The Fescue Wars

Nearly every golf course has a design feature that causes a stir among its members. All of the various obstacles that golf is supposed to present are subject to scrutiny and criticism from the legion of golfing “experts” that stride the fairways and greens across America.  Sometimes it would seem that we are a nation of agronomists, there being no shortage of those golfers who feel perfectly comfortable pontificating on the benefits of Kentucky rye grass, the need for more silica based sand, or the need to lower the cutting blades one more 16th of an inch.

Now I have often said that fast cars, young girls, and golf courses are the bane of old men because they feel compelled to talk like experts about each when, in fact, they don’t know their anus from their ulna about any of them. I once told my wife that I was thinking about getting a Porsche. She snickered and said, “You’ll look like a fool and an old fool at that.” See ya later, Boxster.  And if I need to tell you how young women can turn the wisest, most accomplished men into dithering morons, then you suffer from low T and this story is irrelevant. 

Ah, but golf courses, which are the playpens of older men in this country are filled with more expertise than Lehman Brothers. Oops!  Bad analogy. What I mean to say is that when more than five golfers gather to discuss the architecture and design of their local track, you frequently have the makings of a Fool’s Convention. 

Opinions about golf course design are like … let me see … what does everybody have … well, never mind, you get the point.  If its not sand trap placement or height of the rough, it’s the speed of the greens that golfers always claim they want at rocket-ship speeds then, of course, squeal like a sty of future bacon that the greens are unfair.  This is generally after their fourth 3-jack of the round.

At Great Neck CC it’s all about the fescue and there is nary a soul who doesn’t have a strong opinion on the subject. When nationally known architect Mark Mungeam did his redesign of GNCC nine years ago he included fescue as an integral part of the design, a feature to be highlighted and exploited to bring character to an old course that had grown tired and was in dire need of a facelift.  Mungeam had teamed with Geoffrey Cornish and is one of America’s most reputable golf architects, having done the redesign of Olympia Fields in Chicago in preparation for the 2003 U.S. Open.  Mungeam knew that the introduction of the high and sometimes dense grass would be controversial but thought it would work itself out over a period of time as members became accustomed to it and the tweaks would be somewhat minor. 

It didn’t happen that way and the Fescue Wars broke out with strong opinions on both sides from the most reactionary, “cut it all down” to a more moderate stance of “a few areas need to be trimmed” to the very radical, “add some more.”  Only a cynic would suggest that the first group is comprised largely of wayward swingers who find themselves knee-high in tall grass on a regular basis and those in group three are those who hit it short and straight and irritate everyone else by saying that the solution is “don’t hit it there.”

This is when the agronomists make their case. It isn’t fescue they say. Fescue is thin and wispy and you can see your ball in it and advance it. This stuff is hay, too thick, too penal. Well, since fescue is defined as a genus of about 300 species of perennial tufted grasses, and since it generally mixes with other indigenous grasses, it is hard to say what is fescue and what is not.  It also misses the point.

It was introduced to GNCC to provide aesthetics and added challenge to a course that had little of the former and a diminished capacity of the latter.  In my mind it has accomplished exactly that.  GNCC was once a farm and when first converted to a golf course, it still looked like a farm.  It now stands up to any golf course you may want to play in terms of aesthetic appeal and daunting challenge.  If you need corroboration, ask the CTPGA pros who played in the Senior Pro-Am last Monday.  It was a stern test of shot-making, accuracy, and course management.  The scores reflected that as they were higher than normal. What did the pros say about it? They loved it and said so in no uncertain terms

Me? I love it and not just because I’m a straight knocker who rarely visits Fescueland. And I must admit I take a certain perverse pleasure, particularly when Wayne crushes it 50 yards past me only to find the high stuff then bleats, “this stuff is unfair.”  And do I enjoy jabbing him with “of course it’s fair; it applies equally to everybody?” Of course I do. But that says more about me and Wayne than it does about fescue. And I do understand that if a golf course is too penal, it can suck the joy of the game right out of the players and we do need to understand that GNCC should be a source of enjoyment for all its members.

So how do we balance aesthetics and rigor on any golf course, be it GNCC or your own little slice (no pun intended) of the golf kingdom?  I think there are two things that we can do. We can educate the golf population on how to play a demanding course filled with challenge and we can take the advice of GNCC Head Pro Kevin Shea and Play It Forward, using tees that are more appropriate to the skills of each golfer.

It is important, I think, to teach that golf IS a game of challenges, as much a mental challenge as it is physical. Golf is a game of obstacles and impediments and learning how to play around, over, and through those obstacles is what truly makes the game fun.  Most novices are in love with grip it and rip it but that really is only a short step from the driving range. The more you accept that the obstacles are there to present you with a puzzle to be solved, the more you will begin to enjoy golf.  It will allow you to see what the designer had in mind; it will allow you develop a game that has capacity to solve the puzzle that is the course. You will learn to suppress ego for the sake of efficiency and ultimately, you will fall in love with the challenge of golf. 

The 13th hole at GNCC is a great par four, a 465-yd dog-leg right from the back tees and 420 yards from the blue tees and 395 yards from the white tees. It is a hole filled with challenges and obstacles, not all of them based on length. There is OB right and fescue left. Bunkers challenge all golfers from each set of tees and a greenside bunker complex puts approach shots in peril. 

As if that weren’t enough, there are fescue mounds along the right side that swallow golf balls whole.  This hole is hard … real hard.  But I love it. Put me and Rob Renehan on the back tee and we both have to think our way through the hole even though Rob is 60 yards longer than I am.  I play it as a par 5, playing left off the tee where I can avoid fescue and then lay up to a good distance for a third shot hoping to one putt for a par.  I make more fours playing for five and I make more doubles playing for four.  Rob’s challenge is different from mine but no less daunting. The fescue left is in play for him and the landing area narrow.  Put us on the Blue tees and the tables are turned.  Rob has to consider a different club than driver off the tee and I have a new set of challenges that give more risk but greater reward.  Rob still isn’t sure how to play from the Blues and I have no clue how to play from the White tees.  And that’s the beauty of it.  Rob and I have played this hole a thousand times and we still have to mull over the many options and challenges it presents. 

And that’s why I love it.  I have hit it the fescue before and I will again because I will make mental and physical mistakes that every golfer does.  But in the long run, I am interested in solving the puzzle that any course presents because it shows me more about what I can learn about the course and myself.

Jim O’Neill is a member at Great Neck CC.

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