By Bob Dyer
Beacon Journal columnist
Before we embark on this highly nuanced discussion about the ultimate gentlemen's game, perhaps we ought to explain something for the benefit of the great unwashed.
We most certainly will not be addressing the art of ''pin placement.'' Our discussion is about ''hole placement.''
One ought never confuse the two.
''It is a bit of a mystery as to how the terms 'cup' and 'pin' came to replace the proper terms of 'hole' and 'flagstick,' '' sniffs United States Golf Association official Travis Lesser.
''Most golfers should cringe every time they hear television announcers refer to the hole location as the day's 'pin placement.' After all, the purpose of the game, as laid out in Rule 1-1, is to put the ball in the hole, not in the cup.''
Well excuuuuuse us!
Fortunately, the people who actually figure out where the golf balls should wind up don't take themselves nearly as seriously. But a lot more thought goes into those decisions than you might imagine.
When determining exactly where on the Firestone South Course each of the cups should be located for each of the four days of the Bridgestone Invitational, officials take into account the weather (especially wind conditions) and try to even out a number of other factors:
Does the placement favor golfers who tend to ''shape'' their shots from right to left, or from left to right? Does it favor those who tend to hit high shots or those who keep the ball low? Does it favor left-handed golfers (Phil Mickelson) or right-handed golfers (Tiger Woods)? All of those elements should be relatively even over the sum of the 18 holes.
The hole-choosers also keep in mind the angles that various locations will create on television, as well as the proximity of the holes to the galleries.
On West Coast courses, where early season play tends to be accompanied by significant rainfall on an already-bumpy type of grass known as poa annua, officials put extra weight on the traffic pattern that will be created from the cup to the next tee — ''gate setting,'' they call it.
But that's a non-factor at Firestone, which, as usual, is very firm, very fast and ''almost perfection,'' says PGA Tour official Steve Rintoul.
Rintoul is one of two officials in charge of determining hole placement for the Bridgestone, which began Thursday and will come to a climax on Sunday.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no ''illegal'' hole placements. Some just aren't very fair.
''We're here to test the world's best players, not to embarrass them,'' says Rintoul.
What he means is this: Even the best golfers on the planet can be made to look like weekend hackers if the pin placement is too difficult.
No, officials couldn't add windmills or make the pros putt through a clown's mouth, but they could place a hole smack in the middle of a 6-foot break or put it immediately behind a huge bunker on a down slope on a windy day on a bone-dry green.
''This golf course in particular is going to take care of itself,'' says Rintoul. ''It's a strong enough course from tee to green with a wonderful set of greens that we don't need to trick it up.''
The pins are placed no closer than three paces from the edge of a green, and then only if the typical approach shot will be relatively short (requiring an 8-iron or less). Most holes are more like four or five paces from the edge.
The artistry comes not only in making the placements fair, but also in bringing into play ''the features that the architect built into the green surround and the green area,'' says Mike Shea, the other fellow choosing the spots this week.
In other words, the 41/4-inch-wide cup should be placed where the players will have to deal with the proximity of sand or water or a significant ''shelf'' on the contour of a green.
Officials also like to greatly vary the positions each day, not only to spread out wear-and-tear but to keep things fresh for the golfers. That's more difficult at historic Firestone South, simply because of the size of the greens.
''The greens are not massive around here,'' says British golfer Ian Poulter, who is playing in his eighth Akron tournament. ''They need to find four [different locations over the four days]. And if you've got an old green-design, you generally only have four, five or six areas where you can put pins.
''At some of these modern courses now, where you've got a green 60 yards deep, you've got 20 hole locations.
''Here, the greens are all very quick and they're all very slopey, so you can only put the holes in a couple of spots. So we do roughly know where they're going to be. Which is fine.''
Even longtime Bridgestone participants will notice changes this time around, though. Rintoul, who is in charge of the back nine, says he plans to switch the customary Sunday location on the 17th hole.
''We like bringing the bunker into play, so the traditional position on Sunday is front-center. But that's the furthest point for fans. This year, we plan to make it more fan-friendly. And it will be different for the players, too.''
Both Rintoul and Shea are former players who are well aware of all the subtleties on a golf course. But just like the players, they can have bad days, too.
Rintoul is still kicking himself for a decision he made a while back.
''I remember setting one at the 15th hole at Hartford,'' he says. ''It's a driveable par 4. And I set one on the front-left corner on Sunday, and we ended up having a breezy, dry day, and by the end of the day they were having trouble chipping it onto the green, much less putting it.
''Every official who has ever set up has always had a hole location he'd like to have back. People who say, 'I've set a perfect location every day of my career' are lying to you.''
Shea, who has been at this for 31 years, says he doesn't hear many complaints from the players — but neither does he hear many ''attaboys.''
Can one safely assume that the discontent is most evident during the final round, when the pin placements are the toughest?
''I like to give them a good test on Sundays.''
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.