Canadian Open: When is a course too hard?

Shaughnessy: Mike Weir, Luke Donald and Matt Kuchar on 4th hole at Shaughnessy yesterday.

The big issue of day one at the RBC Canadian Open was the difficulty of the long rough at Shaughnessy Golf and CC, and the resulting high scores. It was interesting to see the differing opinions on the challenge of the course. The rough, which was supposedly topped to 4 inches on Wednesday night, still seemed nasty yesterday. Players missing the narrow fairways at Shaughnessy basically had to pitch out sideways, with anything more than a short iron likely to twist in the long grass. It was one-dimensional golf at its finest.
Is this what we really wanted at a Canadian Open? There’s a fine line between challenging and penal, and to my way of thinking, the course this week is crossing that line. It isn’t fun to watch players hack wedges from long rough; I’d rather see some daring recoveries. Those weren’t really forthcoming.
The rough at this year’s Canadian Open presents a conundrum. On one hand, when a player shoots -19 at Glen Abbey or Angus Glen many people discount the quality of the course, suggesting they aren’t up to the standards set by the U.S. or Britain. They are generally correct in terms of quality of the courses, but that judgement shouldn’t come about because of the scores.
Shaughnessy is a good golf course – Top 20 in Canada, though not as strong as St. George’s or Hamilton, likely the best of the current crop of Canadian Open courses. But it looks unnaturally narrow.
Luke Donald, playing in a group with Matt Kuchar, and Mike Weir (more on him later) seemed nonplussed about the rough issue. On one hand he clearly didn’t want to say anything that would offend sponsor RBC; on the other hand he isn’t a fan of overly long courses or those where you can’t hit a recovery shot.
“I enjoy these classic courses, but I’m not a huge fan of long rough everywhere because it takes some of the skill away because you’re hitting the same shot from everywhere,” Donald says.  “The rough adds pressure when you are on the tee because you know you have to hit it in the fairway to have a chance to get on the green.”
That means there was a lot of hit and hack golf – not fun to watch since it basically takes all of the daring elements out of the game.
Donald said this sort of set up was not common on either the PGA or European Tour.
“To be honest, I haven’t played too many courses with rough,” he said. “I think the tour’s going more towards getting it around the green.”
Many golfers don’t want courses to be too easy – ultra-low scores take the likes of Stephen Ames out of many tournaments as he’s not a bomber who is going to make a boatload of birdies. But those that are too hard – and I think this week’s course qualifies – take away a lot of the skill of hitting a recovery. There’s also a chance that the players won’t want to play ultra-hard golf courses two weeks in a row – especially those coming from the British Open.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The club and the Tour can obviously do as they choose, but, for whatever it’s worth, Vernon Macan would be livid if he saw how the crowning jewel of his architectural career was set-up this week, for the Canadian Open. (Not to mention all of the redesign work that taken place at Shaughnessy over the years.) Consider that Mr. Macan’s original design was loosely based on the concept behind Augusta National – plenty of short grass presenting optional routes of play to (firm) challenging greens; with open views across the property and of the adjacent Fraser River. The place might even be unrecognizable to Mr. Macan this week.

  • Jeff,
    It is safe to say that all the old golf course architects of yesteryear would be livid with how the game has changed based on how golf equipment has impacted golfers and how they play their designed courses and Augusta National can lead the charge.
    Given the massive distances the golf ball travels today, (because of the out of control equipment regulations) the skill/art of “driving the ball” has become obsolete in the game including on the PGA Tour. Yes, it can be argued that 6-inch rough is too punishing for those who cannot find the fairway and have no options other than to chip out to the fairway. But at the same time it, whatever happened to rewarding those who are skilled to put their tee-shots in the fairway? On the odd occasion it’s perfectly fine to put a huge demand on PGA Tour players to hit the fairway and punish those who don’t!
    The tournament’s philosophy, as a national championship, is to make it difficult for every player in the field including the champion. The year’s RBC Canadian Open at Shaughnessy is more like a US Open than the playability they had at Congressional last month.

