For years there have been a number of well-respected folks in the world of golf architecture talking about the damage being done by the relentless technological improvements in the game of golf.
You could argue that is has always been an aim for golf club and ball manufacturers to find ways to propel the ball straighter and further. And all credit to them, they have succeeded. While Benjamin Disraeli has a point when he said ‘there are lies, damned lies and statistics’ even he would find it hard not to agree with the stark facts, were he with us and inclined to look today.
I could devote this entire article to the evidence to support the fact that players are hitting it further than ever and it seems that people have given up arguing that's not the case. The golf ball birther movement has died. If you need any convincing of the increases that have happened then have a look here and here.
The impact this has on the game of golf today is phenomenal. Firstly, hundreds of golf courses which have been venerated for decades are no longer able to host professional golf tournaments. The reason is that on most of the pars 4s and par 5s players would need to hit no more than a wedge for their approach shot to the green. 90% of the challenge and features on a golf course have been simply taken out of play.
Let me use North Berwick links as an example. North Berwick hosted many of the great matches in the early days of golf. It plays 6,500 yards and the ground runs firm and fast. Let’s assume there is no wind and a tour pro could hit their driver on every tee shot 320 yards - I suspect that is on the low side. There is only one par 4 where a top pro would be hitting any more than a wedge in for their approach and every par 5 is reachable with a drive and an iron.
Many courses are just no longer able to offer a challenge to the professional golfer. Some try, with horrible results.
Do you remember the 2015 Open at St Andrews? The course was lengthened to 7,200 yards by putting in tees as far back as they possibly could but that still wasn’t enough so they tricked the course up. The iconic 17th hole didn’t just need a new tee built outside of the golf course but it needed rough grown down the left hand side of the hole to stop players hitting it towards the 2nd fairway.
They made the greens play as fast as they possibly could to stop the players tearing up the course, to try to bring some more difficulty to the event. The problem was that meant the greens were too fast to hold the ball. On the Saturday, all along the Fife coastline amateur golfers did battle in the wind but play was abandoned at the Open as St Andrews could not cope, they had simply mown the greens too short. Tens of thousands of fans were subsequently robbed of a Sunday finish. Why did they do this? Because the course was too short for the distances players were capable of hitting it.
There are numerous examples of where courses are desperately trying things to stay relevant but at a high cost. I played Shinnecock Hills last year and it was a sublime experience. Coore and Crenshaw have done some amazing work on the course with greens extended, fairways widened and trees cut down. It was a fun place to play golf and while we were there they were injecting sand into the ground to make it run firm and fast ahead of the 2018 US Open. They have put in 17 new tees, some back a long way from those which mere mortals ever play but the USGA have decided that’s simply not enough.
They took a look at it in the summer and decided it just wasn’t going to be enough of a challenge for the best in the world. So they’ve run roughshod over the work of the two greatest architects in the game today and installed an extra 7 acres of rough on the course to make sure scores are protected. A par 70 7,500 yard course just wasn’t going to cut the mustard otherwise.
Courses are just getting longer and longer in an effort to host tournament golf. Erin Hills measured over 7,800 yards last year for the US Open, Gary Player has just opened a course that measures an incredible 8,300 yards - just think of how much water it takes to keep that in the pristine green so many golfers demand today.
Amateur golfers no longer play the courses that professionals see. The tees are hundreds of yards further back and they are set-up in an incredibly punishing manner in an attempt to hold back the tide of the enormous distances pros hit. Playing Royal Troon earlier this year it was mind boggling to see where they had put some of the tees in recent years for The Open.
The team at the Fried Egg had a great tweet recently based on a simple idea. How many of the great courses in America would come back into play with a shorter ball? Their premise was that for many tour pros a 500 yard par 4 is reachable with a driver of 300 in the air, 320 yards with roll leaving a 180 yard 8 iron in. If the ball was controlled to go 10% less distance then the driver flies 270, 290 yards with roll, leaving 210 into green, maybe a 4 iron.
Suddenly the golf course doesn’t need to be lengthened and tricked up to be a test again and we will see players having to show prowess with all the clubs in the bag to win.
They posited that this would mean great courses such as Cypress Point, NGLA and Fisher’s Island could be played by the very best again. Courses under 7,000 yards an no longer seen as mickey mouse.
The impact would be just as profound on this side of the pond. Sunningdale, Swinley Forest, Walton Heath, Woodhall Spa, St George’s Hill, North Berwick, Cruden Bay would all be resurrected and able to test the best. Royal Troon and St Andrews could be restored to their original glory. Greens could be kept at a reasonable pace and we would get the final round of The Open on a Sunday when the wind blows.
The amateur doesn’t need to suffer to protect these courses and tame the pros. We can continue hitting our Pro v1s as they are today, the professional would simply have a reduced distance ball to hit. This is what the geeks call bifurcation. We’ll call it ‘different balls’.
Geoff Ogilvy delivered a fantastic take of why this wasn’t a bad thing at last week’s Australian Open. He pointed out that in the US professional baseball players use wooden bats while the amateurs use aluminium without a murmur. Check out this YouTube video from 16:20 for a masterclass on the subject.
That would mean that we could experience the same course as they do. It would be mean that great golf courses don’t become relics abandoned to history by the professional ranks. It would mean that we could see golf courses played as their architects intended.
A few years ago this may have seemed like a pipe dream. The golf magazines who controlled much of our media intake were taking big bucks from the ball manufacturers so were hardly going to ruffle feathers and take them on and it was hard for the idea to get the attention of those who run the game.
That has changed and, ironically, technology has caused the advance of the debate. You can read a plethora of articles online on the subject by those who don’t need to rely on the manufacturers dollars to survive, podcasts can discuss it to audiences across the world and financial security means that more and more players are willing to talk about it reaching a large audience directly.
There are some compelling voices who need to be listened to on this subject but probably no greater than the State of the Game podcast team of Rod Morri, Geoff Shackleford and Mike Clayton. The discussions they have had over several years on the subject are both reasoned and persuasive. They risked at times sounding like grumpy old men in their pursuit of change, but if the ball is rolled back then people like this really will be modern day heroes of the game. The golfing Crazy Ones.
It’s not just limited to commentators. The greatest past and current players are joining in too. When Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tiger Woods, Rory Mcilroy and world number 1 Dustin Johnson are all saying the same thing then surely it’s time to listen?
And it seems that the golf authorities are. Mike Davis from the USGA has called the advances in distance ‘horrible’ and surely the R&A have been stung by criticism of what they have had to do to protect The Open over recent years. Many have speculated that Augusta may be the first to act on this given their ‘unique’ position in the game but they have indicated they are unlikely to go out on a limb. Let us hope the $27m they have spent on land to extend the 13th tee will be money wasted!
I genuinely believe we all have a part to play in this. Don’t think that the authorities won’t listen to the fans. You can now take your mobile phone on the course and snap away to you heart’s content, new formats are being developed to engage the audience. All of this is to improve the ‘product’, to encourage fans to pay their cable subscriptions and buy the latest equipment. Rolling back the ball will make the game more entertaining both to play and watch in new and exciting ways. We just need to give them a push.