Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: There's no fight in Old White

WHITE SULPHER SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Before we talk about the problem, let's first hand out a little credit.

There are a lot of things to think about when putting on your first PGA Tour event in the modern era. Fans, sponsors, volunteers, shuttles, hotel accommodations, Port-o-Johns, tents to put around those Port-o-Johns to class 'em up a bit -- you name it. The people at The Greenbrier seem to have done all that stuff well.

The crowds are strong. The sponsor boxes are bustling. The volunteers are friendly. The officials are organized. All of that's a good start, and frankly, all of that's more important for a first-year tournament than anything that actually happens on the course.

But what happens on the course matters, too. And what they haven't done here -- yet, anyway -- is present a challenge to professional golfers.

That has to change.

Let's face it: The Greenbrier Classic lacks juice. The top of the leaderboard is filled with preposterously low scores next to names that are foreign to anyone outside the most ardent golf fans. Jeff Overton D.A. Points. Jonathan Byrd. Jimmy Walker. Roger Tambellini.

Most of this isn't The Greenbrier's fault. Given where this tournament lies on the schedule -- a week before the World Golf Championships, two weeks before the final major of the year -- you're not going to lure Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Ernie Els or Vijay Singh. Those guys are resting. You can't exactly pull them off their piles of money and make them come.

But what you can do, what you must do, is create a true test of golf for the guys who do show up. Disaster needs to lurk around every corner. Missing a fairway needs to hurt. Firing at a flag needs to be risky.

As it stands now, most of these players need just three clubs in their bag to handle a dozen par-4 holes: A driver, a wedge and a putter. The leader, Overton, hit wedge on every par-4 approach on Friday. On Saturday, he used something other than a wedge just once, on No. 11, and that's only because he nearly hit his tee shot out of bounds.

But one guy driving well, getting hot and going low is OK. That happens at every tournament. The problem here is that EVERYBODY is having an easy time with this place.

The scores on Saturday were nothing short of ridiculous. Only seven people out of 85 failed to shoot in the 60s. The worst anyone shot was 73.

Some guy named Derek Lamely carded a 63. A fellow named Aron Price fired a 65. So did the immortal Tambellini. Two guys, Points and J.B. Holmes, had opportunities to shoot 59 -- something only four people have done in the history of the Tour -- before falling just short.

"I think it's a better challenge for us to play golf courses where par's a good score," said former Virginia Tech golfer Brendon de Jonge, whose 12-under score through three rounds only puts him in a tie for fourth. "There's been a bit of moisture hanging around; this course hasn't been able to firm up. That makes it accessible for us.

"I think as players we would like higher scores, but it's great for the crowds to see a bunch of birdies."

That's true. Fans do want to see birdies. But they also would like to see them earned under difficult circumstances, crafted by men who can do things with a club that they never could.

There's no disputing that the players out here, huge name or not, are excellent golfers. It's just impossible to differentiate the excellent from the astounding when nobody breaks a sweat.

So that must top the to-do list for next year. Grow out the rough. Lengthen a few holes. Toughen the pin positions.

Important stuff, but a fairly simple assignment for officials at The Greenbrier. After all, they've already shown they can pass the hard tests.

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