Feature Interview with Michael Breed
How important is the understanding of golf course architecture in helping golfers to score better?
For the elite player it’s incredibly valuable, probably a seven or eight on the scale of 10. I don’t know that it has much value for the beginner to understand what Travis or Tillinghast or another architect was trying to do. They are challenged enough by just hitting the golf ball.
The good player will understand the mindset of the architect and what the architect is challenging him to do. He will understand what the architect has scripted and that will help him score better and enjoy the game more. This is especially true for architects from years ago because they more consistently used the land as it existed with less artificial contrivance.
You are based in New York but travel quite a bit, especially to Florida. Do you make modifications to your club set-up for different climates and grasses? For instance would you use a 64° wedge if you were headed to Winged Foot?
No, I tend not to do that. Today’s conditions are relatively similar and the only thing that I see that would have much effect on whether I might choose a certain club is the type of sand used in the bunkers. Occasionally, I might change my equipment depending on a particular course I’m playing. I might choose between a five wood or a two iron if I was trying to flight the ball a bit higher or lower, if the greens were especially firm or the rough thick.
What mistakes do most players make when assembling their bag of clubs?
They don’t gap their wedges properly. I am amazed that players don’t even know how far they hit their wedges. For me the whole game is wedges. For a great player wedges are crucial and for an average player wedges are even more important in lowering a handicap. Additionally, I don’t believe that players replace their wedges often enough. If you’re playing 40 rounds of golf every year you should be replacing your lob wedge yearly and your sand wedge every other year. The wear of the grooves has a big effect on spin which affects trajectory and therefore distance and proximity to the hole.
What have been your favorite setups for recent golf championships?
I’ll talk about major championships and of those four setups, I favor the PGA Championship. Augusta National tends to be similar every year, the Open Championship’s playability is really based on weather and therefore uncertain. So it comes down to the U.S. Open and the PGA. I am not a fan of growing thick rough and taking away imaginative play, so for me it’s the PGA setup.
What’s your favorite course on the PGA Tour?
Pebble Beach. In that great setting there’s a terrific mixture of holes – long/short; doglegs/straight and some of the best short par 4s in golf. I especially like the 11th hole with it’s angled green and sloped putting surface. I’m a big fan of Pebble’s small, sloping greens that create a variety of chips and pitches.
There is increasing disconnect between how far professionals hit the golf ball and the average player. Pro tournaments are littered with 400+ yard drives. Is that good for the game?
It’s great for the game. Can the average person dunk a basketball, hit 500 foot home runs, throw 90 mph fastballs or kick a football 80 yards? Why should we be surprised that the very best golfers hit the ball so far? Besides, the average PGA tour player is hitting just over 60% of the greens. The amateur doesn’t hit 30% of the greens.
How many of your students tell you that they want to hit it farther?
I would say probably 50% of my students want to hit it farther and the other 50% want to be more consistent. I tell my students that to hit it farther they have to have an efficient swing and understand how to generate club head speed and the importance of the club face in the swing. I explain to them how the clubface will affect their ability to hit the ball farther and then show them how using the ground properly and using their body properly can increase club head speed.
What are your thoughts on Brandel Chamblee’s instructional book?
I admire Brandel for the work that he does, for his research, his thoughtfulness and how he goes about his job. Brandel’s is a book that is clearly well-constructed and by an individual that has great respect for the game of golf but I categorically disagree with the prime premise he makes on page 95. I think he took an unfair shot at golf instruction in general and I take great offense at his notion that instructors have single-handedly destroyed anybody. It can be better argued that instructors have assisted most people and that the players in the game of golf today have never been better.
Any quick on course fixes for that bad day when things are just not going well?
People should look at their pre-swing as opposed to trying to change their action. For instance if you’re bent over too much you’re unable to turn properly. I would encourage people to develop good set-ups and pre-swing routines. When things are going sideways – check them.
Based on personal experience you are a superb putter and enjoy challenging putting surfaces. What are some of your favorite sets of greens in the world of golf?
