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Access is perhaps the greatest advantage of being a golf writer. Access the course, specifically. We spend most weeks hunched over our keyboards. But in the glorious media days? This is an opportunity to beat it where the pros do.
This is how I found myself on a quick trip to Sandhills in North Carolina earlier this week. With the US Women’s Open heading to Pine Needles this summer, the resort opened its doors to the media for a preview day. I can’t miss it.
Typically, you’re paired up with fellow members of the media as you hit and laugh your way around the course for an afternoon. I assumed this would be the same. But when I met my shopping cart partner, a Reporter from a local newspaperHe dropped some interesting information.
“Do you know we’re playing with the guy who redesigned this place?”
Oh, hell yeah.
This outing suddenly had much more intrigue. It is not customary to play with the person who formed the grass under your feet. Plus, if one of my shots found a cleverly placed cache, I could send my fist straight to the source.
Enter Kyle Franz.
This 40-year-old is one of the brightest young minds in golf course engineering. I have worked with the likes Bill Core and Ben Crenshaw to recover Pinehurst No. 2 and Tom Dock about shaping the Pacific Dunes. It is at the forefront of the industry.
But here’s the thing about Franz: his weapons are in dire need of updating.
On the first hole, he unwrapped a Callaway Big Bertha Warbird who was older than me (seriously), and played his second in 5-par-5 with Ping 5-wood which was the last production during the Reagan administration.
When Franz wanted to lie away from the tee, he chose TaylorMade Burner 2-iron from his high school days, and his shots came through Titleist DCIs from the early 2000s. His clubs are past the voting age and drinking age and are now in the process of settling down and having children. These kids have some clothes.
As someone frugal with gear growth, I know better than to judge someone based on their clubs. But Franz’s setup was the design of a golfer who hasn’t touched his group in a decade, and not someone so highly respected in the industry as he is.
After a few holes, I asked Franz about his engagement.
“There’s actually a good reason for that,” he told me. “In the 1920s and ’30s when these courses were being built, the typical professional golfer hit them at about 245 to 260 yards or so. The ’90s clubs hit about the same distance across the board.”
Brilliant. We are playing checkers, while Franz is playing chess. Everything is calculated.
“It’s really useful from a recovery point of view,” he continued. “I can get these things out and I can really imagine making the shots that the original architects intended.”
One of Franz’s most notable recent work has been his restoration of the courses that were preparing to host the US Women’s Open. He remodeled Seth Raynor at the Country Club in Charleston ahead of the 2019 US Women’s Open, and his success there earned him the gig as he gears up for this summer’s Pine Needles.
Preparing courses for the best women in the world is just Franz’s speed. In the age of the bomb and pits in professional golf, classic designs can become obsolete by force. But that has not yet happened in the women’s game.
“The distance the men traveled when designing these courses is about the exact distance that the women travel today,” Franz said. “They hit the same trajectory and distance in their shots as Donald Ross would have imagined at the time. What we design for them is really what they were striving to achieve, which makes it so much fun.”
Franz added that the shot industry in women’s competitions still ranked higher.
“It adds a whole different set of golf shots, distances, and clubbing that are no longer so prevalent in men’s game these days,” he said.
Franz cited the restoration work at Pinehurst No. 2 as a prime example. When he worked with Coore and Crenshaw to bring the popular track back to its classic roots, they had screenshots planned from old competitions, like 1951 Ryder Cup. But to force the top male pros to hit similar clubs in tortoise green as the pros in years past, they would have required more space than that held by the property.
“For the golf course to play today as he (Ross) originally intended, they’d get out of Tom Bashley’s office from the club’s rooftop,” he said, referring to the president of the Pinehurst resort. “You’re going to play about 8000 yards.”
Fortunately for Franz, this puzzle never really gets into his game. He gets it out of the back a lot where he can but he totally enjoys the tour. He plays the game the way the likes of Ross and Raynor wanted him to.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t think of getting some updated equipment.
“We’ll see,” he said with a smirk. “Maybe one of these days.”