Els: PGA Tour has course setups 'backward'

In the midst of what is now an ocean of instantly available statistical data, professional golf at the highest level has become depressingly quantifiable by the failure of the game's most successful exponents to display any sort of versatility.

Which is not the same as saying that the world's leading players are totally bereft of imagination and flair. The majority possess both, albeit to varying degrees. One of the reasons Tiger Woods is the best player on the planet is he has more shots than anyone else. But, most weeks at least, Tiger and the rest are not asked to show us anything special in their shot making. Moving the ball from left to right or right to left receives virtually no encouragement.

Handcuffed by a seemingly never-ending series of pedestrian and predictable course setups, and a modern ball that is designed to fly straight rather than curve, the PGA Tour's best have become mere bashers. Hold one up against that pesky left-to-right breeze you say? Nah. Not necessary. So let's not bother. Where have you gone, Lee Trevino?

But wait. Here's some good news: This almost constant diet of tedium has finally provoked a reaction from at least one elite player. Ernie Els has had enough.

"I've never been a fan of the way too many courses are set up on the PGA Tour," contends Els, the No. 3-ranked player in the world. "They need to start cutting rough, especially around the greens. Get the ball to run away from the putting surfaces. Shorter grass allows you to hit a greater variety of shots. You can make up your own mind. Too often these days the hole tells you what shot to hit rather than you telling the hole. It's backward.

"For real golfers, the purists, the traditionalists, conditions need to be a little firmer, a little faster. That would help pure ball strikers and those with more versatile short games to come through more often. I'm bored watching the exact same shots all the time. The game has lost some of its imagination. Too often these days it's all about brute force and throwing darts. You can catch a 5-iron approach a bit thin, and it will still stay on the green. If that green had been firm instead of soft, the ball would run 20 yards over the back. That's what real golf is all about."

Now, if you're like me, you've probably heard this sort of lament before. But this is different. This time, Els is prepared to back up his words with actions.

"None of us [the top five] are hitting fairways," he continues. "That is obvious. And I have thought about it a lot. Right after the Masters, I told my caddie I was too caught up in hitting the ball as far as I could. In doing that, my swing had changed a bit. So it was time for me to start playing the holes the way they are supposed to be played. That's how I won two U.S. Opens. If I had to put the ball in play with a 2-iron, I did that. I didn't care that I was hitting maybe a 5-iron for my second shot instead of an 8-iron. And that's the way I have played since Augusta. I am trying to hit the fairways, then taking things from there.

"I want it to be more than just hammering away from the tee. I want it to be more interesting than it has been lately. I'm not just a banger. Yet I played like that all last year and for a while before that. I haven't enjoyed it much. Real pleasure comes from hitting the fairways and the greens, then putting for birdies. It isn't about just standing there and having a go all the time. I want to play proper golf."

Perfect. That's just the sort of game I'd rather watch. Wouldn't you?

John Huggan is the European correspondent for Golf World magazine

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