Insight from Andrew Thomson's Presidents Cup Diary

Andrew Thomson is the author of Bridge to the Gods: Tales from Kyushu. That very book happens to be sitting beside my computer as I write this. I’m bringing it to read this weekend when I’ll be on a small island in the Andaman Sea.

Thomson also gets around a bit. I’m following the news this week from the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club. Yesterday at the captains’ press conference I heard Thomson—he said he was from Golf Digest Japan—ask about the physics of ball reaction on the greens (listen to his question, and the full answer, at the 10:50 mark of this video). Ernie Els replied that “There are certain flags and certain conditions where the flag is a destination, not quite a target.” The greens and the aprons at Royal Melbourne are notoriously firm.

I found out today that Thomson is also writing a Presidents Cup Diary. I was fascinated to hear his thoughts about the course and about the upcoming competition. Today he wrote about course preparations for this event, among other topics. With his permission, what follows is an extended excerpt from today’s entry.

From Andrew Thomson’s Presidents Cup Diary

Preparing and presenting a golf course for a globally significant tournament is no easy task. It takes more than just a few months to do this, and Richard Forsyth has lived up to his reputation as Australia’s premier master of turf care. We members of Royal Melbourne, and those other Melbourne golfers who know and love the course, are delighted with what Richard has given us this week. But what of those who are seeing it for the first time? What do they think?

Andrew McDaniel grew up in Alabama. These days he serves as the only foreign golf course superintendent in Japan, where he looks after Keya Golf Club near Fukuoka, a ten-minute drive from your diarist’s house. From Thursday last week he joined Richard Forsyth’s team to help prepare the Composite Course for the Presidents Cup. In past years Andrew has done the same thing for the Ryder Cup and the U.S. Open. He knows the best courses in the United States.

“It’s amazing,” he says in his lovely Alabama drawl. “The way the turf is cut so short all around, even around the tees and between the greens and the next tee. That’s impressive. We never do that in Japan.”

What is it in particular about this golf course that catches your imagination, I asked him.

“As an American superintendent working in Japan for the past 18 years, and virtually my entire professional career, it’s been somewhat of a dream to come and see Royal Melbourne. During our orientation Richard was quick to let us know that some things on the course might look out of place, but that’s how he likes it. He only strives for perfectly manicured areas where it matters. After going to the course to see it in person it was quite overwhelming. Tees, fairways, approaches, and greens are perfect. The rough as Richard says, it is what it is. And the bunkers - I’m not sure how to describe the bunkers. They’re very natural, intimidating, and the most beautiful piece of artwork you can find on a golf course anywhere in the world.”

As a superintendent yourself, what strikes you about the way the course is prepared?

“The water management of the turf is very precise, with only hand watering to the surfaces that need it to ensure they keep the firmness they are looking for. The course being in the sand belt, everything under the turf is sand, and the bunkers are basically dug out and it’s the natural sand which makes the bunkers. Water management is also very carefully done to the bunkers to ensure they stay firm as well, so that no balls bury in the soft sand.”

So says the professional man of the turf.

Watching the practice out there today it struck me that a Presidents Cup played on Royal Melbourne Golf Club’s Composite Course is the equivalent of an Open, a Masters, or a U.S. Open in the quality of what we will see. The course and the players hardly come better any day or anywhere else. And among the two teams there are some fascinating characters.

For those with an interest in American history, the Civil War occupies a special place in the spectrum of what America has endured since its founding. While living in Washington DC for a few years from 2001, I used to visit various Civil War battlefields - Gettysburg and Antietam especially - and read all I could about the key participants: Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and President Abraham Lincoln. I loved poring over those sepia-coloured photographs of the soldiers, gazing at the exhausted, bearded men, soldiers of either the Confederacy or the Union, and seeing reflected in their weary expressions evidence of what they suffered.

Whenever I see Dustin Johnson’s face up close it reminds me of those sepia photographs. His face always seems calm, sometimes weary, his eyes deep-set and his beard ever present. Watching him this morning practise putting from the back of the 4th green (6th West), he experimented with various angles, then began putting off the green and using the slope of the right apron to roll his ball down to the pin position marked with a tee peg. It was sublime skill on display, and the gallery on the slope above the green loved it. Gary Woodland tried the same but failed, much to everyone’s amusement. To conquer these greens, I told myself, you have to have been through Antietam or Gettysburg to quell your fears and learn to coolly fire back at the enemy while under bombardment.

“My God, this is a monster,” one of the spectators remarked to his friend.

No, I thought to myself. To call this golf course a monster is incorrect. Monsters have no subtlety. They roar and breathe fire, but they don’t bring on surprises. This course is simply an extraordinary and beautiful creature that can suddenly confound even the best players. Does Johnson have its measure? We shall see.

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