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FEATURE: Would Masters curb the ball?

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy's driving distance is a key reason behind his rise to the top of world golf. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Can you imagine the headlines and furore if Augusta National put a one-week-only cap on ball technology?

Spare a thought, just for a second, for all that would entail for the game's governing bodies, its equipment manufacturers and even the elite pros themselves.

And then ponder the motive behind Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne's remarks on the matter in his annual "state of the union" address at the Masters.

Payne, one of the world's most unflappable and thoughtful orators, sent out his scripted messages on a range of "housekeeping" matters.

As is custom, he then fielded questions from the world's golf media on topics ranging from Lexi Thompson's ruling to the possible - and quickly shut down - possibility of mobile phones being allowed at the Masters any time soon.

And then the almost annual question - albeit in various guises - about golf technology and the related and perennial sidebar on course alteration.

There are very few people who would read anything malicious about his politically savvy response to a question of whether or not ball technology needed to be wound back.

"(The USGA and R&A) are working together to ensure that it does not become a problem, and as is always the case, we have great confidence in their ability to forge a solution," Payne responded.

But then, not a shot across the bow so much as a subtle reminder about the club's unrivalled power.

"But of course, as you would imagine, we always reserve the right to do whatever we have to do to preserve the integrity of our golf course.

"But I don’t think that will ever happen."

Again, it's measured and hardly likely to set off alarm bells at St Andrews.

But just think about the ramifications of that going ahead.

Would players agree to play? Would all the tours, many doubtless with lucrative equipment contracts, continue their full sanctioning support? Would fans be disenchanted when a McIlroy "bomb" only went 220m and tune out in droves?

There are a million questions - and one suspects they'll never need to be answered.

Yet it is a fascinating thought.

Almost as interesting is the reason behind Payne's words, remembering that he almost never puts a size 10 Footjoy anywhere near his mouth.

The game's governing bodies have a VERY close relationship with Augusta National these days, as evidenced by their collaboration at events such as the Asia-Pacific and Latin American amateur championships.

And you can't imagine that Payne and his cohorts hadn't ponied up their desire to keep their course playable as technology, despite some statistics to the contrary, makes them more susceptible year by year.

On the matter of course changes, especially given the new land available to the club's south-west after the re-routing of the adjoining Berckmans Road, Payne typically said nothing and a lot all at the same time.

"It's fair to say, as is always the case, we are always looking at certain holes, certain other improvements to the golf course, and we talked about some of those, and I think they are all pretty obvious," he said in a way that didn't quite reference the land behind the fourth green and fifth tee, but said as much anyway.

"We have a great opportunity now in that we now own the old Berckmans Road. It gives us the ability, as it touches certain holes, it gives us some way to expand or re-design ... not re-design, but lengthen some of those holes, should we choose to do so, and all of them are under review."

It might be reaching to suggest the two topics are inextricably linked.

But it's not a stretch to acknowledge that at least someone in a position of power is close to thinking enough is enough.

The fourth and fifth holes have traditionally been two of the tougher Masters holes, so surely additional length would be a by-product of the changes nobody that matters ever acknowledges.

So was Payne firing a polite, largely non-descript reminder as to the club's power? Maybe.

Was he using his only fully public forum for the year to plant the seed of a ruction in the halls of power? Almost certainly not.

Or is it more a case that, weighing up all the arguments about technology, athlete training and biomechanical knowledge, he's hinting publicly that enough is just about enough? Quite possibly, yes.

Regardless of choices made by golf's powerbrokers, even for the uber-wealthy Augusta National, there is only so much land to buy and resculpt holes.



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