Forget Par

(published July 28, 2011)

The PGA Tour returns to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia this week, where Stuart Appleby shot a final-round 59 to win the inaugural Greenbrier Classic last year.  Appleby’s four-round total was 258, 22 under par.

Last week, Sean O’Hair won the RBC Canadian Open at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club in Vancouver, with a score of 276, four under.

What do these two things tell us about the quality of the play at the two tournaments, or the quality of the courses?

Almost nothing.

Did Appleby play better than O’Hair?  Is Shaughnessy inherently a more difficult golf course than the Greenbrier eighteen now formally named The Old White TPC?

The only sensible answer to those two questions is, “Maybe.”  The only certain thing is that O’Hair played better than everyone else last week, and Appleby outplayed everyone this week last year.

Perhaps fearing that Tour pros would overpower the 7,010-yard course, officials grew the kind of punishing rough at Shaughnessy that even the U.S. Open avoids these days.  Missing the fairway by a single yard meant hacking out sideways.  The result: higher scores and a boring, one-dimensional brand of golf.

At the Greenbrier, soft greens made for inviting targets, and the 77 players who took part in the final round averaged 67.5 on the day.

If a field of professionals plays the golf course in 3 ½ strokes fewer than the par total, is 70 really “par?”

There’s so much foolishness around the subject of par.

The Scots played golf for hundreds of years before anyone thought to put expectations on each hole. It was a game played head-to-head, in individual matches scored hole by hole; it didn’t matter how many strokes you took on a hole as long as it was fewer than your opponent.

The idea of assigning a number to a hole – representing the expected result for a first-class player – arose in a match-play context as well.  In the 19th century, some British clubs staged “bogey” competitions, in which each player’s round was compared to the predetermined scores hole by hole; whoever “won” the most holes was the overall winner.  (A “bogey” was a ghost or phantom, akin to “boogey-man.”)

Golf took hold much later in the U.S., and from the start there was an effort to standardize the handicap system by assigning “par” scores to holes according to their length.  The term “par” was taken from the financial world, meaning the normal or market value of a stock.

In tournament golf, par was so little considered that no one noticed or commented when Sam Snead became the first to break par in four rounds during a U.S. Open.  In 1947 he shot 72-70-70-70 at the par-71 St. Louis CC, then added another 70 while losing the 18-hole playoff to Lew Worsham’s 69.

During golf telecasts in the 1950s, commentators talked about the score a player needed to shoot to win: “He needs a three at the last for 279, which would beat Hogan’s 280.”

For the convenience of its patrons, Augusta National used large scoreboards to show each player’s progress.  Rather than listing total strokes, the boards showed a player’s relation to par: red figures for under par, green ones for over.  CBS, televising the Masters, began using this scoring method at the direction of the late Frank Chirkinian, providing a way to compare players who were at different stages in their rounds.  This soon became standard for all tournament coverage.

But what does par matter, really?  Whatever the number is, the task for the golfer is to get a ball from Point A into a hole at Point B with as few strokes as possible.

Today, it’s not unusual to see par-4 holes of 500 yards or greater in pro tournaments, distances that would have meant a par-five in the old days.  Since every player in the field can easily reach such a green in two shots, it’s proper and obvious that it should be a par 4.

What is odd, though, is that all pro tournaments are held on courses with a par total between 70 and 72.  Why should “par” be the same as it was seventy years ago?  The players are stronger and the equipment is better; why not simply acknowledge that the pros are playing courses whose real par is 68 or lower?  Why is it necessary to trick up a course like Shaughnessy to keep the pros from shooting low scores?  Do courses have to keep getting longer and longer and greens harder and faster in order to “protect” par?

What’s wrong with low scores?  These guys are good.

Appleby’s 59 was one of the dramatic highlights of the 2010 season.  But you needn’t worry about it happening again this week.  The greens were reseeded with a bentgrass strain that tolerates less watering, so the putting surfaces are firm and fast.  New tees have added more than 200 yards to the Greenbrier’s length.

“There’s not going to be any 59s shot,” Tom Watson said after a practice round.

“There’s no way there’s a 59 in this golf course the way it is right now,” said Appleby.

What a relief, right?  Who needs all that excitement?

Like most golfers, I have my own par when I play, based on my ability, expectations, mood, and the quality of sleep I got the night before – and, yes, the course.  So do the pros, though the course and the weather are their two main variables.

Neither number has all that much to do with the ones in the little boxes on the scorecard.






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