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BENNER: Crooked Stick may be too small for today's pro golfers

June 9, 2012

When Pete Dye was envisioning what would become Crooked Stick Golf Club almost 50 years ago, he acquired 420 acres of farmland in southern Hamilton County and set aside 180 acres for the course itself, and the rest for residential development.

But even a visionary like Dye couldn’t see a half-century into the future. If he could, he might have given the course another 50 acres or so because, dang, Crooked Stick has pretty much run out of room to contain the world’s best golfers.

The advanced equipment technology and much greater devotion by players to training, conditioning and nutrition have made golf a much different game than it was back then.

Shoot, it’s even different from the power ball that long shot John Daly brought to Crooked Stick when he captured both the PGA Championship and America’s imagination in 1991.

Daly’s prodigious length off the tee would be viewed as just average today. In 1991, he led the PGA Tour in driving distance with an average of 288 yards. Last year, 105 tour regulars drove the ball on average 290 yards or better. Currently, Masters champ Bubba Watson’s drives average 314-plus yards.

The pros of 2012 are other-worldly to us mere amateurs/hacks. And until you have seen them in person, it is difficult to grasp simply how far they can pound that little white sphere.

Which brings us to the return of the PGA Tour to Crooked Stick for the first time since Daly et al. rolled into Carmel. From Sept. 3-9, local golf fans can view the new generation up close at the BMW Championship, part of the tour’s season-ending Fed Ex Cup playoffs.

Watson—Bubba, not Tom—will likely be among the top 70 to qualify for the event. So will Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson and the rest of the young limberbacks who make such a ridiculously difficult game look so darn easy.

It represents a major coup that the Crooked Stick leadership was able to bring this event—historically known as the prestigious Western Open—to central Indiana, where the populace has long demonstrated a healthy appetite for tournament golf—partly because we have not had a steady diet of it.

And to no surprise, both the Crooked Stick folks and their Western Golf Association counterparts are delighted with the strong response to date both from the necessary corporate support (150 companies have signed on) and fans purchasing daily passes. More than 150,000 spectators are expected for the week of practice and competition. NBC will televise.

The even better news is that proceeds from the tournament ($11 million over its history) go to support the WGA’s Evans Scholars program, which provides college scholarships to young men and women throughout the Midwest. Indiana University and Purdue University are both home to Evans Scholar chapters.

But back to the assault expected to be unleashed on Crooked Stick by the world’s best. In 2009, when Crooked Stick hosted the U.S. Senior Open, the plus-50 set rained birdies and eagles for four days. Fred Funk, then 53 years old, won with a stunning 20-under-par, which remains the lowest score (in relation to par) ever for a USGA championship. On the final Sunday, the Stick—softened by overnight rains—surrendered 25 subpar rounds, including Funk’s closing 65.

For the BMW, another 300 yards will be added, bringing the Stick’s total to 7,550. Tees have been moved back almost into neighboring back yards, the rough is lush, and the greens firm and fast, but it’s unlikely Crooked Stick can be toughened to the point where it can contain the skills and length of today’s players.

“Television does not grasp how extraordinary these athletes are when they hit a golf ball,” the tournament’s volunteer co-chairman, Tom Buck, said at a recent media day gathering.

So look for some low, low numbers to be posted.

That’s good news for the fans, of course. Eagles and birdies and the resulting roars from the galleries make for an electric atmosphere. The news is probably not as good for the Crooked Stick leadership, which would like to get the course into the rotation for a major championship—a U.S. Open or another PGA Championship—where the game’s elite are expected to be subjected to the ultimate test.

In any case, the Crooked Stick members and their volunteer leadership deserve sincere appreciation for delivering championship golf back to central Indiana, along with the $30 million in economic impact it is expected to deliver.

One thing is certain: Our super year didn’t end in February.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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