RINGING IN CHANGES
From the roster to the knee-high drop rule, ‘new’ is golf’s current buzzword
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...
STAR PLAYER Much is expected of England’s Justin Rose, ranked No 1 in the world