LEAVE THE GAME AS IT CURRENTLY IS
Left as it is, unchallenged in any way, it’s hard to imagine the game wouldn’t just keep on getting longer. That’s evolution, after all. Another sharp rise in distance on the pro tours, such as that which followed the introduction of the Titleist Pro V1 ball in 2000, is unlikely thanks to restrictions put on equipment that now limit the initial velocity and combined carry and roll of the ball, size of the driver head, a clubface’s spring e ect, and a club’s length. But distance is likely to keep creeping up thanks to variables over which the governing bodies have less control: superior athleticism, equipment optimisation and, to a degree, better turf conditions.
“There’s no doubt distance will continue to increase as a new generation of kids fixate on power, clubhead speed, and ball speed,” says Mike Clayton, a plain-spoken advocate for some sort of equipment rollback.
“Cameron Champ is an example of the next level coming – another step up from Dustin Johnson and Bubba. We all remember when Greg Norman came out – he was unbelievably long – then Daly, then Tiger. Nicklaus came before Norman, of course, and before him it was Snead. So, there have always been players who showed what was possible and dragged the next generation along with them.”
It’s never a bad idea to assess the state of the game and how far professional golf has advanced by monitoring how its elite play St Andrews’ Old Course. The beauty of the Old Course is its simple strategy – the way it has asked questions of golfers’ ability, confidence, and the wisdom of their shot selection for centuries. The targets are not clearly defined. Yes, there’s a hole everyone is ultimately trying to find, but how you get there is up to you. It’s as much an intellectual test as it is a physical exam. At least it should be.
With today’s equipment, the best golfers don’t really need to ponder the uncertainties that made the course so alluring in the past. They simply blast away, dismissing the need to strategise as something weaker golfers do. One shot fits all. Two, actually – the long, high drive that carries all potential trouble, and a lofted approach that lands softly and eliminates all, or most, of the excitement oered by the contours. The ground game is fast becoming an amusing relic of yesteryear.
In the final round of last October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, the field averaged 67.9 round the Old Course and Ross Fisher cruised to a 61 after making 11 birdies and nothing worse than a four. There was no wind, denying the Auld Lady much of her protection, but Fisher just needed to hit the shots his equipment (and skill) enabled.
For a couple of hours, one could simply marvel at Fisher’s brilliance and the prospect of the first ever 59 round the Old Course. But it didn’t take long to grasp the implications of Fisher’s score and the way he battered the world’s most important course into submission, her dignity saved, barely, when the Englishman took three to get up and down from the Valley of Sin on the 18th hole.
The game has changed. For today’s Tour players, there are at least nine par 4s on the Old Course where a 9-iron/PW/SW is all they need for the approach. At last year’s US Open, played on the longest course in the championship’s history, winner Brooks Koepka hit nothing longer than a 7-iron into any of the par 4s. Similarly, Dustin Johnson went eight months without hitting more than a 7-iron to a par 4 on last year’s PGA Tour.
To combat the distance gains, golf courses feel the need to grow ever longer, increasing the cost of the game – green fees and memberships – and eliminating a lot of the charm. Manufacturers continue to release hyper-marketed drivers with huge price-tags, and the time it takes to play golf can only increase – not only a result of longer courses but also the desire to mimic Tour pros.
The case against change
Those who abhor distance gains would reject such a claim, but that steady increase in yards might actually have its benefits. Until his retirement at the end of last year, the uno¢cial chief of the pro-distance brigade was Wally Uihlein who joined Acushnet (parent company of Titleist) in 1976 and became its senior executive in 1995. In the early days of the debate, before those who support increased distance had gathered behind him, Uihlein was something of a lone voice and often vilified for appearing to put profits well ahead of the game.
Respected industry analyst Rick Young believes people’s perception of Uihlein was inaccurate, however. “Many said he didn’t really care about the game, but I know he does, deeply,” Young insists. “The USGA and R&A’s findings on distance, and the statistics they used to arrive at their conclusions, can always be interpreted dierently by dierent people, but I assure you Uihlein firmly believed the ball, and other technologically-advanced equipment, was not having a detrimental eect on the game. Quite the opposite in fact. He considered it essential to golf’s popularity.”
Uihlein’s replacement as Acushnet’s President and CEO, David Maher not surprisingly echoes his former boss, saying Titleist “continues to believe equipment innovation has benefitted golfers at all levels. And our analysis of the report a¢rms that the governing bodies have eective regulations in place to ensure the game’s health
Young, one of the seemingly few golf media figures that believes the golf ball should remain untouched, and the Rules un-bifurcated, explains his position. “For starters, amateurs would get to keep the technologically-advanced equipment they have grown accustomed to and which undoubtedly makes the game more fun,” he says. “And tournament attendances and TV ratings would not be negatively a ected, which is certainly possible if distance is limited. People enjoy watching the professionals smash 350+yard drives.”
And while the assumption is that all course architects disapprove of distance gains, there is one who appreciates the opportunities they’ve given him. “Without the extra distance we have nowadays, we’d not have been able to create the 9th and 10th holes at Turnberry,” says designer Martin Ebert, who in partnership with Tom Mackenzie has updated multiple Open Championship venues. “Those holes now involve considerable carries over the ocean which would have been too testing with a shorter-flying ball.”
Fellow architect Robin Hiseman, of European Golf Design, likewise believes distance has its place, and asks what many are asking: if technology is making the game a little easier and a little more fun for the average player, then what good could possibly come from taking it away? “The game needs all the help it can get to preserve interest in the sport and keep clubs in business,” he says. “Golf is still a really tough sport to master and always will be.”
