Bye bye birdies?
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - After two days of practice at The Greenbrier Classic, the renovation of the previously beleaguered Old White greens is drawing rave reviews.
Until players try to figure out how to approach them, anyway. Apparently, the pitch-and-putt days of 2010 are over.
"The greens are very firm," said Greg Putt, caddy for Michael Putnam. "You're going to have to be precise in what number [of iron] you throw into the greens."
The PGA Tour and The Greenbrier resort collaborated on an overhaul of The Old White TPC after players sliced and diced it in the inaugural Classic. The tournament is best known for Stuart Appleby's championship-seizing 59 in the final round, but that also underlined how badly the course was beaten.
Consider this: The average score was almost a full stroke and a half under the par 70. There were 1,801 birdies from the 156 players, fourth on the PGA Tour.
And it goes on. Players hit the greens in regulation 77.24 percent of the time, third on the circuit. Those approaches averaged 30 feet from the hole, closest on the Tour, and approaches from the rough landed an average 36 feet, 4 inches away, also a Tour "best."
Strangely enough, the course had the Tour's third-worst putting percentage from 5 to 15 feet, but that might have been because players enjoyed more putts from that distance. Just a theory.
And here is another theory: The number of birdies will be reduced.
"I don't see 59 there," Appleby said after his practice round. "Anyone shooting lower than a 65 has had a good round of golf."
There were 23 rounds lower than 65 and 32 more right at that number in 2010. With the greens compared to pin cushions and dart boards, resort owner Jim Justice took Old White out of service until last week so the greens could be replanted with Tyee Creeping Bentgrass.
Distance was added on many holes, with the course extended to 7,274 yards overall. Some fairways were narrowed, a lake was reshaped and other tweaks followed.
The rough, virtually no factor in 2010, appears a bit higher and thicker. It may not equal the club-snagging rough seen last week at the Canadian Open in Vancouver, but ...
"The fairways, you know, are not going to get any roll-out in the rough at all," Justice said. "The biggest thing - mark this down - the biggest determining factor of the higher score is going to be the rough.
"The lushness of the rough, even though we are going to keep it at 3 [inches], maybe 31/2, the lushness of the rough is absolutely tough. Especially if you're flying it out of the rough hitting a firm green, it makes it even more tough.
"But the greens are going to roll at about 111/2 [Stimpmeter reading, in feet]; it may be 12 by Sunday, and you know, it's ready to go. It's really ready to go."
Tom Watson, the 61-year-old legend who is coming off a third-place finish in the Senior British Open, joined the chorus. Like many other golfers, he was often hitting as many extra shots as he could without holding up players behind him.
"The ball is not going to stop," he said. "It's going to take a lot of skill to get the ball close to the flag position on these greens. It's like playing the links, greens where they are really hard, and they release. Last year, it was like shooting darts, throwing darts."
Here is another aspect Watson pointed out: On Tuesday, the immaculate fairways were softened by recent rains - and as one caddy pointed out, Old White's location in a valley can add to that. Drives were essentially plopping and staying put Tuesday, with just a single bounce.
That could change, as the forecast calls for mostly sunny skies Wednesday and Thursday, with no chance of rain into Friday. If the fairways harden, the roll will shorten the course but put fairway bunkers more into play.
But on Tuesday, players faced the dilemma of trying to run the ball up to the green and have it die short, or try to hit the green on the fly and risk having it go over. "I have to be precise in my yardage this week and hit the ball the right distance," Watson said.
Appleby gave an example how the distance and firm greens will converge to make life tougher. No. 2, a par-4 lengthened 38 yards to 488, stood out to him.
At the former length, that hole averaged slightly above par, about the seventh toughest on the course. At the longer distance, the length-wise "hog's back" hump in the fairway will play a larger role in approach shots, in part because longer clubs will be used.
"No. 2 was a lot longer," Appleby said. "It played a 3-iron for me, second shot, and that was only a mid-to-short iron at the most, 7-irons and less [last year].
"[With a] 7-iron, you can start picking where you hit it on the green. I'm just happy to hit a 3-iron on the green [at all]."
The field of 156, ranging from the sixth-ranked player in the world (Phil Mickelson), Watson and Appleby to journeymen, Monday four-spot qualifiers and West Virginia Amateur champion Christian Brand, continues practice rounds today. The real shots begin at 7 a.m. Thursday.
And when they finish, Appleby's 59 and his 22-under should be very safe as tournament records. At least, that's the thought about the new Old White.
"It's got to be, I think, between three and four shots harder than what it was for us Saturday and Sunday last year, compared to today," Appleby said. "You know, anyone shooting in the mid-teens [under par], I think, would be a very good score."
@tag:Reach Doug Smock 304-348-5130 or dougsm...@wvgazette.com.