RING­ING IN CHANGES

From the ros­ter to the knee-high drop rule, ‘new’ is golf’s cur­rent buzz­word

CityPress - - Sport - MICHAEL VLISMAS [email protected]­press.co.za – Michael Vlismas Me­dia

Golf leg­end Gary Player has of­ten said change is the price of sur­vival – and, in­deed, this will be a year filled with change for the game.

New rules, new tour sched­ules and a few new ap­proaches from the play­ers are just some of the big changes in the game for this year. Here is how they play out:

In the com­pli­cated and fiercely com­pet­i­tive world of pro­fes­sional golf tour sched­ul­ing, the PGA Tour sched­ule changes sig­nif­i­cantly this year.

For in­stance, the Play­ers Cham­pi­onship will be played in March and the PGA Cham­pi­onship will move from Au­gust to May. The en­tire sched­ule of the rich­est tour in world golf is shorter and more com­pact to max­imise in­ter­est and fin­ish ahead of the foot­ball sea­son in the US so that golf does not have to com­pete with that jug­ger­naut. So, March to Au­gust is ba­si­cally where it’s at for the game’s big­gest tour­na­ments and its big­gest stars.

The changes on the PGA Tour af­fect ev­ery other tour – in par­tic­u­lar, the Euro­pean Tour. And therein lies a ma­jor chal­lenge for the Euro­pean cir­cuit.

The in­tro­duc­tion of the Rolex Se­ries events (eight in to­tal and of which the Ned­bank Golf Chal­lenge forms a part) has been a ma­jor pos­i­tive for the Euro­pean Tour, but these events will only re­main premier ones if the top play­ers are se­cured as par­tic­i­pants.

Do­ing so is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult in the face of a PGA Tour that is the rich­est of all the tour­na­ments as it of­fers the most world rank­ing points and is the most pow­er­ful in the game.

And it is a job made even harder when a star player such as Rory McIl­roy de­clares his home tour a “step­ping stone” to the PGA Tour and states his in­ten­tion of play­ing more golf in the US.

Change is also the or­der of the day for other lead­ing play­ers. Take world num­ber one golfer Justin Rose: he has moved from US-man­u­fac­tured Tay­lorMade prod­ucts to Ja­pa­nese equip­ment com­pany Honma, and there is talk of the lat­ter bag­ging an­other big name.

Sev­eral of golf’s other cham­pi­ons also seem to be keep­ing their op­tions open in terms of not be­ing con­tracted to play a spe­cific golf ball.

In ad­di­tion, the rules of golf have un­der­gone sev­eral big changes for this year, most of which make sense and are more for­giv­ing to golfers.

But the one change that will gar­ner the most at­ten­tion is the knee-high drop rule. The old shoul­der-height drop is out and we now have a knee­high ver­sion, pur­port­edly to min­imise the chances of a ball rolling out of the drop area and to min­imise the time taken to re-drop.

But, in an age in which mod­ern pro­fes­sion­als are work­ing hard to prove them­selves as ath­letes, the knee-high drop does seem odd in the sense that it looks plain silly to have these pro­fes­sion­als bend­ing over like old men try­ing to drop a golf ball.

WHAT LIES AHEAD FOR PLAY­ERS

Look­ing at the Ma­jors, this will be a ban­ner year in terms of the golf cour­ses host­ing the four big­gest tour­na­ments of the year.

In Au­gusta Na­tional, Beth­page Black, Peb­ble Beach and Royal Portrush, you have one of the best ma­jor ros­ters in the past sev­eral years. It is a purist’s dream, high­lighted by Royal Portrush, which is go­ing to be the most an­tic­i­pated of all four.

This will be the first time since 1951 that the open re­turns to this in­cred­i­ble golf course in North­ern Ire­land. It is where South Africa’s Bobby Locke fin­ished sixth the last time it was held there, which was also the first time the open was held out­side of Scot­land or Eng­land.

If the open will be keenly an­tic­i­pated be­cause of Royal Portrush, the Mas­ters is go­ing to ar­rive with an elec­tric charge among the Au­gusta pines as a fit Tiger Woods tees it up.

Woods has gone from never win­ning a tour­na­ment again to be­ing picked to win a ma­jor this year, and golf will be in­fin­itely bet­ter with him around.

Mean­while, McIl­roy and Jor­dan Spi­eth need to find a way to take some of that spot­light back again. Spi­eth needs to work out his putting prob­lems, while, for McIl­roy, it seems to run a bit deeper as he talks about im­prov­ing his game this year.

At last year’s Ned­bank Golf Chal­lenge, McIl­roy ad­mit­ted: “I have played in six fi­nal groups this year and I have not had a win out of any of those fi­nal groups. I think I played in four fi­nal groups in the pre­vi­ous two years com­bined, so it’s bet­ter.”

But it also begs the ques­tion: What ex­actly is hold­ing him back from con­vert­ing those chances?

Brooks Koepka will most likely con­tinue to win ma­jors and noth­ing else, which he will tell you is per­fectly fine, thank you very much. Of his five PGA Tour wins, three have been ma­jors. It is a recipe worth stick­ing to.

From a South African per­spec­tive, Louis Oosthuizen’s SA Open tri­umph again high­lighted how easy he can make the game look. He is way too good for just one ma­jor, but, as al­ways with Oosthuizen, it is a case of sev­eral things align­ing within his own mind be­fore he can pro­duce that per­fect week.

Bran­den Grace needs to make an im­pact at ma­jor level again. In 2015 and 2016, he emerged as the next po­ten­tial ma­jor win­ner for South Africa. It is the next step in his own mind, and he needs to make an­other se­ri­ous run at this goal this year.

Dy­lan Frit­telli could eas­ily be the coun­try’s stand­out pro­fes­sional this year, and there is plenty of in­ter­est in see­ing what he does in what should be a great rookie sea­son on the PGA Tour.

Charl Schwartzel ad­mits he needs to get out of his own head and his own way as he strug­gles to take the 62s he reg­u­larly shoots in prac­tice rounds and move them to tour­na­ment weeks.

And look out for South African am­a­teur Jo­van Re­bula tee­ing it up at the Mas­ters. Ernie Els’ nephew se­cured his in­vi­ta­tion to the Au­gusta Na­tional show­piece by win­ning the British Am­a­teur Cham­pi­onship in June in what proved to be a golden year for South African am­a­teur golf, and fur­ther vin­di­ca­tion of the ex­cel­lent work done by the SA Golf De­vel­op­ment Board and GolfRSA to keep de­vel­op­ing the coun­try’s am­a­teur golf tal­ent pool.

May this also be the year that the in­ter­na­tional team wins the pres­ti­gious Pres­i­dents Cup, purely to stop those US com­men­ta­tors who harp on about it be­ing ir­rel­e­vant. You would think they’d wel­come a team com­pe­ti­tion where they ac­tu­ally stand a chance of win­ning these days.

Els is the in­ter­na­tional team cap­tain and there is a real sense that this could be the year for his team when the com­pe­ti­tion is played at Royal Mel­bourne in De­cem­ber.

A South African win at the Mas­ters in April and Els lead­ing the in­ter­na­tion­als to a Pres­i­dents Cup vic­tory in De­cem­ber sounds like a per­fect year for golf. Watch this space...

PHOTO: IAN LANGSDON / EPA

STAR PLAYER Much is ex­pected of Eng­land’s Justin Rose, ranked No 1 in the world

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