IT’S ironic that of all the problems that need attention in today’s game – participation levels and affordability chiefly among them – the gun is being aimed squarely at something just 1.68 inches in diameter.
As the world’s best players arrive at Augusta National this month in search of the prized green jacket, officials from the R&A and United States Golf Association will up the ante on finding a solution to the distance debate that’s dividing the game. More specifically, they’ll weigh up the growing calls to wind back the golf ball to ensure “the integrity of the game is upheld”.
According to the prosecution – a golf ball lynch mob led by the great Jack Nicklaus – that little white sphere is travelling too far, rendering great courses of the world, on tour at least, to mere drive-chip-putt exhibitions.
It’s a debate that has been largely driven by golf course architects, and understandably so. They’re seeing their prized work become redundant from the tee and that’s a genuine cause for concern. Australian course architect Mike Clayton said as much during a recent Inside the Ropes podcast. “There used to be an imbalance between the difficulty of the course and the equipment players had to use. That balance has shifted completely in favour of the player over the great, old golf courses,” he said. It’s a valid point – the game has changed. Clayton also refers to world No.1 Dustin Johnson rarely needing anything more than a 6-iron to hit approach shots into par 4s, such is the American’s brute force off the tee. Yet it’s Johnson, known more for those booming drives than his burgeoning brainpower, who came up with the most factual take on the distance debate: “I don’t understand what all the debate is about because it doesn’t matter how far it goes; it’s about getting it in the hole.”
While course designers will forever argue the toss through the emotional lens of old-school architecture, there’s little quantifiable data to justify their point of view, as time-honoured and cherished as it may be. Further hampering their cause is what data is available is telling us scoring averages across the world’s tours are no more impressive than they were 20 years ago when Tiger Woods was king. So while DJ can fly that bunker 270 metres away, it isn’t benefiting his scorecard in the long run, whether that’s how the hole was designed to be played or not. Call it the evolution of golf.
In the 2017 Distance Report released jointly by the R&A and USGA, average distance gains across the seven worldwide tours had risen three yards over the past 12 months. That is seen as concerning but are the numbers really that significant when you consider the breakthroughs in driverface technology over the same period?
What? There’s other influential technology in golf besides the golf ball?
Just as equipment, course agronomy and player fitness have evolved with time, so too has modern-day instruction. It is not uncommon to see swing coaches and sport psychologists following their player’s every step on tour. Launch-monitor technology has also allowed players to optimise both ball and club setups. Could that wonderful innovation called “clubfitting” actually be getting away with murder here? Such precision translates into maximising distance potential – at all levels of the game.
Yet the poor old ball remains the easy target because, well, it’s the one necessity in a bag full of over-performers. It’s also a quick fix so those feathery balls and hickory shafts aren’t lost on a new generation.
Golf Digest will tackle the distance debate comprehensively over the coming months. Until then, our governing bodies should consider the following:
• What’s more important long-term: upholding the traditional values of the game or looking after the people who pay to play it?
Golf has an ageing population. Any decision based on a minority (tour professionals) that could have a detrimental effect on the majority (amateurs at club level) is commercial suicide. Why would anyone want to play a sport that’s doing its utmost to make itself harder?
• Would winding back the golf ball 20 yards not be neutralised by the advanced club technology through today’s bag?
Let’s face facts, action should have been taken years ago when the game first moved away from the wound ball to the solid-core variety. Surely that ship has sailed?
• In the event we do turn back the clock, bifurcation is a must.
As Greg Norman says: “Never stop technology for the masses. Let the millions of people out there who shoot 130 and still lose six balls a round into the water and three-putt six times feel like they can hit the ball 30 yards farther. Give ’em that, but completely put the shackles on us (pros) because we are the best.”
• Ask any weekend warrior when was the last time they walked off a golf course and thought, Geez that was too easy.
To course architects, just because we don’t always land in your strategically placed sand traps doesn’t mean you should bury your heads in it.