  • I agree with Zokol about our Open as we as Canadians can set up the course whatever seems competitive at the time. I really tired of comparing to the Americans or Brits as both countries set up their Opens totally different. I wish we invited players from around the world to play our different courses across our country and not always in Ontario, golf is played every where in Canada.There was a great statement in the movie about Bobby Jones and was said by O. B. Keeler and he said money will be the death of tournament golf. Guess what our Open has become so routine stuck in the PGA schedule that it has become a joke. Our Open should be run and sanctioned by the RCGA, not the PGA or anyone else, and changed to a September date when the weather can be a factor . We have to advertise world wide about our Open and stop being just another stop on the american tour. Sadly it is all about money , tradition and pride is all but gone as well as the skill it seems this year. Wait till next year , the players will be playing a course with small greens again and tight fairways and who knows maybe rough that is 4 or 5 inches deep. That is our decision to make the courses as challenging as possible, that is Canadian golf and the last thing we want is playing on US big bunkers and knobs and water every where courses. Canadian courses, new and classic are easily the best in the world and we should let the world see the courses for beloved Canadian Open, (not RBC Canadian Open Either)!!!

  • Zoke,

    I know where you’re coming from, of course. But, for me, the presentation of what was once a very distinctive golf course design is more important than making sure someone doesn’t go lower than -10 or whatever the winning score may be. In an ideal world, the pros would come to Shaughnessy and leave thinking, “Man, we rarely see a golf course like that.” Same for spectators and television viewers. That’s not the case this week, but it could be. Frankly, the same ideology applies to Ancaster. But I’m probably getting to philosophical and romantic here 🙂

    • Here is what the pros really thought about Shaughnessy (unfiltered comments)

      “Best course on tour this year”, “toughest course we have played”, …I love this course, the city, the people. We should play the U.S Open here…, “Hope to come back. A great course!”, “Course is perfect”, “Best of the year!”, “Great course. It’s a battle every hole!”, “Best test in Canada by far”, “Fabulous golf course, great shape”, …11th hole is my favorite on tour..(several players said that) “Best track of the year”, “What a treat”, “In my top three of favorite courses”, etc. etc.

  • Jeff Mingay, I agree with you as usual. Small greens, tight, tree lined fairways, and thick rough have become A. V. Macan trademarks even though none of these design features were original to his courses. Certainly a tight challenging driving hole here and there can be of interest to any course, but 18 holes of a 10 yard miss and you are punching out is mundane for both the player and the spectator. The Canadian Open shouldn’t be carbon copy what is seen during regular tour events, or even the US Open. It should display what is great about Canadian golf courses, and I can assure you that it is not the trees or the rough that makes these courses great.

  • Shaughnessy has been set up beautifully as a national championship. If they wanted to embarrass the players, the course would of had baked out greens and over par would of been the winning score. This course set up puts a premium on long and straight drives. If a player can hit fairways, then 65 is possible. If they consistently miss fairways, then bogeys will become a regularity.

    I’m tired of tournaments that identify the hottest putter for the week. Whoever wins the 2011 Canadian Open will be the best ball striker for the week. This is why I believe the course set up is just perfect.

  • Jeff,
    I am with you on that many of these old course have been pulled off track.
    However, PGA Tour pros are leaving Shaughnessy say exactly what you want them to say… they ARE saying “Man, we rarely see a golf course like that.” They don’t see courses like Shaughnessy at all on the PGA Tour anymore. Better Tour players like the demanding aspect because it provides them a competitive advantage that typical PGA Tour events don’t provide. Tough course setup is more about identifying a champion, one that must deal with adversity better than the rest of the field. In 2005, Shaughnessy was voted by the PGA Tour players as their favorite course of the year on the PGA Tour. That is part of the reason why the field was so good this year.

  • Zoke and Mingay: for what it is worth, the rough has been cut a couple of times and is much shorter than it was on Thursday. Hasn’t really changed the scores much though….

  • They cut the rough Friday and some guys siad it actually made it tougher. After the cut, grass blade were able to stand up… and it makes the golf ball drop down to the bottom.

  • The rough made a good course better IMHO. Sure it would have been more playable with shorter rough, but they can get that next week at the TPC Old White or whatever. Great event for Hadwin, Daly and O’Hair, and others.

    Will it ever be possible to limit the range, during the 4 days of play, to pros and their caddies?

  • A couple of quicks points. If Shaughnessy was rated the top course in 05, what does that say about a normal pga tour stop, given that there are likely 15-20 better courses in Canada? Would the average Pga tour course be good enough to crack the top 50-75 in Canada?

    Lastly, I found that the course really differentiated itself from other regular tour stops (which I rarely watch, as they seen repetitive) in terms of set up and I enjoyed seeing clubs being hit other than drivers and wedges on the par 4s.

    London, Ontario

    • Chris:

      You are putting way too much faith in Score Magazine. There aren’t 15-20 better courses in Canada than Shaughnessy.

      Matt Kuchar shot a 64 at Capilano on Tuesday then missed the cut at Shaughnessy. Almost every mag rates Cap in the top 5.

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