I have spent a lot of time at Augusta National and I very much love those greens. I’m very fond of the greens at Winged Foot and Cypress Point. One of my very favorite individual greens is the ninth at Fishers Island. I think that it’s perfect for that hole’s length. It’s multi-leveled and severely sloped and it’s skyline nature makes judging the distance difficult.
Winged Foot probably has the best set of green complexes to grow-up on. You can’t help but have a good short game if you spent your formative years there. The combinations of slope, speed, and elevation are superb and to be effective you must learn to produce spin from a variety of lies.
This is Masters month so let’s talk about Augusta National. What in your opinion would be the ideal green speeds at Augusta National?
11-12 would highlight the intricacies of those surfaces. You have to have enough speed for the slopes to be potentially advantageous and penal. The greens must be fast enough to move the ball but not so fast that you don’t have a chance.
In conversation, you selected Augusta National as the ideal course to play with a scratch player, a 7 handicapper, 17 handicapper and 27 handicapper but you specifically mentioned the 1989 edition; please explain.
The beauty of a great design is that it’s challenging and playable for all level of golfers but the changes at Augusta since 1989 have unfortunately altered Alister MacKenzie’s philosophical intent. Added trees and a first cut of rough have removed width. For example, previously you could play the ninth hole down the left side to shorten your approach but it was a difficult angle. Hogan played to a shelf out right so that he could approach down the long dimension of the green. These options don’t really exist any longer.
If Augusta National was this month as it was in 1989 what would the winning Masters score be?
23-27 under par.
While the 15th is famous for eagle roars, it offers another dimension for those not going for the green in two; namely, a fiendishly difficult wedge shot from a down slope. What adjustment should be made to both nip the ball to gain spin while still obtaining the needed height to handle the shelf green?
Most importantly you have to lay up to the most optimal position for the day’s hole location. If the hole is on the right you need to be left and vice-versa. On the left the lay up area is relatively flat and the shot is actually uphill. The lay up area right slopes downhill but also left to right like the green. So, the lay up location for each scenario not only improves the playing angle but produces a lie that facilitates working the ball toward the hole. Uphill from the left so the ball will release a bit and right to left from the right side to better utilize the green’s contour.
What is the most difficult shot at Augusta?
It has to be the approach at 11. It’s fairly long to a narrow green with a water hazard left. As Hogan made clear you have to miss short or short right. There’s also a little knob in the fairway just short of the green to complicate matters.
The approach to the fifth green with its false front and false right is another very challenging shot.
Where’s are the best places to view the action at Augusta National?
It’s hard to beat the area near the 12th tee that enables you to see the approach to 11, all the play at 12 and much of 13. A lesser known, underated vantage is from the slope in front of the sixth tee.
Tell us about some architecture features that you like and dislike.
I am not a fan of 480 yard par 4s, they tend to be one dimensional. I am a big fan of changes in elevation and how an architect uses slope to generate challenge. I especially like architectural nuances that create doubt in a player’s mind. Great architects do this well and often and poor architects don’t. Look at 12 at Augusta. It’s just a short iron shot but a right hole location really messes with your thoughts. The next hole, 13 – from 190 to 220 yards out, the ball is above your feet and you have to take on the creek. The approach at 13 emphasizes accuracy left-to-right and not necessarily front-to-back but just 20 minutes later at 15 the emphasis is on accuracy front-to-back. I think that’s genius.
In a big picture way successful golf architecture must create emotional moments for the golfer – some of these will be very fearful and others adrenal laced. There must be challenges that thrill the golfer. A design devoid of these moments fails in my opinion.
What is the best way for a player to warm up before a round of golf?
First and foremost he needs to stretch. If possible this should be done before reaching the golf course. At the course I would practice putting and short shots. Most people don’t do that. Instead, they go to the range and hit golf balls for 28 of their 30 minute warm up. I recommend that you spend at least 60% of your time with your putter and wedges and then go to the practice range and loosen up by hitting a few six irons and a couple of drivers.
How can a player best maintain his skills until later life?
