If you’re tossing out stereotypes about U.S. Open conditions, narrow fairways and thick rough probably come to mind first. But increasingly slick and challenging greens throughout the weekend are another constant—especially given the USGA’s recent issues with keeping courses under control.
Given the weekend forecast—clear and cool—and the moisture-removing SubAir systems Pebble Beach has under every green, the USGA can create as much angst on the putting surfaces as they choose. And therein lies the challenge for both the tournament organizers and players. How do you make the course both brutally tough and fair, and how do you adapt to changing conditions over the week? First-round leader Justin Rose played late in the day on Thursday, and recorded a microscopic 22 putts in calm conditions and on close-to-perfect green surfaces. When he came back to play early Friday, the greens appeared appreciably more firm and quick.
“When you look at it from the USGA’s perspective, they have to come up with a way for the course to be a fair challenge for groups that play both in the morning and the afternoon,” says PGA Tour putting guru Todd Sones. “And that’s where the problems have come the last few years. The course was on the edge in the morning, and went over it by the time the latter part of the field had to play.”
Perfect (and predictable) weather seems to have alleviated some concerns, but players will still have to adapt to what will probably be tougher conditions as it stays dry and the wind picks up as anticipated. “That’s where the best putters become chameleons,” says Sones, whose new putting book was released this week. “You can’t be the player who says, I’m strictly an aggressive putter or I only die it in the hole. You have to read the changing conditions both before you play and as the round goes on and adapt to what you see.”
As greens firm up from having less moisture, the ball sits more on top of the surface. In turn, it rolls with less resistance, which means it takes less effort to make the ball go a given distance. That’s the “faster” part of the equation—but there’s more to the story, says Sones. “When there’s less resistance, it also means the ball will break much more than it would under ‘normal’ conditions,” he says. “So you’re hitting putts with smaller swings, the ball is trickling toward the hole, and it will tend to break much more than if you were playing putts with more speed. It’s been fascinating to watch the television coverage and see the difference between the ‘firm’ and ‘fast’ predicted lines on the greens, and how different players can see putts very differently.”
Here’s how you can steal the techniques the tour players are using at Pebble for your own Member-Guest or club championship season this summer: “You can do the same things at your course when you know the conditions are going to be extra tough,” says Sones, who runs his Scoring Zone schools outside Chicago. “Before you play, step off some really long putts—15 full steps, which is at least 45 feet—and make sure they have some break. Practice your speed and break recognition on those to get your mind tuned to what it will need to be doing when you get on the real course.”
Ideally, the practice green will have similar conditions as the real greens, but you can’t count on that to be the case. “That’s where being a chameleon comes in,” says Sones. “Good putting is about mental toughness, and the willingness to shrug off a poor lag putt early in a round and use the experience as preparation for what will be coming on the next hole. If you let yourself spiral to the negative, you won’t putt with any confidence—and it will infiltrate the rest of your game.”