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The Wedge Guy: What makes a golf course ‘tough?’

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I found this past weekend’s golf to be some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking of the season. While the men of the PGA Tour found a challenging and tough Muirfield Village, the women of the LPGA were getting a taste of a true championship-caliber layout at Olympic Club, the sight of many historic U.S. Opens.

In both cases, the best players in the world found themselves up against courses that fought back against their extraordinary skills and talents. Though neither course appeared to present fairways that were ridiculously narrow, nor greens that were ultra-fast and diabolical, scoring was nowhere near the norms we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on the professional tours.

So, that begs the question – what is it exactly that makes a course tough for these elite players? And is that any different from those things that make a course tough for the rest of us?

From my observation, the big difference for both the ladies and the men was the simple fact that Muirfield Village and Olympic shared the same traits – deep rough alongside each fairway, deep bunkers, and heavy rough around the greens. In other words — unlike most of the venues these pros face each week, those two tracks put up severe penalties for their not-so-good shots — and their awful ones.

Setting aside the unfortunate turn of events for John Rahm – who appeared to be playing a different game for the first three days – only 18 of the best male players in the game managed to finish under par at Muirfield Village. That course offered up measurable penalties for missed fairways and greens, as it was nearly impossible to earn a GIR from the rough, and those magical short games were compromised a lot – Colin Morikawa even whiffed a short chip shot because the gnarly lie forced him to try to get “cute” with his first attempt. If you didn’t see it, he laid a sand wedge wide open and slid it completely under the ball — it didn’t move at all!

On the ladies’ side, these elite players were also challenged at the highest level, with errant drives often totally preventing a shot that had a chance of holding the green — or even reaching it. And the greenside rough and deep bunkers of Olympic Club somewhat neutralized their highly refined greenside scoring skills.

So, the take-away from both tournaments is the same, the way I see it.

If a course is set up to more severely penalize the poor drives and approaches — of which there are many by these players — and to make their magical short game skills more human-like, you will see these elite players struggle more like the rest of us.

So, I suggest all of you think about your last few rounds and see what makes your course(s) play tough. Does it penalize your not-so-good drives by making a GIR almost impossible, or is it too challenging around the greens for your scoring skills? Maybe the greens are so fast and diabolical that you don’t get as much out of your putting as you think you should? Or something else entirely?

My bet is that a thoughtful reflection on your last few rounds will guide you to what you should be working on as you come into the peak of the 2021 golf season.

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Terry Koehler is a fourth generation Texan, a native of a small South Texas town and a graduate of Texas A&M University. He has had a most interesting 40-year career in the golf industry. He has created five start-up companies, ranging from advertising agencies to golf equipment companies. You might remember Reid Lockhart, EIDOLON, SCOR, or his leadership of the reintroduction of Ben Hogan to the golf equipment industry in 2014. For almost 25 years, his wedge designs have stimulated other companies to slightly raise the CG and improve wedge performance. He has just announced the formation of Edison Golf Company and the new Edison Forged wedges, which have been robotically proven to significantly raise the bar for wedge performance. Terry serves as Chairman and Director of Innovation for Edison Golf, which can be seen at www.EdisonWedges.com. Terry has been a prolific equipment designer of over 100 putters and several irons, but many know Koehler as simply “The Wedge Guy”, as he authored over 700 articles on his blog by that name from 2003-2010.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. ChipNRun

    Jun 12, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    I play on a Nicklaus signature course. It was built as one of the 1990s developments, so the layout offers maximum views of fairways for homeowners. Thus on 14 of 18 holes, you run the gauntlet with OB and/or Hazard both left and right of fairway.

    Oldtimers say that Team Nicklaus warned the developer that the course would be very difficult to play and to maintain, but the developer said “make it as hard a you can.”

    One problem is the four short “risk-reward” par 4 holes.. three are almost impossible to par – and are difficult to bogie – if you miss the fairway. I get way more birdies on the top five HDCP holes than these shorties.

    The past couple of seasons, lots of work has been done to correct the “20-year shakeout” that all courses need. Most of the splash bunkers have been replaced with flat-bottom bunkers – much easier to maintain, and seniors and not-tall women can get in out now without injuring themselves. (I’m not kidding – you could get hurt entering and exiting the original sand pits.

  2. Pete Kane

    Jun 11, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    You are dead right. I would like to see the premium on the short game

  3. Quince

    Jun 10, 2021 at 1:13 am

    Quite an elegant analysis and especially spot on advice! Thank you

  4. Bob E. Smith

    Jun 9, 2021 at 8:24 pm

    You hit the nail on the head!!

  5. Kenneth Watts

    Jun 9, 2021 at 6:54 pm

    A GREAT GOLF DESIGNER, BUT MOST OF ALL GREAT Golf Coarse Superintendent who understands the design from the archetic!! Been there, done it, seen it, lived it!

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