Column: Soft courses, low scores and a need for more variety

Aug 30, 2021, 11:32 PM | Updated: Aug 31, 2021, 12:04 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — Kevin Kisner was one spot out of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings going into the tournament that determines who makes it to Tour Championship at East Lake.

All it took was one shot for him to realize it probably wasn’t going to be him.

“The first day, when my ball plugged on 10, I knew it was going to be a long week,” Kisner said before cleaning out his locker at Caves Valley. “Obviously, I putted awful. But top 20 would be about as good as I could do here.”

Caves Valley was 7,542 yards and played every inch of it on rain-softened turf amid stifling humidity that never allowed fairways or greens to get firm.

Kisner ranks 171st in driving distance. He is not Bryson DeChambeau, on so many levels. As it relates to the brand of golf Kisner plays, a long course with soft greens was always going to present some big challenges.

That’s nothing new.

Nearly a decade ago, David Toms contemplated a postseason rotation of Bethpage Black, TPC Boston and Cog Hill — all big, beefy courses in the Northeast and Midwest — and wondered what chance he had of getting to East Lake. He didn’t make it past the second stage.

“The 30 players who made it to the finish line here in Atlanta have all thrived on the biggest stages this season,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said Tuesday.

Big stages and big courses.

That’s why a rotation makes sense, and the BMW Championship is now the only postseason event that moves around. It goes from Caves Valley outside Baltimore to Wilmington Country Club in Delaware next year (no word on whether President Joe Biden, one of its members, might swing by).

The plan is to go back to Olympia Fields in 2023, and Denver is in the future (Castle Pines is the leading candidate). And now that Northern Trust has ended its sponsorship, the Western Golf Association is contemplating tapping the New York and Boston markets. There are plenty of choices to provide different tests.

Variety has been lacking this year, mainly due to the weather.

“We’re an outdoor sport. We don’t get to choose our conditions,” Monahan said.

True, and the evidence is Olympia Fields south of Chicago. A year ago for the BMW Championship, it was firm and fast, crusty and scary, and only five players broke par. Jon Rahm won a playoff at 4-under par.

Remember, though, Olympia Fields hosted a rain-soaked U.S. Open in 2003. Jim Furyk bogeyed the last two holes and still tied what was then the 72-hole scoring record.

What if it rains next time?

The FedEx Cup playoffs will start next year at the TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, a course that is generally well-received, but certainly will favor certain players. That happens across the PGA Tour schedule.

The TPC Southwind will be the eighth course that has hosted the opening postseason event. The previous locations were three courses in New Jersey, three in New York and one in Boston.

The BMW Championship already has been held on nine courses since the FedEx Cup began in 2007, four of them in the Chicago area.

That leaves the Tour Championship at the only site that doesn’t change.

Conversations have started about the possibility of moving around the Tour Championship, like it briefly did 30 years ago, perhaps with East Lake as the anchor.

It’s too early in the discussions to speculate, and whether it’s feasible depends largely on the Atlanta-based support of Southern Company and Coca-Cola, whose deals end in 2022.

Perhaps more important is the relationship with the East Lake Foundation, which revitalized a dilapidated neighborhood around the course. The Tour Championship has raised some $30 million toward that over the years.

Variety in the most important events can only add spice, if not a sense of equity to the different styles of golf. And with a 30-man field, imagine the historic venues that could be available.

Still, East Lake has become more than just the name of a golf club. It has become a destination where PGA Tour players want to be at the end of the season.

They don’t say the Tour Championship. They say East Lake.

Rotating events still doesn’t eliminate the consequences of weather, and that has contributed to a sense of sameness for this postseason. About the only question the last two weeks is just how low scores can go.

Tony Finau won a playoff over Cameron Smith at Liberty National after both finished at 20-under par. Patrick Cantlay won a playoff over DeChambeau at Caves Valley after both finished at 27 under. DeChambeau made the wrong kind of history, the first to post 261 without winning.

“I don’t really know where you could go this time of the year where that’s not going to happen without it being over on the West Coast or Northwest or whatever,” Rory McIlroy said.

This is serious business — the PGA Tour refers to the FedEx Cup as the “ultimate prize” — but not as significant as the majors. McIlroy believes the FedEx Cup is more about entertainment than providing the ultimate test, and low scores haven’t taken away from great theater.

The majors move around every year except for one place, Augusta National.

After this year, the FedEx Cup playoffs aren’t moving around except for one tournament, the BMW Championship.

That should change, especially if it’s more about entertainment.


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Column: Soft courses, low scores and a need for more variety