that note, remember when PGA West first hosted a Tour event in the ’80s? A bunch of pros thought it was tough to the point of being unfair. They wanted no part of it on a Tour rota.
Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): I get what he was saying. It should first be noted that his putting misses in the third round were particularly brutal — shoot, even the Tour tweeted out a video of them — so he was running hot. But I agree with Michael. The putts were dropping more, because players were hitting fairways and greens more. It’s easier to do so on some courses, and that becomes a different style of golf. Not every course is supremely difficult, nor do I think we want every one to be. Now, if they’re all easy …
2. On the DP World Tour, more course-setup consternation! After making a 9 in the third round on the 646-yard par-5 18th hole at Yas Links, Tyrrell Hatton said of the hole: “What’s wrong with it? Where do you start? It shouldn’t have a bunker in the middle of the fairway, and it shouldn’t be over 600 yards from a forward tee. If you hit a good drive as a pro, you should have at least a chance to go for the green in two, otherwise the hole becomes a par-3, and that’s if you play it well. Hardly anyone will get there in two with the wind even slightly against you.” Let’s set aside Hatton’s gripe with this specific hole and instead discuss his wider point about par-5s. Should all pros, with a good drive, have a chance to reach every par-5 in two?
Zak: I have no issue with a true three-shotter, so long as each of those shots have some level of difficulty layered within them. If the setup that day implies that it’ll take three good ones to reach the putting surface, so be it. The player’s placement anywhere on any hole should always leave some question remaining, whether it’s a risk-reward decision or a discussion on the best angle to hit the approach from. I’m not sure if Yas’ 18th does that, but this YouTube clip says it routinely plays into the wind, so perhaps it might need to be altered from 646 yards. That’s a lot.
Bamberger: The par-5 is dead. It had a good run.
Sens: Hatton’s frustration was clouding his thinking there. Nothing wrong with a three-shot par-5, as long as the second shot requires some thinking and execution. The worst par-5s are holes that ask you only to advance your ball on the second shot, with no other considerations.
Piastowski: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with a three-shot par-5, but like Sean and Josh said, it should have some creativity mixed in, and not just driver, iron, wedge, putt, putt. And from just a look at the scoring, the hole did play difficult — after all, Hatton took the nine on it.
3. On the LPGA Tour, Danielle Kang, behind a final-round 68, held off a star-studded field to win the season-opening Tournament of Champions. Also of note on Sunday, world No. 1 Nelly Korda, who entered the round with the lead, stumbled to a three-over 75. Takeaways from week 1?
Zak: Kang has an infectious personality, and I’d love to see her fight for the No. 1 spot in the world ranking. So it’s hard for me to have a takeaway that doesn’t involve wanting this to be a 2022 launching point for her. My only other takeaway is that the frivolity of music playing in the background and all the celebs getting involved kinda makes it feel like an all-star showcase. Why can’t we bring it to Hawaii during the first week of the year, alongside the men?
Sens: That Nelly is human.
Bamberger: And golf is hard, and four days of it harder yet.
Piastowski: The depth of the women’s game right now is fantastic. Nelly will win her share, but I think we’re going to see a lot of winners this year.
4. Luke Donald, according to an exclusive report from the Daily Mail, is in line to be named the next European Ryder Cup captain. The report claims that 2020 captain Padraig Harrington, a key member of the five-man committee that chooses Europe’s captain, has given “a ringing endorsement” to Donald’s potential captaincy. Wise choice? And who’s your early pick to helm the American side?
Zak: Donald is a sound choice. He’s squarely in that aging-out-but-still-around-to-compete bracket that seems to bode well for captainship. They weren’t going to make a bad choice. European temperaments are too kind. As for the Americans, the game would be better off with Fred Couples as RC captain, even if that ship has sailed. Zach Johnson seems to be next in line, but he’s still playing a very full schedule. Phil Mickelson is showing no signs of stopping. Tiger is, I think, incapable right now, all due respect. I think Jim Furyk has my vote, huh?
Sens: Sean’s right about Donald. He’s in that sweet spot. Respected veteran. Ryder Cup experience. Past his peak, competitively. Unless he’s been living in the U.S. so long that we can count on him as a double agent? Agreed that Johnson will be at the American helm.