The case for change
The pro-distance brigade make valid points, but how do they stack up against the negatives tended by those saying the pursuit of distance has not done the game any favours and does not bode well for its future?
Their Wally Uihlein is Jack Nicklaus, long-time unocial spokesman for restricting distance by rolling back the ball. Jack first spoke with the USGA on the subject four decades ago.
Perhaps Nicklaus’ most notable comment on the subject came ahead of last year’s Masters when he was asked how to maintain the challenge of the par 5 13th hole. “The simplest solution,” he said, “is change the frigging golf ball.”
Not quite as blunt as Nicklaus perhaps, but equally as passionate about reining in the ball, is Australia’s Mike Clayton. A former European Tour pro and now a respected course designer, Clayton is adamant the great courses are being overwhelmed by modern equipment and the distance professionals hit the ball.
“The balance between courses and equipment has swung entirely in equipment’s favour,” he says. “When clubs had hickory shafts, the course usually won the battle. But steel shafts and better golf balls redressed the balance. Now rocket golf balls and frying pan drivers have made driving the ball too easy. Everyone drives it longer than Greg Norman did which is ridiculous. And no professional needs anything more than a mid-iron nowadays.”
Clayton illustrates his point by looking at how di erently Augusta National’s 13th and 15th holes play today compared with 30-40 years ago. “The great players used to hit long irons and woods for their second shots into those holes, and it was compelling to watch,” he says. “Fred Ridley (new Augusta National Chairman) got it right at the Masters in April when he said going for those greens should be a momentous decision. It’s not anymore. Neither hole is the great par four-and-ahalf that Jones and Mackenzie created. They’re just par-4s, and not terribly long ones.”
To combat distance and the possibility of low winning scores, Clayton says the USGA, R&A, PGA of America, and Augusta National have resorted to altering the length and width of courses when setting them up for their events. “Major championship venues have become totally distorted in an attempt to elevate winning scores,” he argues. “But these set-ups just mask reality and make the majors less interesting to watch. High winning scores give viewers the impression everything is okay, and that the course stood up to the best players in the world. That’s just wrong. The battle now isn’t between the architect and golfer, it’s between the superintendent/greenkeeper – or what the USGA and R&A tell them to do – and the golfer.”
No one wants to see great courses covered in long rough with greens running at 14 on the stimpmeter, Clayton says. “They say a course is worthy of major championship status because the winning score was 280 or whatever,” he adds. “But anyone can set up any course to ensure a high winning score. It’s not dicult.”
Clayton also notes that one of the most damaging consequences of excessive distance and diminished challenge has been to trick young amateurs into thinking they have what it takes to succeed as professionals. “They all hit long drives and score low today because the equipment is levelling the playing field,” he says. “It mirrors what we’ve seen in the professional game, but this just makes it harder for truly talented players to stand out. And the reality is, they probably aren’t going to make it.”
Clayton and many others in favour of a ball rollback believe the game is being dictated to by the giant equipment-makers, Titleist specifically. “But they’re a business whose sole reason for existence is to make money,” he says. “I get that, they’re a for-profit company. But while they should certainly get a chair at the table, they mustn’t be allowed to run the game. Those who make the rules need to stand up to them more than they have.”
The perception of weak governing bodies cowering before the mighty, billion-dollar Titleist is another unfortunate consequence of the distance debate. But there’s more.
Ian Andrew is a Canadian course architect who points out that human safety has become a major concern. “This a problem that few people are talking about, and it worries me,” he says. “Yes, the ball doesn’t curve as much as it used to, but you can still hit it o -line. And average golfers are sometimes hitting it way further o -line than they once did. The best 10 percent of players at all clubs hit the ball far enough for it to be problematic. We have to design around that 10 per cent because they set the standard on what’s safe in design. On some holes, I’ve had to increase the safety corridor by as much as 50 percent in the last 20 years.”
Martin Ebert agrees. “Increased distance means we have to consider larger margins to boundaries and between holes,” he says. “In some cases, holes are having to be closed resulting in major changes to layouts.”
On top of that, the environmental impact can be significant. Golf has become a good deal more environmentally-friendly over the last decade, but the impact of expanding courses has certainly been felt. Highly-regarded US architect John Fought has seen longer courses impact the environment. “Thirty years ago, a course might cover 150 to 175 acres,” he says. “Today that number is at least 200, and we typically maintain seven percent more turf which requires more gasoline-powered mowing and more water.” All to benefit a very small number of golfers.
The financial ramifications can also be fairly unsettling. In his conversation with the Wall
StreetJournal last year, Mike Davis said all the pursuit of distance was doing was “increasing the cost of the game,” – to courses and, in turn, golfers, thus deterring future generations from taking up the game. If nothing is done on distance, expect the those numbers to keep on rising.
Time to consider
And then, inevitably, there’s the issue of slow play. Nicklaus believes modern equipment is also to blame for the pace. “It’s not just the players that cause slow play,” he said in 2013. “It’s the diculty of the course, the length of the course, and the distance the golf ball goes. You’re playing a lot of golf course these days, and that takes more time.”
In February, JB Holmes spent an absurd amount of time ruminating over his second shot to the par-5 18th at Torrey Pines in the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open. After more than four minutes of shameless dawdling, the four-time Tour winner finally made the decision... to lay up. If that wasn’t bad enough, the final group – Holmes, Ryan Palmer, and Alex Noren – had taken close to six hours getting to the home hole. It was the final round with much on the line, but six hours? There are multiple reasons why the game takes longer to play these days, and longer golf courses is definitely one of them.
'THE BALANCE BETWEEN COURSES AND EQUIPMENT HAS SWUNG ENTIRELY IN EQUIPMENT'S FAVOUR.'