Back in 1999, Jean Van de Velde blew the Open Championship at Carnoustie. You probably know how it went: ill-advised but safe drive way right, second shot short of the Barry Burn, third shot into the Barry Burn, yadda yadda yadda.
But what I had forgotten until the recent re-hashings of that fateful half hour was that Van de Velde had not only blundered, but gotten perhaps the unluckiest break in televised major championship golf history, when his second shot careened backwards off a railing on the massive grandstands lining the last hundred yards or so of Carnoustie’s 18th.
It was something of a rule-proving an exception to a conviction I’ve long held about pro golf:
They have it so much easier than the rest of us amateur golfers, and grandstands are a huge reason.
For every Van de Veldean mugging, there are probably five thousand positive results of grandstand pinball, ranging from a trip to a favorable drop area to caroms off the temporary structures that turn a bogey or worse into a par or better.
Just ask Jose Maria Olazabal:
Off the grandstand, on the green.
He didn't plan it, but rookie Jose Maria Olazabal will take it. pic.twitter.com/5F3EMeAWny
— PGA TOUR Champions (@ChampionsTour) February 12, 2017
The sense of definition grandstands provide is invaluable to pro golfers, many of whom seemingly can barely function without all those structures – grandstands, TV towers, port-a-johns – to aim at on every shot. Being so supremely skilled at hitting a golf ball a precise distance in a precise direction, that extra aid is good for a lot of extra birdies and eagles over the course of a tournament, much less a season.
Grandstands are far from the only lagniappe the world’s best golfers receive every time they tee it up on the world’s biggest stage. Others include…
The throngs of people who come out to pro golf tournaments are a great boon for the players. Sure, most of us would be terrified to play in front of spectators, because on every full swing there would be a real chance of us maiming someone. Few of us have the scratch to afford the extra stock of signed gloves it would take to get through a round.
But pros can use spectators to their advantage in a number of ways. The main one is, again, definition. Especially at links venues like this week’s, there is not always a lot to aim at, and blind and semi-blind shots sow doubt in players’ (especially highly skilled ones). But when rows of people create a bowling alley-like effect, there’s a lot more reason to be confident in one’s aim because people are paving the way perfectly.
Spectators are also awfully handy when you hit errant shots. In a few tournaments I’ve played, I’ve been lucky to have rules officials and spotters point me toward a ball I wouldn’t have otherwise found, but this is nothing compared to the efficiency of dozens of people scouring a patch of fescue for a wayward tee shot. Once the new Rules of Golf limit the length of these searches to three minutes from five, it will be even more valuable for pros who hit shots off line to do so in front of 50 willing ad hoc spotters.
Spectators can also provide pure massed muscle, as Tiger Woods learned in 1999 at the then-Phoenix (now Waste Management) Open. When the rest of us hit a ball behind a massive rock, we’re S.O.L. An on-demand logistics platoon is one of those pro golf perks we will never get.
Remember when: Tiger Woods gets an assist moving a "loose impediment"
Similar to grandstands, spectators can also dampen the effect of an errant shot in a couple ways. The first is that they may redirect a ball back into play. There are many examples of shots striking spectators and ricocheting back into the fairway or first cut of rough from an otherwise worse angle. No one ever wants to see a spectator get hurt, but it happens, and it often helps the player who hits the shot.
Spectators can also trample down rough such that it can be "better" for a player to hit a tee shot into the middle of the gallery than a foot into the primary rough, especially at majors like the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, where deep rough traditionally features in the setup. It's not an especially equitable scenario, but it's largely unavoidable at tournaments with spectators.
I expect to get some disagreement on this – let me have your takes in the comments – but by and large, pros have it pretty cushy when it comes to course conditions. Yes, they get more tucked pins than we do, but they also tend to get a lot of soft, scoreable setups, be it because of warm-season rains preceding tournaments or a benign tournament agronomy committee. For the first Byron Nelson event this year at Trinity Forest, fairways and green surrounds were maintained a little longer and slower, which made greenside recovery shots easier for the PGA Tour than for Trinity Forest members and guests. When this happens, it seems the reward for being a great golfer is a somewhat easier golf course.
Michael Kim shot 27-under last weekend to win the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour. The week before, at the Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic, Sei Young Kim shot 31-under (!), a new LPGA Tour scoring record relative to par. 15-under was good for a tie for 20th.
Understandably, tours and host venues want their courses at their absolute best when tournament time comes around. It’s easier to hit crisp irons of pancake-flat tee boxes and immaculate fairways, and it’s easier to hole putts on smooth, fast greens (though to be fair, excessive speed can curtail this). Longer rough is the compensation, but good players can handle (and avoid) it.
Perhaps the easiest aspect of Tour-type course setups is the perfect consistency of the bunkers. When pros are happy to end up in a greenside bunker in two on a par five, you know those spots are no longer the hazards we often play from.
The right caddie is practically a cheat code for a golfer, especially in competition. For the rank-and-file, caddies are usually an occasional luxury, at best. But every pro has one, and a caddie is equal parts advisor and confessor, which comes in handy when playing for millions of dollars. Wouldn't it be fun to see a no-caddie PGA Tour event?
I know I tend to play better when I’ve had a friend or my father caddie for me in tournaments. The ability to share some of the pressure and burden – both physical and mental – is invaluable in competition. Playing to impress your caddie is often a good way to elevate your game to hit better shots than you expected, I’ve found.
Of course, this is not to say the pros are nothing special. They’re downright amazing, and in the end aids like grandstands, crowds, conditions and caddies don’t take too much away from the awe we should feel at watching them. Still, it’s fun to see them out of their comfort zones, like they will be this week at tan, crispy Carnoustie. All that backspin they usually rely on will be useless on concrete fairways. They’ll have to rely on their wits just a bit more than usual, like the rest of us. And as always, they’ll really show us how good they are.