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Pinning blame on pin placement can be tricky

Fact: Bad hole locations, or pin placements, hurt the business of a golf course.

They slow down play and frustrate golfers.

The first impact reduces the number of rounds a course can accommodate in a day, and the second is the kind of thing that leads golfers to look elsewhere.

Myth: The golf course superintendent is always to blame.

OK, so he or she may be at fault now and then, but when it comes to deciding where to put a target on a putting green, there's more to it than simply finding a flat spot.

"Cutting the actual hole is the easy part. All the work is in calculating the best place for it on any given day," said Kevin Thompkins, golf course superintendent at True Blue Golf Club.

The point is that no superintendent sets out to make a golfer's task inordinately difficult, unless it's a "tough day" at a private club perhaps, or a championship like the U.S. Open.

The range of factors and variables that play into deciding where to put a hole is as long as the flagstick itself.

Typically superintendents aim to provide an even spread of front, middle and back hole locations over the golf course, as well left, center and right.

They also try to provide an equitable mix of locations when it comes to degree of difficulty so that some holes are easy to get to, some a little more challenging and the rest just plain tough.

But no two golf courses are the same, thankfully, and so the application of those goals is no cookie-cutter process.

A superintendent considers the difficulty of the hole from tee to green as well.

"You don't want too many tough pin placements on tough holes," Thompkins said.

In fact, no one course is the same all year round so an area on a green that is usable for a hole location in the summer may not be in the dead of winter, or vice-versa.

Thompkins has bermudagrass greens at True Blue that can become faster in winter, and quicker green speeds exaggerate the influence of any undulations in the terrain.

"On any green surface, whether its bermudagrass or bentgrass, as they get faster, the smaller the area is that you have to put pins," he said.

The relative health of the turf is also a major consideration.

Superintendents are always going to strive to steer player traffic away from stressed turf.

Consider last summer when bentgrass greens were taking a pounding from the heat and humidity.

The weather was so punishing that many superintendents were virtually powerless as their plants wilted and root systems boiled and died.

For many, their options for pin placements on certain holes became very limited, which in turn meant they were sometimes forced toward more marginal pin locations to reduce the load on the rest of the green.

By contrast, at this time of year superintendents with ultradwarf bermudagrass greens can struggle with lack of sunlight and too much shade on some areas.

Because they need to divert further stress under thousands of footsteps away from those areas, the options shrink again.

True Blue, like many courses, has some holes where there is limited access to the green.

This concentrates foot traffic that effectively hardens the surface so you have an area that doesn't receive incoming shots consistently with the rest of the green or the other greens.

What might look like usable space to the uninitiated is anything but.

Sometimes it's not even the golf course superintendent who sets the hole location.

At some courses the golf professional makes the call, particularly for tournaments or significant events.

Other times it may be officials from the tournament organizing body, such as the United States Golf Association with the U.S. Open.

And even that august body with all its experience and expertise has been known to get it wrong from time to time.

Thompkins saved one host body some headaches the other year when he demonstrated why their preferred hole location was less than ideal.

"I dropped a ball straight onto the green where they wanted the hole and it rolled about 5 feet away," he said.

No serious golfer wants to putt on dead flat greens that test nothing but your aim.

Undulating greens with some testing hole locations give golfers a chance to play exciting shots that bring their eye, their imagination and their nerve into play as well.

"It's like pretty well everything we do as superintendents in that it's really a matter of judgment," Thompkins said.

"There is no formula you can rely on because the golf course is a living thing that changes from day to day."