17 Jan 2019 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: Power and the passion

by Mike Clayton

Brooks Koepka image
Brooks Koepka bombs the ball, but it's not his fault. Photo: Getty

The 1970s were always, for me anyway, golf’s most enchanting decade. Perhaps it was just a young boy’s hero worship of the gods of his time, but what amazing skills and sentiment they evoked. Perhaps it was because they were more mysterious and unfamiliar compared with the superstars of today whose every shot and utterance is observable on our televisions and phones. Jack Nicklaus was, of course, the main man. But as the 1960s great man Arnold Palmer’s form waned, Gary Player still stood, as did Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf – the most elegant of them all and he of the swing every kid envied – Johnny Miller and the emerging Tom Watson. Between them, they won nine of the decade’s ten Open titles with Severiano Ballesteros finally, in 1979, breaking the stranglehold of players who played primarily on the American circuit, with respect to Gary Player who did use his passport a lot more than a couple of times a year. It became the world’s Open in the 1980s, as the American dominance was broken by Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman then later by Nick Price, Ernie Els and the rest of the non-Americans. A huge part of the rise of the “foreigner” was the introduction in 1974, Player’s year, of the American-sized ball. It was harder to play in the wind and Lytham that week was a brutal test with only Player breaking par. The third-round cut – they entertained such silliness back then, as if it wasn’t hard enough making one – fell at 18 over par. In part, it was because the American ball was aerodynamically suited to being flown high through the air in the United States and within a few years, the manufacturers had made a ball more suited to play in both Britain and Australia. Either way, it was only a handful of years until the emergence of Ballesteros and his great foreign contemporaries – Faldo, Langer, Lyle, Norman, Woosnam and Olazabal – who soon adapted to methods better suited to the larger ball. Their generation was the crossover one, learning to play with the small ball and having to adapt, but it was critical to the advancement of the non-American player. So it is this week at Royal Portrush we have two men cited as the most likely to win coming from wildly different places, yet both playing brilliant forms of the modern power game. How local Rory McIlroy and Florida man Brooks Koepka play will be the fascination of this week at Royal Portrush. It’s hard to argue they aren’t the two best players in the game. Rory at his flying best looks unbeatable and Koepka is granite at the major championships and seemingly almost uncaring at the regular week-to-week tournaments on the American tour. Four major wins against two regular events attests to his seeming lack of interest away from the historic championships. He certainly seemed to admit as much at his Open press conference this week: “I just practise before majors. Regular tournaments I don’t practice.” Hardly Player, Vijay Singh or Ben Hogan. Koepka, unlike the much more expansive McIlroy, gives nothing of his feelings away either to the press or those playing against him, especially on the back nine. Does he love golf – or even like it? Should we like him or simply admire his skills? We asked the same question of tennis legend Ivan Lendl. Or is he just the coolest bloke going around, uncaring of all the corporate hype infesting the game and selling the notion all is perfect in the world of professional golf? He and Rory are the result of what is wrong with it, as unchecked technology has reduced courses all over the world into pitch-and-putt affairs. It is not their fault. It took a while to see the results of the administrator’s decision to play the bigger ball and it’s taken the best part of two decades to see the results of unchecked golf balls and drivers. Power is king to an extent never previously seen, the intent of the architecture is lost and the skill it took to rip a balata ball through a heavy seaside wind with a persimmon driver is a long forgotten memory. Of course, this is the week where the combination of fascinating duneland perfect for playing golf, great architecture and the promise of seaside winds makes The Open the most interesting of all the championships. It’s the reason it has identified the best players in the world with greater regularity than any other. And, likely 40 years hence, today’s adolescents with McIlroy, Koepka, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott and Jason Day (neither without chance this week), as their idols will look back at this era and yearn for them and what they brought to the game.

Written as a preview of the 1999 Open

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