05 Feb 2020 | Industry news | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Finally, some progress on ball debate

by Mike Clayton

golf balls

Finally, and likely at least a decade late, the game’s administration has reached the conclusion the ball, in the hands of the game’s best players, is flying too far.

The long-awaited distance report jointly released by the USGA and the R&A concludes any further significant increase in distance at the highest level is undesirable, whether the increase comes from equipment, coaching, course conditioning or athleticism.

All four are in some way responsible for the reality so many of the game’s best courses are either obsolete in the face of the archetypical modern-day power player, or well on their way to being reduced to a series and drives and short irons.

The “continuing cycle of increases” is deemed to be detrimental to golf’s long-term future for two reasons.

The first is one proponents of a restriction on the seemingly never-ending race for distance have long both observed and argued.

The questions asked by the great architects of generations past – the men who gave us brilliant courses including Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Victoria, Metropolitan, Royal Adelaide, Lake Karrinyup, New South Wales -- are completely compromised by a ball flying (over two shots) up to 80 metres further than Alister MacKenzie, Alex Russell and others were designing for.

MacKenzie recognised early on that “there is no limit to science” and the ball would be made to go further as manufacturing advanced. He suggested clubs leave room behind tees to allow for the inevitable need to add length, but not even he could have imagined how short Royal Melbourne played for the best players in the game during the Presidents Cup.

That it remained some sort of challenge was down to the brilliant green complexes he crafted with Russell, his Australian-based partner and amazing holes full of strategic nuance.

Kingston Heath has been stretched almost as far as it can go, and the Australian Open at the end of the year will likely show its 7400 yards still fall short of the test it was in the early 1930s when it was just over 6800 yards and one of the very longest courses in the world.

The administration suggests this increase in distance reduces variety and creativity of shot types. Any observation of the modern power game would come to the same conclusion.

“As holes are overpowered by distance there is an increased emphasis on the importance of distance at the expense of accuracy and other skills,’’ it says.

The increasing number of courses at risk of being “less challenging’’ and “ultimately obsolete for the longest hitters” is, they argue, “a serious loss for the game”.

No one can argue with this conclusion. To diminish the test, to reduce the questions great holes including Royal Melbourne’s sixth hole ask down to drives and wedges is horrifying to those who care about the treasured courses of the game.

No doubt too, the R&A are desperately worried the Old Course at St Andrews may offer up six or even seven driveable par fours at next year’s Open Championship. The timing of the report and the coming in 17 months of the 150th Open cannot surely be coincidental?

Many, perhaps even the majority of golfers, either have no opinion or don’t care a dot about it. The manufacturers likely aim to make a ball capable of flying 400 yards, but one has to ask at what point how far is too far?

It’s not for the manufacturers to stop innovating but it is for the administration to put reasoned boundaries around what they do without the threat of the whole thing finishing up in a massive and expensive fight in a court, something only serving to make lawyers rich.

Importantly to the report recognises the environmental and financial impact of the game’s expanding footprint. Lengthening old courses and building new longer ones is both expensive and “at odds with societal concerns over water, chemicals and other resources.”

What to do?

The suggestion is to require equipment conforming to a set of reduced-distance specifications including a ball that doesn’t fly as far and clubs that won’t hit as far.

These new balls and clubs may “be a defined sub-set of the overall category of conforming equipment”.

This seems to be the key to the report.

It’s not suggesting rolling the ball back for all but rather giving committees running tournaments the ability to determine which equipment is able to be used. It’s bifurcation but the game has been through a set of bifurcated rules in the past as the American continent played the 1:68 ball and the rest of the world the small and longer-flying 1:62 ball.

One assumes the Open Championship and the US Open will drive the stake in the ground and mandate players use the revised equipment. It’s impossible to see Augusta not following their lead. Nor the Australian Open.

The ball then is squarely in the court of the PGA Tour and their reaction will be the most interesting of all. Surely, it’s going to be hard for them to argue the game was dull and uninspiring in the eras of Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer when they drove the ball, statistically, thirty yards shorter than the bombers of today.

Staggeringly there is a handful of players on the LPGA Tour who drive the ball as far or further than Greg Norman at his flying best. I’m not sure you can argue it’s because they are better athletes.

“We believe,” the report concludes, “it is time to break the cycle of increasingly longer hitting distances and golf courses and to work to build a long-term future that reinforces golf’s essential challenge and enhances the viability of both existing courses and courses yet to be built.”

We hear howls of protest from the United States and threats of hundreds of thousands of people giving up the game if they take precious yards away, but I wonder how many even realise the rest of the world gave up as much as 20 metres in the early 1980s when forced to adopt the big ball.

Few complained and no one, as far as I know, gave up the game.

This is real progress after years of prevarication by the administration and we can only hope there is a will of steel to advance their arguments against those who care about little but profits, the selling of hope to the gullible and the endless chase of a few more yards.

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