15 Jul 2023 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Golf at the top level needs to be more difficult to conquer

by Mike Clayton

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy at the Scottish Open

Rory McIlroy is tuning up his links game at the Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club just across the low and ancient stone wall separating it from Muirfield, home of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

Not stone wall ancient but a relic none-the-less in terms of today’s drivers was the persimmon-headed driver McIlroy hit off one of the tees in a practice round.

Unsurprisingly McIlroy caught one "off the screws" and equally unsurprisingly it carried all of 265 yards.

Sure, the club wasn’t "optimised" for him, but it goes some of the way (a long way really) to proving the distance increases of the last two-and-a-bit decades are not all due to the athleticism of the modern-day pro.

Rather his ability to carry the ball over 300 yards is due to in part his uncommon skills and the evolution of the equipment – both club and ball.

The problem is these guys carry the ball over most of the hazards designed when the game was in scale and where the architecture was relevant and a drive and a 5-iron par 4 was a standard part of the test.

Recently someone asked McIlroy when he last hit a 5-iron into a par 4.

“I can’t remember,” was the depressing answer.

Either way there is a bigger issue with the equipment, and, bear with me here, it relates to the writers' strike in Hollywood.

Scott Galloway’s Pivot podcast (highly recommended) with Kara Swisher recently discussed the writers' strike and fair to say Galloway had little sympathy for the writers who, he argued, have been sold down the drain by the union representing their interests.

“They think they are very, very precious. Nobody owes you a living,” he said.

“If there are not enough good jobs to make enough money for you, go elsewhere.”

None of which is particularly relevant to professional golf except for one point he went on to make.

“Just as there are too many people in fashion design, there are too many people opening restaurants, there are too many people who dream of being an athlete, there are too many writers in Hollywood who were supported by the sugar high of an orgy of spending which is no longer sustainable.”

Golf too went on a sugar high in the Tiger Woods era.

Purses increased massively on the back of his popularity and the television viewers were drawn to watch perhaps the greatest player of all time. Certainly no one played better golf, and no one has come close to replacing him.

The money went up and inevitably more and more young players dreamt of being tour players.

When Tiger decimated the field at the 1997 Masters, he did it with a wound golf ball and a driver head which would look comically small up against the modern version of a driver, a club largely designed to make the game easier for the millions of people willing to spend a thousand dollars each product cycle for the promise of another 10 yards.

What the old ball and the persimmon driver, similar to the one Rory was hitting in Scotland, did was differentiate between players of different skill levels.

The ones who could properly flight the old balata ball through the wind including Peter Thomson, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Severiano Ballesteros and Woods dominated The Open Championship for decades.

So skilled were Ballesteros’ hands he never felt the need to employ a 60-degree wedge and there were no hybrid clubs giving players the ability to hit those extraordinarily high, long irons Australians came to know so well when Norman dominated our home tour.

What the modern equipment has done, aside from wildly distorting the architectural intent of so many great courses, is to throw so many more players into the same pot of skill sets.

Thousands of kids can drive the ball 300 yards, hit a bunch of wedges into greens designed for middle irons, shoot low scores and assume their games are good enough to survive on the tour and make a decent living.

Some of course do. The incredibly talented, including McIlroy, make amounts of money beyond the wildest imagination of men of generations past.

Good luck to them but it’s a small group.

Jackie Burke won The Masters in 1955 and some years ago (way back when the Korn Ferry Tour was the Ben Hogan Tour) he made the same argument Galloway was making about writers and fashion designers and restaurateurs and professional athletes.

“The pro tours are the most visible part of golf. I think we need to give golf back to the amateur," said Burrke.

"We've got the Ben Hogan Tour now, the European tour, tours all over the world and every year the colleges turn out 1500 kids who want to play those tours. And all the tours in the world can't absorb that many players.

"Out of that comes an enormous number of personal catastrophes. We can't be encouraging all these young people to live their lives week to week in motels. That's what happens, and I guarantee you it's not that much fun.

"We need to stress competitive amateur golf so a lot of these players can have a place to play and yet get on with their lives. There has to be a way to elevate competitive amateur golf; every state should have good amateur tournaments, city and state championships. And it needs to be encouraged and promoted at the club level.

"There needs to be incentive for the good player to improve."

The R&A and the USGA are charged with administering the game and finally this year they jointly announced a long-ago needed ball rollback which perhaps might have McIlroy hit an occasional 5-iron approach into a par 4.

It’s not enough for the purists but it’s a start.

More important would be to make the game, all through the bag, at the top level more difficult to play.

The consequence would be to differentiate the skills of players long before they made it to the tour because just as there aren’t enough jobs for writers in Hollywood there aren’t enough jobs for the literally thousands of kids who want to play the game for a living.

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