There’s a lot in that question. Here’s what I say: take care of your body; drink more water, eat better food, stay fit. Your condition becomes increasingly important as you age. In terms of the golf swing, emphasize the rhythm of the transition from back swing to downswing. As people age they lose confidence and trust in their swings. A smooth transition and good rhythm will go a long way in restoring those things.
I played a round with you at your home course, a classic Travis design that was nearing completion of a renovation. Share your thoughts on renovation in general and specifics at Round Hill.
I see the responsibility of an architect changing older courses to marry the design intent of the original architect to the modern game. If you completely restore a 1924 course to its original appearance I think that you are doing more harm than good. It’s a completely different game today. Today’s ball flight, spin rates, distances weren’t seen in 1924 so one must design the playing field for a game that is continually changing. Great courses demand physical challenge, mental courage and creativity. A successful restoration recreates those qualities for today’s player.
I realize that many courses and to a great extent my own can’t add enough length to compensate but we should try and understand the original architect’s philosophy on how he would challenge the player. Modern club head speed, launch angle and spin create golf shots that were unimagined in the 20s but must be allowed for today. An architect might have created cross bunkers to visually and physically challenge the golfer but could did not foresee lasers and other measuring devices that remove the element of doubt regarding carry distance. Those bunkers are often irrelevant today and the restorer must figure out a different way to create the intended challenge. Unfortunately or not cart paths have become necessary at many courses and need to be artfully integrated into a classic design or at least accommodated in ways that don’t destroy strategy and aesthetic. Some of the changes to my home course disappointed me because they failed in these regards. Most bothersome is that some of the green complexes were “dummied down” when their surrounds were elevated and potential run-offs muted so that recovery shots are less interesting/less difficult.
Tight run-off areas have become a popular component of modern architecture. What are your thoughts on these and how should one play from them?
I have a variety of ways to play these shots and I practice all of them frequently. I sometimes use a hybrid and other times a lob wedge if I need to go high. What’s most important is that you practice these shots and gain confidence. If you can’t spin the ball your options are limited and that player needs to lower his expectations. Short grass around the greens is effective because it gets in the head of a player – even a good player. He may not be confident about going high versus going low. These shots breed indecision, which creates tension, and tension causes failure. Also, because short grass can greatly magnify a miss it can become a strategic factor on the approach.
One of the most effective shots for the average to high handicap player is the chip with a hybrid.
How often should the average to better amateur who plays 50+ rounds a year see an instructor? How should we find an instructor?
Finding a good teacher is like finding a good restaurant or whatever. Start with word of mouth, do a little research and maybe an interview. Pick up the phone and call – see if there’s rapport. As for frequency of lessons it depends on your goals and how much you play and practice. The players at the highest level are under the supervision of a coach the majority of the time.
Technology and computer analytics will play an increasing role in the near future. Players will have sensors in their clothing for 3D analysis. Data will be stored and analyzed off site so that lessons can be remote. There will be bio-feedback devices for the player to better understand what he’s doing. We are only on the five yard line in terms of analytics and technology. Golf lessons will soon be available remotely from known teachers by subscription based on analysis of computer data of a player’s swing.
Who has the best swing on tour?
There are different ways to evaluate a swing. The two parameters I like are efficiency and effectiveness. I define efficiency as the ability to create maximum clubhead speed. I think that Adam Scott is one the most efficient. The modern swing is becomingly more efficient. Effectiveness deals with clubhead rotation and the most effective swings have the least rotation and as a result produce the straightest golf shots. Jim Furyk’s swing is unconventional; he has a double overlap grip, pins his right elbow to his right side, over rotates his body but is the most effective on tour because he maintains the face angle better than anyone else. He’s one of the best putters on tour for a similar reason; in fact, players that minimize face rotation in their full swings seem to do so with their putting strokes as well.
You have a large presence on television and radio, what are your goals for the show?
I always keep in mind that there is someone watching who is new to the game. What I try to do is take the complicated and make it as simple as I can so that when you pick up a club you feel “I can do that.” Of course I try to make it entertaining and fresh and that’s a challenge. I am enthusiastic because I love the game, how beautiful it is in its complexity and challenge. I want to convey my love of the game to the audience.