LEAVE THE GAME AS IT CUR­RENTLY IS

Golf Australia - - GOLF IS GOOD -

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 o‰ered 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 di‰er­ently by di‰er­ent peo­ple, but I as­sure you Uih­lein firmly be­lieved the ball, and other tech­no­log­i­cally-ad­vanced equip­ment, was not hav­ing a detri­men­tal e‰ect 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 e‰ec­tive reg­u­la­tions in place to en­sure the game’s health

and sus­tain­abil­ity.”

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 uno›cial 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.”Ÿ

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 di›cult.”

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.Ÿ

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 di›culty 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.'

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