Jon Rahm, proving that he still burns hot even if he’s better at suppressing his inner volcano, marched off a green during this weekend’s American Express tournament in the Californian desert, cursing to himself about the golf course but perfectly audibly to those gallery members within earshot. Of which there were a few.
“Piece of s–t f–king setup. Putting contest week,” the Spaniard fumed on smartphone video footage that circulated on Twitter shortly afterwards:
The term ‘putting contest’ pops up more and more frequently on the PGA Tour these days. The insinuation is that, at such tournaments, the course setup and conditions don’t place a premium on ball-striking, as all players at the elite level are capable of executing the requisite shots from tee to green. So the challenge descends into: whoever putts best wins.
Rahm is correct. Too often that is how PGA Tour tournaments unfold. The American Express event, which was known for so long as the Bob Hope Classic, is a long-time tour stop in a location and at a time of year when on many days it feels like golf inside a dome. With minimal wind and soft greens, golf by numbers dominates with the flatstick the only separator.
While Rahm was smoldering in the Californian desert, across the globe on the edge of another desert, the DP World Tour (formerly known as the European Tour) was in Abu Dhabi. Belgian Thomas Pieters prevailed in a close tussle that ebbed and flowed for four days, with no player able to take complete control of the Yas Links course. It is by no means a world-class layout – call it very good rather than great – but the voluptuous venue combined with just enough wind made for a far more compelling spectacle.
“More courses like this would excite viewers… Haste ye back,” tweeted Ewen Murray, the Scottish former tour player and now respected TV commentator.
The good news is, Yas Links will be back – and for at least the next three editions of the Abu Dhabi Championship. Not that that’s a cause for celebration all round. When told the news, Rory McIlroy smiled and said: “See you in 2026.”
Closer to home, there was plenty of chatter about Royal Queensland during the week of the concurrent Australian PGA and WPGA championships. It was the first top-level tournament held there after Mike Clayton’s redesign of the Brisbane course 15 years ago. On flat land, Clayton used angles, contours and a variety of pin positions to create a compelling layout that changes with the switch of winds and flag locations. Some players in the field ‘got it’; others didn’t. Clayton himself even acknowledges that tour pros are rarely the best judges of good course architecture. Either way, it was a test that required a high degree of strategic nous and course knowledge. It was of little surprise, really, that an RQ member in Jed Morgan blitzed the male field that week.
Overall, this is a topic I’ve long pondered and one that receives plenty of airtime in golf social media circles: what sort of golf course, and golf-course setup, makes for the best tournaments? When Cameron Smith destroyed Kapalua’s mighty Plantation course in Hawaii to the tune of 34-under for four rounds a fortnight ago, the consensus among players was that the absence of wind rendered the layout more vulnerable. Yes, that happens. Yet more and more it seems scores of 25-under and better are required to contend every week. As the PGA Tour’s former slogan told us, these guys are good, but they also get a helping hand in the form of golf courses and setups that don’t fully examine their skillset.
I know I’m not alone in feeling a little fatigue with the birdie-fests. Like many golf fans in Australia, I wake most Friday mornings eager to see how the Aussie players fared in the opening round of the latest PGA Tour event. It becomes pretty dispiriting to see someone one-over par for their first nine holes of a 72-hole event and effectively out of it. You can’t get to 25-under by having to go 26-under for 63 holes. Well, not often.
That’s the diet we’re fed most weeks now, with a diminishing number of exceptions. Tournaments like this week’s tournament at Torrey Pines thankfully break the rule, but it requires a Major-championship-level golf course and swathes of suffocating rough to do so.
In the commercially driven world of professional golf, host courses will always be driven by suitability for every other requirement ahead of architecture, but the two elements need not be mutually exclusive. Yas Links proved that. The leader was nine-under after the first round yet Pieters won with a 10-under aggregate.
I hope they were paying attention in America.