THE ball, as we all know, is to blame. The root of all golf’s evils, that little white sphere has been left unchecked since Old Tom Morris was in nappies.
Because of the ‘spud’, we have 8,000-yard-plus golf courses, like Erin Hills, and the original boundaries of many time-honoured layouts are no longer even close to sufficient. Other implements – drivers, irons – are guilty by association, but the true culprit is the golf ball and the distance it now travels in the hands of the game’s experts.
We’ve heard all this for some time now.
Recently, I got to wondering how golf would look had something ‘been done about the ball’. Imagine for a moment if the entire scale of the game was pruned back – and significantly so. To a world where 200 metres was considered a booming drive and not 300. To a domain in which 400m made for a robust par 5 and 180m a par 3 of inordinate length.
The savings across the game would be extraordinary. For starters, quite obviously, less land would be necessary to construct each golf course. The flow-on effect of that would come savings in the time, labour and expense required to maintain the total space of a course. Maintenance budgets could be slashed, which in turn would reduce the cost of green fees and club membership subscriptions. And, just maybe, a ball that flies a shorter distance might also be less prone to curving into the scrub and becoming lost, creating another significant saving.
In short – pun intended – everything could shrink by more than just a bit.
About the only view into this long-lost world are the hickory events held at various locations around the world. Donning yesteryear gear and wielding hickory clubs, competitors receive a window to another time in the game and one that must surely feel like almost a different sport entirely compared to the 21st century version now before us.
No sport respects its origins better than golf and few dip into the past better. And you know it’s a great concept when touring pros get in on the act. For instance, Sandy Lyle, the former British Open and Masters champion, delved into hickory golf a few years ago and won the World Hickory Open at his first attempt in 2014, taking a second title last October.
“I’m delighted to have won my fourth Major,” the Scotsman joked at the time.
For the event, players must use equipment made prior to 1935, of which, it is refreshing to hear, there is plenty. But there is no restriction on which type of golf ball is used. Surely requiring featheries or gutta percha balls would accentuate the nod to history?
“We do not put any restrictions on the choice of ball at the WHO,” explains the World Hickory Open’s Ewan Glen. “We do, however, advise that they should use low-compression balls as they perform better than modern premium-priced balls.
“We do offer players the chance to use 1920s-style mesh-pattern balls, which are suited to the clubs. The hickory period is considered to have ended in 1935; long after rubber had replaced gutta percha as the material of choice.
“We have chosen not to put too many restrictions on equipment because we want people to feel the event is open to all. Some events do have ball regulations – especially those that are with pre-1900 clubs only,” Glen says.
But back to the present day and the scale of modern golf courses, and I suppose, by an extension of this thinking, we can also imagine the reverse scenario: what if the golf ball went the other way and flew considerably farther than it does now? What if 800m par 5s were reachable in two? And many hundreds of hectares were needed to build 18 holes? Golf’s sustainability – which often comes into question by those outside the sport, although almost always speciously – would be difficult to defend.
Something still needs to ‘be done about the ball’ at the professional level, but the situation could also be far worse than it is now.