22 Dec 2023 | Opinion | Professional golf | Participation | Amateur golf |

Clayton: Why the golf ball rollback should only be the start

by Mike Clayton

Golfer silhouette

Imagine you live and play golf in mile-high Denver, where the altitude adds 10 per cent to your drives.

Someone invites you to the heaven on earth golf course by Alister MacKenzie at Cypress Point.

Do you decline the invitation because it’s by the ocean and instead of driving 240 meters you’ll only get hit it 220?

Of course not, it’d be silly but the debate about the proposed USGA/R&A ball rollback at the end of the decade is hysterical in the extreme.

You’d think the world was going to end judged by the reaction in the United States and the United States is primarily and inevitably where the debate is focused.

Padraig Harrington perhaps best summed the American problem when he said, recently: “It’s a distinctly different the reaction to the rollback in the United States than certainly in Ireland and in Europe. You guys hate the USGA. We actually love the R&A.”

Perhaps it’s the inherent mistrust or scepticism of government and its role in the United States but there is a widespread backlash against the administration taking perhaps up to 25 yards off the very longest drivers and incrementally less from the shorter hitters.

So little that most wouldn’t notice and if they do, well, move the tee markers up five yards.

That anything is taken from the 95+ per cent of golfers is entirely on the manufacturers who resisted any suggestion the game be bifurcated, thus separating the players at the highest levels from the rest.

The administration, understanding doing nothing wasn’t an option, did what the manufacturers wanted and instead opted not to split the game.

Likely it was a decision unexpected by the ball makers who would prefer distance gains went on unchecked forever.

They, in the fashion of every lobby group from big tobacco, alcohol, gambling, oil companies, the NRA, and all the rest, argue out of self-interest and use fear of consequences as the base of their argument.

Remember when banning smoking in restaurants was going to destroy restaurants? Smoking in aeroplanes?

The American reaction and the American problem with the rollback are borne of historical ignorance and what happened to the "rest of the world" over the decade from 1974.

The 1974 Open Championship at Royal Lytham was the first “Big Ball’ (1.68’) Open and a windy week on a difficult links made for high scoring.

Gary Player at 2-under was the only man to break par. Johnnie Miller, who’d won eight tournaments in the Unites States in the first half of the season, was 10-over in 10th place.

The smaller 1.62 inch ‘British’ ball was 20 to 25 meters longer than the American version and noticeably easier to use in the wind.

Still, inflicting the more difficult to use ball on the "rest of the world" was the right decision and by 1978, Australians were playing the 1.68 ball on the local tour.

Our best players detested switching balls when they came back from the United States and if we were ever to compete successfully overseas, we all had to learn – as David Graham, Bruce Devlin, and Bruce Crampton had done - to play the American ball.

By 1983, the small ball was illegal for everyone, and no one really complained about the loss of distance, and no one gave up the game because of it.

For women, it was probably easier to hit because it sat up a little more and most golfers found it easier to play the shorter shots around the green.

Of course, few in America are even aware of what was effectively a rollback - and more- because it didn’t affect them. Now it does and you’d think the administration was sentencing the opponents of the regulation to a life of golfing purgatory.

Rolling the ball back for the average player isn’t necessary but if we all want to play by the same rules it is.

It’s important to reduce the distance the ball flies because golf courses are entitled to ask players a full range of questions.

For the longest time, architects would build a 440-metre hole, knowing, all things being equal, it’d be a test of a drive and a middle or long iron.

Most often – but not always – they would build greens appropriately sized, defended and contoured for the shot they assumed most would be playing.

But combine the modern ball and driver and the tee shots of the best players are 40 metres closer the green than the longest drivers of the Norman era.

The middle iron approach is now an eight or a nine iron into greens most often built to accommodate much longer clubs and shots. Of course, it’s something of a generalisation but not by much.

Alister MacKenzie, for example, would be horrified to learn his Royal Melbourne par-5, second,12th and 15th holes are barely more than drives and short irons for the best players.

Or that Augusta National’s 13th hole is now 65 yards longer (at the cost of millions of dollars to buy the necessary land from neighbouring Augusta Country Club) to regain the essence of the "monumental decision" MacKenzie and Bobby Jones envisaged when they envisaged the long second shot across Rae’s Creek.

At the game’s greatest course in St Andrews, the back tees and now so far back it’s a miserable experience to walk back and to the right so often to get to tees made to simply accommodate the equipment.

During Open Championships on The Old Course the back tees are now on four golf courses. The second tee is on the Himalayas green, the ninth on the New, 14 on the Eden - and the 17th is, technically, out of bounds.

In the recent Australian Open I caddied for Elvis Smylie. The Australian was a fearsome course in the early 1980s and many will recall the brilliant long irons Jack Nicklaus and Bob Shearer hit into the home green with the 1982 Australian Open in the balance.

Those shots were starkly contrasted by the short irons we saw the winner Joaquin Niemann hitting into the same green. Or Min Woo Lee’s nine iron from the pine needles earlier in the week.

Nine irons as second shots into the 18th at The Australian would have been unimaginable to Nicklaus when he redesigned the hole in 1977. Likely he’d have built a bigger green, filled in the drive bunkers, added a back tee, and called it a par-4.

The Lakes isn’t as long at The Australian but the kiyuyu fairways offered up no run, a fact at odds with the argument one of the reasons the ball is going further is an excess of run on modern, tight cut fairways.

There were 43 par fours between the two courses and Smylie hit an eight iron or less to all but half a dozen of them. At the six other holes he hit a pair each of five irons, six irons and seven irons.

Which reminds of the question Mike Whan, the CEO of the USGA, asked Rory McIlroy (before the amazing two iron he hit into the 72nd green at the Scottish Open in July) “When did you last hit a six iron to a par four?”

“I don’t remember.”

Anyone accepting a golf course is entitled ask the best players in the world to do more than hit short irons to par-4s cannot possibly argue the current state of the game is of no concern.

Some mistakenly think this is about scoring and altering the dimensions of golf courses by growing more trees, narrowing the fairways, moving the fairway bunkers, and making more doglegs is somehow a solution.

It’s difficult to understand such stupidity. They’d ruin the essence of our best Sandbelt courses, The Old Course, Royal Portrush, Shinnecock Hills, Pebble Beach and countless others just to accommodate the ball?

Championship courses the world over have already spend millions on making back tees the members rarely use – but pay for anyway.

And, the history of the game tells us the freak in one generation always becomes the norm in the next.

First it was Ted Ray, then in succession Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love and Greg Norman, John Daly, Tiger Woods and now McIlroy.

The next is Gordon Sargent who at the recent Walker Cup at St Andrews reduced every par-4 to a driver and a wedge and routinely flies the ball 350 yards.

This rollback is at least a start. It’s not going to have the effect many hope for, but at the very minimum it’ll keep things where they are now.

If the administration were really serious, they’d go back to a driver the size of the Titleist 975 driver Woods used at the 2000 US Open – where he averaged just under 300 yards off the tee.

They would reduce the length of the tee by half and take 30 yards from McIlroy and 50 from Sargent with a regulated ball.

McIlroy is a believer in the regulation because, amongst other things, he understands the harder the game is to play the greater the advantage to the best players.

However only, he and Woods are big enough to come out in support of the administration because the rest of the game’s best players either have opinions bought by the manufacturers or they are tapped on the shoulder and reminded they aren’t being paid to talk about a shorter ball.

Presumably just as cigarette salesmen weren’t paid to talk about the risks of smoking.

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