PGA's unfair setup is ridiculed by the field

  • Follow Scott Michaux

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. --- It's been like professional hour at the Scream Factory all week.

Bristling golfers have been walking the line from the scoring trailer to the clubhouse, trying out their material on anyone with a notepad or tape recorder who is willing to listen. The PGA of America's setup of Rees Jones' redesigned Donald Ross course at Oakland Hills has provided much inspiration for black comedy.

"If you had Rees Jones redo Scrabble, he'd leave out the vowels," American Paul Goydos said.

"You are just trying not to bleed to death out there," England's Ian Poulter said. "It's like the PGA has sliced your throat on the first tee, and you have to try and make it around to the 18th without dying."

"They have taken an OK golf course and turned it into a lot of crap," Australia's Robert Allenby said. "That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it."

So after Augusta native Charles Howell completed his third-round 77 with a double-bogey-bogey finish in which he landed approaches temporarily on each of the last three greens, it seemed as good a time as any to extract his assessment.

"It's good for the members that this golf course is only open six months a year, because you need six months of mental help," Howell said. "It's six months of mental recuperation, six months of golf and then back to the big leather couch."

Oakland Hills would be a brute 365 days of the year. Its wrinkled fairways and sloping greens are what once inspired Ben Hogan to nickname it "The Monster." It required no manipulation to make it a stern test for the world's best.

But for some unknown reason, the normally reasonable PGA lost much of its senses this week. The same people who provided laudable setups at Baltusrol in 2005 and Southern Hills in 2007 went all USGA for some reason. They let the rough grow long right off the edges of fairways, and if that's not enough, they had ground crews vacuuming the grass up and raking it toward the tees to make sure that any ball that rolled naturally off the unlevel fairway got hit with the nastiest possible lie.

"The golf course is really difficult, and it doesn't leave the PGA much to be honest with you," Howell said. "It's really easy to sound like you're complaining and moaning, but it seems like you can hit a lot of really good shots around this course and get absolutely nothing for it. It's sad to say when I'm 15-over-par, but I've hit the ball really well."

The PGA reacted a little late Friday night in trimming the rough a tad and putting some water on the greens that Rocco Mediate said were "on the edge of bye-bye." Now, Mother Nature has dumped a ton of rain that will mercifully soften the greens but brutally dampen the rough for the leaders who will have to play 36 holes today.

It has been a sad result for an event that already has to fight its stature as the fourth wheel in the major championship landscape.

This year already had a perfect storm lined up against it. The tournament was missing its two-time defending champion and marquee attraction Tiger Woods. It's being held near a city, Detroit, that has felt much of the brunt in the economic downturn. And it's lost in the coverage wake of the Olympic Games taking place halfway around the world.

The last thing it needed was a setup so severe that it was "sucking the life out of it," as England's Lee Westwood put it. The sparse crowds have had little to cheer about. The fans watching at the over-the-top 17th and 18th holes on Friday had to wait more than 10 hours before the lone birdie of the day was posted on each.

You might have thought that PGA of America managing director Kerry Haigh's usual restraint had been reinforced from watching the U.S. Open two months ago. The formerly unyielding USGA has adopted a system of graduated rough that penalizes the more wayward shots proportionately. The farther you miss, the more trouble you'll find.

Oakland Hills was the perfect candidate for such a sensible setup. Balls don't stay in these fairways. Steve Stricker spoke Friday about landing his drives in 12 of 14 fairways yet only keeping them in two. But a ball trickling 1 foot into the comb-over rough might as well have been a yank or slice 40 yards off the center-line; you were dead either way.

But this was whiff -- a swing and a miss at another chance to prove that the PGA was the most capable organization to take an iconic venue and make it a stern but fair test.

As two-time British Open champ Padraig Harrington said, "This is more U.S. Open than the U.S. Open."

That was not meant as a compliment. The players and fans have a right to expect better next year.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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