It’s time to roll back the golf ball.
Words by Matthew Mollica
10 Minute Read
On a fine Melbourne day around ten years ago, my playing partner and I were standing on the 2nd tee of Royal Melbourne’s fabled West Course. Brian, a keen recreational golfer nearing 50, was preparing to drive. Our view centered on the sprawling fairway hazard before us, strategically placed on the direct line between tee and green. “Back in the ‘90s, there was no way I’d carry that”, said Brian. “Today, I don’t even think about it.” And with that, he blew his drive around 30 yards beyond the hazard, setting up an iron into the green. Although impressive, something didn’t seem right. The ball seemed to go too far.
In recent times, discussion surrounding professional golf has repeatedly focused on the vast distances today’s players are able to hit the golf ball. Several of Dustin Johnson’s better drives have brought this matter into sharp focus. So, too, a recent joint statement from the game’s governing bodies – the R&A and the USGA – on the subject of distance. A chorus of commentators, administrators, and players past and present are calling for a reduced flight ball.
The matter of distance is multi-faceted. Contemporary golfers benefit from strength training as well as improved instruction and swing technique, while advancements in ball and club technologies including sophisticated launch monitors allow players to extract greater benefit from their equipment.
Several pundits assert that recent distance gains are modest; others recognise the gains and attribute them largely to the increased athleticism of today’s players. However, a cursory glance at a handful of 1990s Tour players on the current Seniors Tour dispels this notion. These players swing 10mph slower, are 20 years older and 30 pounds heavier – yet drive 40 yards longer than in their prime.
The matter of distance is neither a new concern, nor one that exclusively affects professional golf. For generations now there has been unease regarding how far players hit the ball. In his 1932 tome The Spirit of St Andrews, legendary golf course architect Dr. Alister MacKenzie wrote “Something very drastic ought to have been done years and years ago. Golf courses are becoming far too long.”
Distance and course design are inextricably linked. There must exist a balance between the course dimensions and the distance a ball travels when struck. A mismatch occurs on many courses when modern equipment is employed, and this incongruity sees a raft of consequences. Shinnecock Hills course architect William Flynn noted as much ninety years ago, writing:
“All architects will be a lot more comfortable when the powers that be in golf finally solve the ball problem. A great deal of experimentation is now going on and it is to be hoped that before long a solution will be found to control the distance of the elusive pill. If, as in the past, the distance to be gotten with the ball continues to increase, it will be necessary to go to 7500 and even 8000 yard courses and more yards means more acres to buy, more course to construct, more fairway to maintain and more money for the golfer to fork out.”
Some in golf see no problem at all, revering the current distances achieved by those at the pinnacle of the modern game. This view is countered by those who point to the extent to which courses must be modified in order to host major championships. The Old Course at St Andrews and Augusta National are two prime examples. At the most recent Open Championship at St Andrews, several tees were moved beyond what, for centuries, was considered the boundary of the course.
Players were trudging onto the Ladies putting green, neighboring courses, or nearby fields to commence the next hole.
Augusta National has purchased acres from neighboring Augusta Country Club with a view to extending their famous 13th hole. The Club also purchased and re-routed a suburban road to accommodate future extension of their course – a layout which has already been stretched by hundreds of yards over the last twenty years. Ironically, Augusta’s own course codesigner and president-in-perpetuity Bobby Jones long ago observed “We can move all our tees forward, if we wish, without investing more money in costly land, but we cannot keep on moving them backwards.”
Erudite pro Geoff Ogilvy spoke at length on this issue in a press conference prior to the 2017 Australian Open: “We’ve completely outgrown the stadiums. So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.”
Ogilvy echoed the sentiments of fabled golf commentator Henry Longhurst, who once opined “What a farce is this business of length? Golf is surely the only game, either in the United States or Britain, whose character has been changed solely by so-called ‘improvements’ in instruments with which it is played. I cannot believe the parties concerned would alter the stands at Wimbledon, Forrest Hills, Wembley and Yankee Stadium simply to accommodate a new ball, which when struck in the same manner, happened to go further. I rather fancy they would tell the manufacturers what to do with their new ball.”
Golf courses are arguably the game’s greatest asset. No other sport possesses such a rich diversity of playing arenas. Courses such as National Golf Links of America, Cypress Point, Royal Dornoch, and North Berwick West are masterful efforts of golf architecture which have inspired millions. They are true works of art, created by legendary designers like CB Macdonald, MacKenzie, and Old Tom Morris. Such architects are the sporting world’s equivalent of Monet, Renoir, or Picasso; yet these venerable courses rarely host elite level golf tournaments. Under Ogilvy’s terminology, these courses would be considered ‘stadiums we have already outgrown’. Elite play here would more closely resemble pitch and putt golf, rather than the form of the game for which they were designed. On this point, Tron Carter of NoLayingUp.com sagely notes “We’re rapidly approaching the day when only courses capable of holding majors are built for that specific purpose. That’s bad for everyone.”
Some cathedrals of the game like Royal Melbourne, Merion, Pebble Beach and The Old Course continue to host professional tournaments. Yet, these layouts are increasingly altered to cater for today’s professional game. The fairways are narrowed, or hemmed by long grass. New back tees are added, trees planted, and bunkers dug to amplify difficulty. The greens are baked, rolled and mown in the name of defending par. This provides a stern test, and may ensure what some deem a more palatable winning score – but such modification is often a gross distortion of design intent. Important elements are often lost when golf courses are ‘toughened’. The game fundamentally changes: reduced fairway width ensures less thought is given to line and club selection from the tee. Golf was never intended to be a boring, repetitive quest for straight hitting, yet narrow fairways bordered by long grass ask for this and little more.
