18 Sep 2020 | Professional golf | Feature stories |

The search for better golf

by Mike Clayton

JB Holmes image
JB Holmes was far from the first slow player. Photo: Getty

First published in Golf Vic magazine 2019

Golf Australia’s Inside the Ropes podcast host Andy Maher jokingly announced a while ago the introduction of a Roger Bannister award for egregious examples of playing golf at about the same rate as soil erosion.

Bannister, the first man to run the mile in under four minutes, did it quicker than it took J.B. Holmes to play his long second shot into the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in 2018 at what used to be called the San Diego Open.

Worse, Holmes eschewed the challenge of flying the pond in front of the green and eventually chose instead to lay up short. Given he needed an eagle to tie, it was a pretty amazing decision.

Slow play is hardly a new problem. Cary Middlecoff, Snead’s partner at the 1959 Canada Cup at Royal Melbourne, was from all accounts torturously slow and Jack Nicklaus was deliberate at best.

Bernhard Langer and Peter Fowler likewise were hardly speed merchants.

Players have been bleating forever about slow play and we are a long way from the 36-hole final day of the 1926 Open Championship at Royal Lytham when Bobby Jones and Al Watrous teed off just after nine o’clock in the morning, walked back to the hotel for lunch, and arrived back for their just-after-one-o’clock afternoon tee time.

Lest you think they were fooling around miles behind the leaders, Jones beat Watrous by a shot and won the championship.

Jones wasn’t playing for any money and its presence – or rather the staggering amounts of it in the game – is an oft-used excuse for the pace of play problem.

I’m not sure why taking longer makes you any more likely to play a good shot or better golf and many times the opposite is the case. Lanny Wadkins, one of the best American players in the 1970s and 80s, was closer to Usain Bolt than Bannister and our own Matt Jones isn’t one to wait around, something making him an engaging player to watch.

The 2019 adjustments to the rules of golf introduced a recommendation encouraging players to play efficiently between shots and holes.

Rule 5.6 also states “a player should make a stroke in no more than 40 seconds (and usually in less time).” It is a recommendation that in this instance for PGA Tour players is about as useless as a 1.62 inch surlyn-covered Top Flite (great into the wind but essentially a rock) used to be into the third green on the West at Royal Melbourne when the wind was behind.

You were as sure to be off the back of the green with that ball as a tour player is sure of not being penalised for taking double or triple the recommended 40 seconds to play a shot.

One thing for certain is in 30 years the same pace of play debate will be going on and not too much will have been achieved. Unless, of course, the tours, the players and the rule makers get serious – and the only way it’s going to happen is if the television money dries up as the game grinds to a halt.

The best clubs are seemingly always searching for better greens and better golf and around Melbourne, you have two rebuilt courses at Peninsula Kingswood, Victoria has rebuilt its greens and Yarra Yarra has been transformed by Tom Doak.

I’ve heard some complain that Yarra is ‘easier’ and maybe it is but it is surely infinitely better than the course of a few years ago, one its original designer Alex Russell would barely have recognised and surely not have approved.

The National, too, has the new Gunnamatta Course which will sit among the finest in the country.

Twenty years ago no-one could have imagined The National, Peninsula Kingswood and Barnbougle would show off six of the very best courses in Australia and it’s testament to golfers continuing to search for better, more interesting and more inspiring golf.

Great golf was the inspiration behind the sandbelt courses Russell, Alister MacKenzie and their contemporaries gave life to and the future in this state is always going to be about better golf.

Those offering it will surely thrive long into the future and the decisions made by those at the aforementioned clubs are worthy of study and understanding.

Edited and republished with the approval of Golf Victoria

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