Golf: Faldo blessing for superior surface

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The Independent Online
AFTER 27 holes around the Bellerive Golf and Country Club, Nick Faldo gave the seal of approval to the venue for the US PGA Championship, which starts here tomorrow. 'The zoysia provides a nice surface,' he said. 'It's my first tournament on zoysia. The ball sits up nice and firm on the fairways.'

Zoysia? Get used to it. It is a superior strain of grass which is set to play a significant role in the fourth and last major championship of the season. It is the first US Tour event conducted on zoysia grass fairways and tees. The more common bermuda and bent grasses are hard to grow in St Louis, where it is either too hot or too cold.

Bellerive, designed by Robert Trent Jones, played host to the US Open in 1965 when it was an immature five-year-old course with bermuda fairways and tees. A cool spring left the fairways brown. The championship was the first to be shown in colour on television and the club, to the dismay of the United States Golf Association, decided to dye the fairways green.

Subsequently the club began experimenting with zoysia and tests were successful. It remains one of the few courses in the country using the grass. It is able to withstand heat and cold but it has two drawbacks: it only stays green for four months of the year (May to August), and, at dollars 3 per square yard, it is expensive. 'It's a great summer grass,' Tom Van De Walle, the Bellerive greenkeeper, said. 'The players are going to love hitting balls off it. It's so pure. There are no bad lies.'

The key this week, according to Faldo, will be placement off the tee, and he is happier with his driving than he has been for some time. He has been reunited with a 1952 McGregor driver, a wooden club that launched his victory in the 1990 Masters at Augusta. 'I tried using a metal driver but I couldn't get the ball airborne,' he said. 'I get a much better flight with this club.' Faldo, who used the McGregor when he won the Open Championship at Muirfield last month, is driving the ball on average more than 260 yards and has gained 20 yards in length.

'If you're on the fairways you'll enjoy good lies,' he said, 'and the greens are large enough to attack. If you're in the rough there is very little chance of going for the greens. You've just got to wedge it out onto the fairway.' Faldo arrived in St Louis on Saturday and has been playing the course since Sunday. After the first nine holes he retired to the locker room to change his shirt, which was soaked with perspiration. 'Physically and mentally I strive to sharpen myself for a tournament such as this,' he said. 'I switch on for the more important ones.'

In the first and second rounds Faldo will play with Fred Couples, the Masters champion, and Tom Kite, the US Open champion. Jose- Maria Olazabal is partnered with Greg Norman and Wayne Grady, the US PGA champion of two years ago. Olazabal finished third in the Open Championship, two strokes behind Faldo, after taking a three-week break from the game.

Olazabal is one of 11 Europeans in the field but Seve Ballesteros has stayed at home in Spain, missing the US PGA Championship for the first time in 11 years. Ballesteros retreated to Pedrena to watch the Olympics on television after missing the cut in the Open Championship and again in the Scandinavian Masters. 'He is paying the price for not taking a longer break during the winter,' Olazabal said.

Neither Ballesteros nor Olazabal say they will play in the Philip Morris World Cup in Madrid in November and Faldo is also doubtful. He has been invited to play the following week in the Grand Slam in Hawaii, a challenge tournament involving the winners of the four major championships. Meanwhile, Olazabal, who missed out in the select field for the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth last year - he described it as the 'IMG invitational' - has accepted an invitation to play in the event in October.