Bill Elliott reflects on the choice of the USGA to stage the 2015 US Open at Chambers Bay, and on golf course design in general
BY BILL ELLIOTT
Wonderful things golf courses. Even the most basic, mundane track offers at least a smidgeon of aesthetic pleasure as well as a playground upon which to have some fun.
Naturally this leads me on to Chambers Bay and the US Open and the bleatings and whingings of so many professionals who (a) don’t like anything new (unless it is a very expensive car ) and (b) wouldn’t recognise a masterpiece if Rembrandt had signed his name in capital letters across the bottom ( actually, if he had then it would probably be a fake).
Whatever, it was a brave decision for the United States Golf Association (USGA) to take their most important championship to Chambers. Brave and correct. But what, apart from the silliness of some pros, this choice of venue illustrated was the eternal importance of what a course looks like is to the enjoyment and validity of the old game.
No other sport enjoys such a breadth of choice when it comes to venue. Football, rugby and cricket pitches are much of a muchness with only the background scenery changing. Motor racing adds a few corners here, a chicane there but, really, what else? Swimming? My case rests, m’lud. Golf wins here, hands down, easily and beyond even half-serious debate.
And while the courses and the variety thereof lies at the core of the reasons to play golf in the first place, nothing in the game has changed as much in my lifetime as these meandering fields. More, certainly, than the ball or the clubs the advances made on how courses are presented and maintained add up to the single most significant improvement.
You only have to look at the old film of the Masters to see what used to be. Back then Augusta National was already an early template for greenkeeping excellence but there was only so much a man and his energy could do and if you look carefully at those films you will see greens that would have your club members spluttering angrily these days. Grass on the greens of varying length, rough edges to bunkers, seriously unkempt rough, the list goes on.
Remember that there are still greenkeepers drawing breath who remember having a horse haul the grasscutting blades around and many more who know there was little or no formal training back then either. Men learned on the job and from their mistakes.
It’s different now, of course, with the British and International Golf Greenkeepers’ Association firmly established with education and training an essential priority. Nowadays greenkeepers are respected members of the golfing community but it’s not many years since they were regarded in much the same way as the peasants who used to toil on some master’s estate and someone to be tolerated rather than cherished.
Along with this advance in society and basic human courtesy much else has changed too. Thanks to modern machinery, education, more money and a desire for improvement, today’s courses are almost indescribably superior in condition and presentation than used to be the case.
Alongside this greenkeeping revolution has come an accepted realisation that courses should not only blend into the natural environment but should actively encourage flora and fauna to thrive. No longer – surely? – is the land poisoned by some extreme pesticide with animals and plants suffering as well.
Of course I don’t expect every big-time pro to buy into this appreciation of excellence. For too many their expectation often is diluted by an ongoing sense of entitlement and a skewed calculation of how important they are, not just to us but to the game. Personally, I’m frequently more impressed by a great greenkeeper.
As Jimmy Demerat, a sharp-witted American good enough to win three Masters, once said regretfully: “ I’ve come to the conclusion that some golfers would complain about conditions if they were playing on Dolly Parton’s bedspread.” My point precisely. If Ms Parton will forgive me.