17 Mar 2023 | Professional golf |

Clayton: Permission to ignore golf's fan boys

by Mike Clayton

Justin Thomas image
Justin Thomas knows where his bread is buttered. Photo: Getty

Not before time golf’s administration, headquartered in St Andrews and New Jersey, have drawn a long called-for line in the sand when it comes to equipment. Primarily the target of their intended legislation is the golf ball – specifically a ball which flies too far when it’s put into play by the game’s most skilled practitioners. Predictably the ball companies have wheeled out their ‘influencers’ to sprout the company lines. The gist of Justin Thomas’ argument this week from Florida seemed to be that the game has never been in better shape, “Why are we taking the game backwards? Why are we being dictated to by 12 handicappers? We’re better athletes now and all the distance increases are due to our hard work and physical superiority.” Bryson DeChambeau offered his view. “It’s a great handicap for us guys that have worked really hard to learn how to hit it farther.” Sure, he’s worked hard, but the equipment advances have meant the game has never been easier to play at the top level. Longer and lighter shafts and driver heads resembling frying pans have allowed DeChambeau to swing as hard and as fast as he can knowing he can hit the modern ball close enough to the greens to wedge it onto most of them. Webb Simpson blamed it on the architecture. “We need more doglegs. We need tighter fairways. We need longer rough. We need smaller greens. We need more firm greens. We need to plant more trees.” For a man who played the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne it’s a poorly-conceived view. Royal Melbourne is one of the best handful of courses in the game. It’s also one where the best players in the world play it in a way unimaginable to Alister MacKenzie who laid out the club’s new course in 1926. No one is suggesting we go back to how the course played with hickory shafts and rudimentary golf balls but how Severiano Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Hale Irwin, Sam Torrance, and Graham Marsh played the course in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a fair contest between man, architect and golf course. The longer two-shot holes (some of them par 5s and others par 4s) were tests of drives and long or middle irons. Forty years on no one can argue the same as the modern ball and driver has turned even the strongest of that genre of hole into drives and short irons. Using but one as an example the 435-metre 12th on the West course is no more than a driver and a short iron in this era, something which would have undoubtedly dismayed its designer. Augusta National had the same problem with MacKenzie’s famed 13th hole but unlimited budgets afforded them to the ability to buy an adjoining hole from the Augusta Country Club and build a new tee. It'd be fair to say Royal Melbourne spending five million dollars to buy the house behind the 12th tee would be pocket change in comparison to what it cost Augusta National but that’s a lot of money to turn a driver-eight iron hole into a driver-6 iron hole and a pretty sure bet that it’s not something the members would agree to. What would happens to Royal Melbourne if the committee took Simpson’s advice and narrowed MacKenzie’s purposely wide fairways, make the greens smaller and planted more trees? It’s simple. They’d ruin it. Worse, you’d ruin almost every decent golf course in the world if you followed the 2012 US Open champion’s advice. The golf courses have no voice in this. It’s fine for the manufacturers to wheel out players to sprout the company lines – but excuse us for seeing through the blatant lobbying and paying no attention. The fan boys argue the long ball is the thing attracting a new audience to the game. Are they really suggesting the game wasn’t popular when Arnold Palmer was the king of golf in the United States, Greg Norman in Australia, and Ballesteros in Europe? They weren’t exciting enough? If Palmer, Ballesteros, and Norman were teeing of the 1st and DeChambeau, Simpson and Thomas (with all their supposed athletic superiority on full display) were on the 10th who do you think the crowd would watch? The great architects of generations past thought a golf course should ask a myriad of questions over the course of 18 holes. One question they all agreed was important was there should be a good proportion of two-shot holes (whether they be long par 4s of shorter par 5s – the two best examples of which are The Road Hole at St Andrews and Augusta’s 13th) to test drivers and either fairway woods or long irons. And for all the thrill of a long drive, is there anything more thrilling than watching a great long iron shot into a difficult green? The reality is in Australia, assuming reasonable weather conditions, there isn’t a single par-4 in the country capable of regularly asking a top player to hit a driver and a long iron onto the green. Barely half the par-5s ask it. Many will argue this only affects a tiny percentage of those who play the game. It’s true. But there was a reason Kingston Heath was an extraordinary 6830 yards in the early 1930s. Australia’s best courses were all built to test first-class play and to hold the country’s biggest championships. If they were simply meant to be ‘members courses’ their designers would have made them 400 or 500 metres shorter. The same is true of the great championship courses in Britain and the United States. They are important venues, and they are entitled to ask questions of the best players resembling the questions their architects intended them to ask. Indeed, you have to wonder why the finest players of this generation are so reluctant to play something at least resembling the tests set for Nicklaus, Palmer, Sam Snead or Bobby Jones. The administration’s proposal is to roll the ball back for elite man to, it seems, roughly where it was between 2000 and 2010. Many, including me, think it is not anywhere near far enough. The Titleist company came out with their undoubtedly amazing and revolutionary ProV1 ball in 2000 and there have been multiple incarnations of it since. For the first time there was a ball which flew like a solid, two-piece Top Flite or Pinnacle but spun into, and around, the greens like an old, wound balata ball. It completely changed the game and within a few years every great, old championship course in the world was rendered obsolete if the measure was how they played when compared with how MacKenzie and his brilliant contemporaries imagined them playing. No one is suggesting we do back to the 1920s or even the 1980s when the longest drivers on the tour were averaging around 285 yards. Something between that and Rory McIlroy’s 325- yard average would seem a reasoned compromise. The other thing the modern equipment has done is thrown so many more players into the same skill set, something making it so much harder to break out of the pack. They all drive the ball further than Norman did at his flying best. The modern long iron or hybrid is infinitely easier to hit than those tiny, blade one and two irons mastered by Jack Nicklaus, Norman, Ballesteros and, of course, Tiger Woods. Woods is one who has long been in favour of a rollback. “We need to do something about the golf ball. I just think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf courses, if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7400-7800 yards long. And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8000-yard course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property these type of golf courses.” If I was Justin Thomas and played as well as he did, I’d be arguing for the game to be made more difficult because it’d surely make it easier for him to show off why he is one of the best dozen players in the game. But you only had to watch his press conference from Florida this week to understand why that’s not the path he is choosing to do down. The answer was on the front of his white hat.

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