To the grass, Tiger Woods was just another chop.
It should have been an ideal meeting, Woods, the history seeker, and Baltusrol, the 110-year-old host of the PGA Championship, with its gracious porticos and renowned past. The set-up appeared perfect for him, a gargantuan par-70 at 7,392 yards, with fairways disappearing into distant prairies, and greens barely discernable in far-off meadows, if you squinted.
But the best defense for a grand old golf course isn't just length. Baltusrol is also tight. Bluegrass rough borders the fairways, some of which are just 25 yards wide. If Baltusrol is long and illustrious, it is also claustrophobic and clutching. When Woods stood ankle deep in the damp, coiling grass, his ball was invisible, so was the personalized logo on his hat, so was the clubface, and so was his talent. Goodbye, history. He might as well have been from Bayonne.
It was Woods's worst score relative to par in the first round of a major, a 5-over 75 that included four bogeys and a double bogey, and left him eight strokes off the lead. Woods came here on a white-hot run, winner of the Masters and British Open and having finished no worse than third in nine of 15 events he has entered this season, a stunning rate of success in a game that doesn't lend itself to mathematical consistency. He seemed ready to butcher Baltusrol. Instead, Baltusrol butchered him. And you had to ask, how, and why? What happened?
What happened was that Woods finally met a golf course with some protections. Woods loves a wide-open runway, and he clearly has his favorite courses: Six of his 10 professional major championships have come at just two venues. He has won four times at Augusta National, and twice in the British Open at St. Andrews. While he's certainly capable of winning on tighter layouts, he needs to strike the ball well from the tee in order to do so. And he did not do that here in Thursday's opening round, hitting just six of 14 fairways. Woods had predicted trouble if he missed the fairways, and he was clairvoyant.
"It's going to be tough," he said. "It's one of those things where you either hit it down the middle or you bomb it in the gallery. I don't recommend hitting it in the gallery all the time, but it's a lot better than hitting that bluegrass."
Woods's struggle at Baltusrol begs a question, and it's a question that governing bodies of golf have avoided thus far, but which they are going to have to face head on at some point soon. How long can they continue to protect golf courses against burgeoning technology? It's an issue that Woods has helped to force, with his length and ability to make a world-class course look like miniature golf.
More and more, courses are gimmicked-up in an attempt to preserve par and control scoring. Even Augusta National is adding 155 yards to its length. Some courses, according to Woods, have become so tricked up that they resemble "elephant burial grounds." But at a certain point, we are going to run out of ways to manipulate the acreage. What then? How much longer and tighter can courses become without completely distorting them, and the basic values of golf?
The most sensible solution is to impose limits on technology, or to use a softer covered, standardized ball that won't travel as far. So far, the ruling bodies have declined to look at such solutions, because it would mean two different standards. The equipment companies say they don't want pros playing one game, and amateurs playing another. But the reality is that we're already doing that now. How many amateurs can play a 650-yard par 5? When we gin up a tournament venue so dramatically, make it as brutal as it can be for one week, we create another standard. Isn't it easier to control the balls and clubs, than to stretch courses or distort them beyond recognition, until virtually half the field is eliminated on the first tee?
Baltusrol is playing fairly -- barely. Woods's opening round was the fault of his own errant swings. But we're seeing a suggestion here of what happens when the landscape is continually manipulated. Make a course too long, and you eliminate shorter ball strikers. Make it too narrow, and it becomes leveling and the ability of a Woods is totally negated. Either way, it neutralizes skill level -- which is exactly the opposite of what tournament golf should do.
Thursday, if you hit in the rough, you were hacking, no matter who you were. The rough treated everyone the same, long and short hitters alike. Justin Leonard found the long grass on six occasions, "and the furthest I could hit it [out] was 120 yards." On the 17th, which is spectacularly and perhaps even absurdly long at 650 yards, Leonard only made a par by holing out a sand shot from a bunker 40 yards from the cup. The hole played so long that he lost count of his shots.
"I wasn't even sure what I made when I hit it out of the bunker," he said. "I'm still not sure if it ended up a 5."
The rough was so equalizing that it rendered Baltusrol's much-discussed length almost irrelevant. The leader board was studded with the names of short, accurate hitters such as Leonard and Ben Curtis, while Woods was absent. There was even a faint danger that Woods could miss the cut. But knowing Woods, he will probably come back with a 67 or better Friday, and bail himself out. And the severe rough will make it difficult for anyone to run away with a low score.
"The guys are not going to go out there and shoot 63s every day," Woods said. "I've got to stay patient and build on it each and every day and just kind of make sure I keep chipping away towards under par for the tournament."
Woods is counting on Baltusrol's length and severity to keep him in the tournament. He's also counting on Baltusrol to highlight his skill, not obscure it.