Aerial camera shots that follow a ball after being driven by Rory McIlroy, or Justin Thomas, or Jon Rahm are admittedly pretty thrilling. We gasp along with the announcer as the ball screams through the air, drops to Earth, and eventually rolls out to a finish 350 yards or more ahead of where it started. The Toptracer lines on-screen likewise get our attention.
The moment is soon lost, however. For now you realize the player is left with a sand wedge to a 480-yard hole, again. Bomb and gouge/pitch suddenly doesn’t seem that entertaining anymore.
The all-powerful golf ball has been the focus of controversy for several years (actually, fundamental changes and ‘improvements’ to the ball have met with disapproval from conservative golfers throughout the game’s history) and the whole debate came alive again recently, especially after Tiger Woods told Geno Auriemma “something needs to be done about the ball," and that it’s “going too far."
Woods was, of course, merely reiterating what a litany of big names have been saying for more than 15 years, well, basically since the solid core Titleist Pro V1 was launched in 2000.
The dispute in the years following seemed rather lop-sided. Naturally, Titleist, and other ball manufacturers who subsequently introduced their own versions of the revolutionary ball, insisted there was no problem. But everyone else seemed to be of the opinion that curbing ball technology, even setting it back a few years, would obviously be the sensible thing to do. There was almost a sense the governing bodies couldn’t possibly maintain their stance much longer, and that something would almost certainly happen before...well, before pros started hitting 350-yard drives. A few limitations were placed on other pieces of equipment (clubhead efficiency like coefficient of restitution and moment of inertia, shaft, grooves), but the ball got away more or less scot-free.
Today, however, the ball-makers can count on a vociferous army of supporters, and the two sides are becoming more contentious every day. The golf ball discussion is not as divisive as US Politics thank goodness, but there could well be prickly discord between members of the same fourball over the matter.
Those in favor of maintaining the status quo argue the two sets of people clamoring for a rollback are old-school architects, who might benefit from retro-fitting courses, and old golfers who don’t do well with change, and who believe the way they played the game was undoubtedly the right way.
Hearing these ‘allegations’ might give some Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers pause, forcing them to assess where they stand. Have I become an old fuddy-duddy standing in the way of progress, and wanting to deny younger golfers the fun of hitting space-age gear?
Not at all. No one ever suggested taking the power tools away from amateurs and casual golfers, or if they did they should expect some ferocious pushback. We, the weekend warriors, range rats, after-work leaguers, nine-and-diners, monthly medalers, etc. should benefit from the latest tech because it makes the game more fun. Plus, the game 98-99 percent of us play, even with 460cc titanium clubheads and low-spinning multi-layer balls, tends not to render courses obsolete.
The Rules need bifurcating – one for you and me, another for McIlroy, Thomas, Rahm, etc. Yes, some level of bifurcation already exists, but when an admittedly very talented but virtually unknown European Tour player from Finland named Tapio Pulkkanen hits the green at a 603-yard hole playing into the wind with a drive and an iron, then you surely have to call a time-out. That’s just one incident/stat in a million anyone could find to justify a rollback argument.
Again, the initial reaction is awe and wonder at Pulkkanen’s astonishing ball-striking (and his rather natty hat). But once that passes, the problems quickly become apparent. First, how much has the hole he just over-powered grown since it was first built, and how long must it become in order to maintain any sort of challenge? Indeed, how much bigger does the course as a whole have to grow?
Of course, not every layout needs to find 10 more acres or 500 extra yards because most don’t stage professional tour events. But what happens on TV greatly influences the game we all play, and the trickle-down effect impacts most courses to some degree or other.
Tournament venues that don’t extend beyond 7,200 yards or more come up with a variety of ways, most of them all too predictable, to protect the course’s dignity. Pins are pushed into remote corners of the green, fairways are cut 25 yards wide, rough is grown impossibly long and thick, and greens have all the moisture sucked out of them resulting in extremely quick, concrete-topped putting surfaces that are at the mercy of the wind. It was wonderful to see Merion back as a US Open venue in 2013, but the course needed the full suite of over-the-top measures to keep scores where the USGA likes them.
Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 US Open champion and one of the keenest minds among pro golfers, says it felt like US Open courses and Augusta National remained pretty much the same “for 100 years," before changes happened very rapidly this century. “Nicklaus maybe hit it 5-10 percent farther than Bobby Jones,” he said during an Australian Open press conference in November. “But now the longest are 50 percent past where Jack was (it’s actually nearer 20 percent). Three hundred yards was considered a massive hit when I came on Tour, now that is legitimately short.”
Ogilvy warned it is changing the way the best golfers play the great courses.
“Augusta doesn’t work properly anymore, it just functions wrong,” he said. “The bunkers are in all the wrong places now. And you saw the US Open. It was a comedy. Koepka didn’t hit more than a 7-iron into any par 4, on the longest course in major championship history.”
Longer, bigger courses obviously mean escalating costs - costs that inevitably you and I have to bear. Speaking to the Wall St Journal a couple of weeks ago, the USGA’s Executive Director Mike Davis said the continued pursuit of distance was hurting golfers.
“Courses are expanding and are predicted to continue to expand,” he said. “All it’s doing is increasing the cost of the game. The impact it has had has been horrible.”
More land requires more chemicals, water, and manpower to maintain. Golf has gotten very good at decreasing its footprint in recent years, but extra land isn’t going to maintain itself.
Next, longer courses take longer to play and you’ve probably noticed people aren’t complaining of having too much spare time these days.
Lastly, and for some most importantly, the farther and straighter the ball flies the more the challenge of the game fades away. Golf will always be demanding for most because man always finds a way to over-complicate things, and get in his own way. But hitting the ball far and straight is a good bit easier today than it was 20 years ago when the Balata balls favored by tour pros cut easily, ballooned and spun sideways.
In 1980, the three players ranked 100th-longest on the PGA Tour averaged a little more than 255 yards off the tee, and Jim Colbert, who was the 100th most accurate, hit 61 percent of fairways. This year, Branden Grace was the 100th-longest driver on Tour averaging 292 yards, while Daniel Berger was the 100th most accurate finding 60 percent of fairways. Too many stats are apt to make my head hurt, but that basically means today’s Tour players are finding the fairway just as often as players from their parents’ generation, despite hitting the ball nearly 40 yards farther.
It’s seems entirely reasonable, practical and prudent even, to limit the distance the ball goes at professional tournaments, and thus create a definite divide between what balls pros and amateurs are allowed to use.
But plenty of golfers don’t like the idea because golf has long prided itself on having the same regulations for all players – professional and amateur - and it is very reluctant to change. Many say that is a large part of what makes golf special.
That’s understandable certainly, but I disagree. What makes golf special for me is spending time in beautiful places with good friends, having a close contest go all the way to the 18th green, and then laughing about it in the clubhouse afterwards. Bifurcation is yet to happen, so it’s hard to say what my reaction might be if permitted to use a different ball than McIlroy, Rahm, Thomas etc. But I strongly suspect it would bother me about as much as other ways the game already bifurcates, which is to say not much.
It would, of course, be naïve to blame the ball alone for the distance gains of the last 30 years. Balls clearly run further on smooth, clipped turf than they do on less consistent turf cut 5-10mm longer. And pro golfers today are undeniably fitter, stronger, and faster than ever before.
They’re not going to stop working out, but the distance these more athletic pros hit the ball needs to be curtailed somehow, be it by growing longer fairway grass or trimming the distance the ball flies.
When that happens, a number of classic courses passed up by the PGA Tour and major championships because they became too short will once again be viable. The budgets superintendents need to maintain their course might drop, and the savings be passed on to you. We might even get to see a far more interesting form of the game – less bomb and gouge, more position and finesse.
Don’t you think it’s time?