In recent decades famed courses such as Merion, Carnoustie, Pebble Beach, and Royal Adelaide have defaulted to this mode of presentation when hosting tournaments. The subtleties of these courses have been smothered in the hope of providing a steely examination and a winning score near par. This practice were again apparent during the US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Many erroneously view this course presentation to be a proper portrait of golf; let us hope these viewers hold no position of influence in the game.
Some see the distance issue as a matter relating exclusively to professional play, while others see it as universal. Course architect Ian Andrew recognises that many amateur golfers don’t hit the ball all that far. Within the context of the double digit handicap player who drives the ball less than 200 yards, this entire discussion on distance and a reduced flight ball seems ridiculous. Yet Andrew states “The top 10% at all clubs hit the ball far enough to be problematic for me to deal with. I deal with this issue every week.” There is no doubt that far-flying golf shots of today provide headaches not only from strategy related design perspectives, but also from safety and liability perspectives, and these considerations impinge on both old and new courses.
The distance debate is not simply a matter of reigning in long hitters, increasing course difficulty or addressing scoring. The primary concern is that courses play as intended by those who designed them. Safety and sustainability are also involved – but primarily, form and function must remain linked as the course architect intended. Scale can’t be skewed too far. Fairway bunkers arranged relative to the tee should remain in consideration for players about to drive. Such hazards were not intended to be irrelevant to golfers on the tee, or flown by a ball yet to reach its apex.
Longer par-4 holes pose a specific challenge: when a green is approached with a long iron, advantage is ideally afforded the player who has driven to a specific portion of the fairway. With the distances available via current balls and clubs, longer drives see approach play with a wedge, which renders tee shot placement a moot point. This scenario extends beyond professional golfers, to many sub-elite players on many courses the world over. The game subsequently devolves, or courses are lengthened to accommodate these distances. Unless the matter of ball flight is addressed, these trends will only continue into the future, affecting even more players.
A reduced flight ball has been proposed in recent times to redress the generational drift between the course and player. Thus far the game has elected to respond to distance advances by warping courses, rather than appropriately addressing ball and club evolution. A reduced flight ball would obviate the need to continually extend courses. It would also make the game more sustainable. Less land would be required to construct courses; shorter layouts are faster to walk; and they require less mowing, fertiliser, and water.
Educated opinion on the action required is divided. Any regulatory change invites consideration of bifurcation, or more simply, the adoption of a subset of regulations relating to balls and clubs for professionals only. Many wish to preserve the current convention of one set of rules for all, seeing clear historical, emotive and commercial gains in the continuation of this approach. Bifurcation makes sense, yet does little to address the matter as it pertains to the vast majority of golfers. Distance is already a source of concern for many recreational golfers, and will become a larger concern in the case of inactivity from legislators in coming years.
Ball manufacturers express great resistance to any mention of reducing ball flight. The arched response of long-time Titleist chief Wally Uihlein to USGA’s Mike Davis in the Wall Street Journal was predictable as it was well-worn: blaming course developers and architects for not adapting to the changing distances through better design.
Almost a century ago, Max Behr wrote “The manufacturer of the golf ball, who is in business for profit, and who cares nothing for the health of golf, has been permitted to sugar the instincts of customers with a ball that is a far greater offense to tradition than the face of the club, the shape of the club, or the materials of which it is made could ever be.” Golf scribe Steve Elling has a modern take on Behr’s sentiments, bravely stating: “Manufacturers are the absolute last constituency with which anybody should be concerned. They’ll sell loads of equipment regardless. We’ll still lose just as many balls and buy the latest magic drivers and putters.”
No serious party to this discussion suggests that modern distance gains are solely due to the ball; however, addressing the ball is the simplest solution to this challenge. It is unlikely, however, such a proposal will be welcomed upfront by the majority of recreational golfers. MacKenzie foresaw that “One of the difficulties with which we have to contend is that any marked limitation of the flight of the ball is certain to be unpopular for some time after its inauguration. Golfers would dislike to find that they were unable to carry a bunker they were formally able to do. They would feel as though they had suddenly grown old.”
Critics of a ball rollback seem to overlook the salient point that golfers are free to move forward a set of tees. If a newly adopted ball were to render short hitters even shorter, they may adjust by moving up. Recalibrating in this way preserves an appropriate scale between their game and the field of play. Again, as Bobby Jones observed, “We can move all our tees forward, if we wish”.
It is conceivable, however, to design a ball compliant with newly drafted specifications that simultaneously serves the needs of all players: one that sees a reduced maximum drive of the game’s biggest hitters by roughly 30 yards, while only modestly curtailing the distance of the average recreational player by a handful of yards. Such a ball may even endow short hitters an extra yard or two. Some might see this as a fanciful wish, yet I am confident that manufacturers could rise to this challenge and devise such a ball, enjoying a handsome profit as the concept catches on. Such a step would solve a serious issue that not only pre-dates the Great Depression, but threatens the fabric of modern golf and the long-term sustainability of the game. Arnold Palmer, The King, knew as much, reflecting that “The golf ball needs to be slowed down, and the sooner we get to that the better off all of golf will be.”
Join the movement
Without a coordinated and strong push back from golfers, the game we love will be stretched even further to the brink. Until now, our voices have been too disparate to be heard.
In order to make a noise that is clear enough, and loud enough, that the governing bodies will listen, we must band together and make our call in unison.
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