Interview: Mike Clayton bemoans US tour’s domination

Mike Clayton has strong views on the future of the game, and is no respecter of reputation, not even icons Palmer and Nicklaus. Picture: Getty

Mike Clayton has strong views on the future of the game, and is no respecter of reputation, not even icons Palmer and Nicklaus. Picture: Getty

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Walking alongside Mike Clayton on any golf course has always been an interesting and educational experience. Just the other day, while watching the opening round of the British Masters, the former European Tour player who is now one of the game’s most respected course architects (he is one fourth of the Melbourne-based Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking & Mead) “re-designed” every hole on the front nine of the Marquess Course at Woburn.

Walking alongside Mike Clayton on any golf course has always been an interesting and educational experience. Just the other day, while watching the opening round of the British Masters, the former European Tour player who is now one of the game’s most respected course architects (he is one fourth of the Melbourne-based Ogilvy, Clayton, Cocking & Mead) “re-designed” every hole on the front nine of the Marquess Course at Woburn.

On the first, Clayton wondered aloud why the fairway bunker on the left side has a large tree right in front of it, blocking the route to the green. The second has bunkers on the outside of the right-to-left dogleg steering the player away from what should be a “safe” and so less advantageous spot. And any incentive to find what should be a more attractive position down the left side has been all but eliminated. Why? Well, there is another big tree in the way.

And so it went on, one irrefutable point after another, all delivered with a shake of the head at the mysterious lack of logical thinking that has led to such obvious flaws. He’s never been short of opinions or incidents, of course. During his many years on tour – he won nine times around the world – this 58-year-old Australian accumulated a deserved reputation for mild eccentricity. Google “golfer falls on ball” to see one of the more hilarious moments in the history of the professional game. Do it even if you have viewed the 25-second clip many times. It’s still funny.

There’s more to Clayton than a comedy routine though. Much more. This is a man who routinely spouts commonsense solutions for what ails golf in the 21st century. Let’s start with the not necessarily desirable domination of America’s PGA Tour.

“Long-term, as much as we can, we have to stop Rory and all the rest going to the States,” says Clayton. “We have to create a great tour where they play for a lot of money on great courses. That’s key. The aim has to be – in 20 years’ time – to drive America into isolation and irrelevance.

“That would be my dream for the professional game. Golf played around the world has to be more interesting, going to different courses and experiencing different cultures. Australia has a role to play in this. We need a world tour more than a world tour needs Australia. But we do have some great courses. We have some wonderful players. Our weather is nice too.”

Courses good and bad are Clayton’s favourite topic of conversation.

“Royal Melbourne is our best course,” he claims. “It’s all about the creation of angles for the approach shots. You have to make decisions on the tee. Which is what makes the Old Course at St Andrews the most interesting 18 holes in the game. You can play any kind of shot there. It is the most democratic course on the planet. You can putt from 150 yards. You can hit a wedge. You can hit a 3-iron. The same is true at Royal Melbourne.”

None of the above sounds too much like a lot of what we are forced to watch these days on every circuit around the globe, but particularly in the United States. Yes, the PGA Tour does very well financially. But the players make lots of money playing the same old boring golf courses.

“How golf should be was highlighted by how Charley Hull and Lydia Ko played the 18th hole at Royal Melbourne in last year’s Australian Women’s Open,” says Clayton. “Charley stood on the tee scared of pulling her drive to the left. So she hit a 3-wood. Lydia was braver and smashed her drive across the corner of the dogleg.

“The pin was on the front-right of the green. Charley had a sloping lie on the fairway. She hit a 5-iron from a spot where she couldn’t stop the ball near the flag and finished 60 feet left of the hole. Lydia, with a perfect lie and the ideal angle, left her approach 15 feet under the hole. Charley three-putted and Lydia made an easy four.

“Charley came off complaining that she didn’t putt very well. But her mistake was made on the tee. Before she hit her second shot, how she would play the hole was obvious. She hit that approach to the only place she could – or was allowed – to go. Too much of professional golf is nothing like that. The greens are soft and the ball doesn’t bounce or roll much. It’s ‘splat’ golf.”

It is hard, if not impossible, to argue with Clayton’s assertions. Great courses create the perception that an event is important. A tournament on an average course gives off an average vibe. Which is the problem with a lot of pro golf. But when they go to Augusta or St Andrews you get special events – because they are special courses.

“Sadly, so many of the truly great courses are now ‘too short’ for the modern tour pro,” says Clayton. “Which brings us to the disaster of the golf ball. Everyone knows how far it goes is ridiculous, apart from those with the power to change it.

“The equipment companies are like spoiled kids with no boundaries. But when kids push against their parents, the parents need to push back. In golf, the parents (the R&A and the USGA) aren’t pushing back. Jack Nicklaus is pushing but no one is listening. Nick Price pushes back too. So does Peter Thomson. And Tom Weiskopf. But no one listens. They’re just a bunch of old farts; what do they know?”

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Clayton sees hope in some of recent additions to golf’s worldwide portfolio of courses.

“There has been a re-birth of great architecture, started by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw,” he says. “Sandhills in Nebraska is the best course built anywhere since Augusta National. And now we’ve got places like Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm in Tasmania, Castle Stuart in the Scottish Highlands and Cabot Links in Nova Scotia. All are terrific courses built in remote locations.

“There is an irony here too though. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer built their careers around the biggest events, the four major championships. But when they started building courses they teed-up every week and thought the Open was no more significant than the Quad Cities Open. They built wherever they went, wherever there was money, in complete contrast to how they behaved during their playing careers.

“Crenshaw and Coore took the opposite tack. They have built the equivalent of major championships. In 100 years time, history will remember what they built far more than anything Jack or Arnie have created. Bill and Ben refused to become journeyman architects, taking money to build anywhere. If the land wasn’t up to their standard, they politely declined.”

Which is what the R&A and USGA should have done long ago, when the equipment companies presented for inspection their shiny new turbo-charged balls and drivers.

If only the game’s rules-makers had been strong enough to say: “Thanks but no thanks.” Oh well.

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