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Going against the grain sometimes nature of the game

If you've ever watched a PGA Tour event on television you've heard Johnny Miller griping about the grain on a putting green.

If you've ever known a golf course superintendent, you've heard them gripe about Johnny Miller griping about the grain.

It's not that grain - or the tendency of a grass to run in a certain direction - doesn't exist.

It most certainly does on bermudagrass greens with their lateral growing habits and desire to follow the sun.

But on bentgrass greens, which provide the stage for about half of all PGA Tour events, the finer-bladed grass and especially the newer varieties grow pretty much straight up.

And when bentgrass is mowed to an eighth of an inch or even lower, it doesn't deflect far even when it is laid over, say by water flow, so the presence of any grain is pretty well imperceptible.

More importantly for the caliber of golf played by 99 percent of the population, whatever grain there may be in that circumstance is an absolute nonfactor.

Of course the merest fractions of an inch do matter in the professional game and mowing heights were a lot higher when Johnny Miller won his U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont in 1973.

But today, when you and I line up a putt on a bentgrass green our concerns should be dominated by the amount of slope and how far we are from the hole.

As mentioned earlier, though, bermudagrass greens can be grainy and affect your ball roll depending on which way the turf is directed.

If the leaf blades and stolons, which are the stemlike extensions that leaves protrude from, are pointing away from you there is less resistance, making for a faster putt.

Your ball will roll farther.

If they are directed toward you, the tips can serve as tiny speed bumps, making your putt slower and more susceptible to any break.

Break can be exaggerated even further if the grass is pointing in the same direction as the slope.

Conversely, grass leaning into the slope will tend to counter the break.

Ironically, one of the attributes of the new bermudagrass varieties that dress the majority of putting greens along the Grand Strand today is also one of their chief drawbacks.

The abundance of plant material they produce above ground, which makes for a tighter, denser surface, also generates a lot more grain than the older varieties now so out of vogue.

The offset is that with more plant material golf course superintendents can be more aggressive in their grooming and maintenance to minimize that grain.

Accordingly, the majority of golfers on the PGA Tour these days prefer bermudagrass greens.

They stand up better to punishment - like the beating from 140-plus golfers and caddies day after day - and when well-maintained, can putt sweetly like the best bentgrass.

That dense turf canopy is also behind a new trend that is changing the face of winter golf at Myrtle Beach.

For years, the vast majority of courses overseeded their bermudagrass greens in the fall with poa trivialis that would grow and provide color during the cooler months.

They did this because the older bermudagrass varieties grew most of their plant material below the surface.

So once the grass stopped growing and fell dormant in winter, whatever plant material was left on top soon wore out or thinned to a point where putting became a bumpy, bumpy ride until spring.

But now with so much more turf heading into winter, ultradwarf bermudagrass greens can provide high quality putting surfaces through to warm-up.

Then when the warmer weather does return, they green up so much quicker than overseeded greens, where the rising bermudagrass has to compete with the overseeded grass for sunlight and nutrients.

Many superintendents are using pigments to give the dormant putting surfaces color so the golfer ends up with the best of both worlds.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that putting greens on any given course in Myrtle Beach - or anywhere for that matter - are uniform across that particular property.

Growing conditions can vary so much from one hole to the next, and sometimes even on a single hole, that the golfer does need to pay attention.

Whether you are at TPC Sawgrass or TPC Myrtle Beach, factors such as shade or access to wind can mean that two greens that putted at the same speed at 9 a.m. might play significantly differently than each other by 3 p.m.

Part of the challenge of the game is learning to identify the conditions that contribute to those discrepancies and part of the skill is playing to them.

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