Bamberger: Oh, that’s funny. I’d have preferred to see Rory McIlroy as a playing captain, and Johnson — Dustin Johnson — doing the same on the other side. The event should require playing captains, and no assistants. As is, the captains and the “vice” captains clearly have way too much time on their hands.
Piastowski: Donald is fine. Does Lee Westwood then make the team at 50? As for the Americans, Fred Couples would be my choice. The team will need a cool head in the room when it heads to Italy. But no matter what happens, the captains for the 2025 event have to be Mickelson and Poulter. Those two, with a New York crowd. Love it.
5. In a bizarre scene during the American Express’ third round, Lee Hodges, tied for the lead at the time, was pulled off a shot by his caddie — in the middle of his backswing. While it turned out to be the right move — Hodges hit the green and birdied the hole — Golf Channel analysts Trevor Immelman and John Cook both said they had never seen such a thing. What’s the boldest move you’ve seen from a Tour caddie?
Zak: Well, there’s Kessler Karain’s dust-up with an Australian spectator during the President’s Cup in 2019 that literally banned him from finishing the competition. But in the lighter category, I loved when Austin Johnson went to retrieve a ball of his brother’s from a hazard (he had to; DJ wasn’t done with the hole yet) and kept his shoes on when he jumped into the water. They were on the 4th hole when it happened, so it made for a squeaky afternoon.
Sens: What year was it when Brian Stuard’s caddie quit mid-round in Reno? Oh, right, Google tells me it was 2014. That took some chutzpah, as no one on the Tour says.
Bamberger: Well, Tom Watson’s not on Tour, but his Yiddish is solid. I’m going to leave out the names here, but a long time ago, a caddie quit on a player after he whiffed in the woods and didn’t count it. The player said it wasn’t a whiff — he had aborted his swing. The caddie begged to differ.
Piastowski: I just want to talk more about that move. For anyone who doubts the value of a good caddie, watch the video. He wasn’t just carrying the bag. He was his coach out there. And he legitimately put his job on the line to do so.
6. In a three-part series on GOLF.com this week, our Michael Bamberger sung the praises of nine-hole golf. What the best, most memorable and/or most fun nine-hole experience you’ve encountered?
Zak: I need to get this answer written before Dethier logs on. The Valliere nine at Morfontaine was never promised to us, but it came at the end of our playing the 18-hole course. With the sun setting, we were reaching that afternoon golf nirvana where you’re desperate to just … keep … going. Thankfully, a member had joined us and invited us out for the original nine holes constructed on the property. It felt like we were cheating by getting an extra nine holes, but I remember them way more than the other 18. All of them were extremely scorable, Dylan nearly made an ace, I made an eagle, and we capped it off with a quiet beer on the terrace. An experience I’m probably incapable of recreating.
Sens: Hard to beat Northwood, an Alister Mackenzie nine-holer north of San Francisco. Cut through the redwoods, with such an easy-going atmosphere that visibility is sometimes clouded by a cannabis haze. But I also highly recommend Gleneagles, in San Francisco. Great throwback. Bay views. Compelling test. (Lee Trevino called it one of the toughest nine-holers he ever encountered.) And frequented by time-capsule San Francisco characters.
Bamberger: The nine-hole par-3 course at Augusta National is memorable and beautiful. If you play it with one ball, you’re doing some golfing. I needed one sleeve and part of another. The nine-holer in Edgartown, Mass., is one of my favorite courses — nine or 18 — anywhere. The nine-holer on Mackinac Island is outstanding. Golf’s so-called fifth major is the spring net championship at the St. Martins nine-hole course at the Philadelphia Cricket Club. The third green is one of the best in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Any ball on it, in approach or whole putting, seems to have a life of its own.
Piastowski: The nine holes I’d play as a kid under the twilight rate at the Milwaukee County Parks golf courses. While technically the courses were 18-holers, you could get in only nine, due to either lack of sunlight, or an increase in bug bites. But all it cost you was 5 bucks. Safe to say, it wasn’t until I was older where I played golf in the morning.