Golf Australia

COMMENT: It's ball o'clock, surely

Golf ball

I nearly choked.

As millions of others doubtless had, I’d been marvelling at Justin Thomas’ record US Open score (against par) as a storm of third-round birdies washed over Erin Hills.

And then, in the post-round Golf Channel analysis, Brandel Chamblee uttered words that surely made Alister MacKenzie roll in his grave.

“We need longer courses,” Chamblee demanded as my jaw stopped millimetres above the floor.

“They need to be 8000 yards … maybe even longer.”

Wait? What?

Longer than the major championship record 7839 yards (7168m) than Erin Hills was set up for the second round?

Because some guys went low? Are you kidding?

By contrast, the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco – to some the toughest of the “traditional” US Open layouts – played at 7170 yards (6556m) in 2012, and even then after eight “longer” tees were added and two other par-threes substantially lengthened from the previous four times the club had hosted the year’s second major.

That course was played as a par-70 – an often overlooked fact when arguments flare over the perception that the USGA tries to manufacture a “par” winner.

There are myriad differences, obviously, between a heavily tree-lined coastal gem and a relatively new “links-style” mid-west course with just five trees on the property – not least of which is the comparative “bounciness” and run of the fairways.

The cut was made at eight over at Olympic; it was made at a record low one over par at Erin Hills where most players asked as they left the sprawling course said that it really wasn’t playing its true length because of how many metres were gained on downhill tee shots that ran out like antelopes across the Serengeti.

You might think that sounds as though I’m advocating for an increased yardage.

But you’d be WAY wrong.

I’m firstly saying that course length isn’t the decisive factor.

But the nub of the matter is surely, at long last, there must be some form of consensus on how technology, primarily the ball, is making courses obsolete.

We could pull up a bar stool and argue all day about whether a US Open course should be set up to find a winner near level par. I would argue that finding the best player in the field is more important than the score, but there’s a strong case for those who think the USGA’s pinnacle event should be discernibly different to regular US PGA Tour events.

Of the flaws in Chamblee’s argument, I’d say the most significant is that if we made courses ever longer, we’re actually diminishing the chances of all bar the power hitters in the field.

On the 72nd tee of this US Open, soon-to-be champion Brooks Koepka was on the threshold of his maiden major, so opted for a 3-wood, presumably for “safety”. He promptly dispatched it a lazy 379 yards. No, that’s not a mis-print.

This on the same hole on which Thomas flushed his three-wood second shot 2.5m past the pin a day earlier – on the 681-yard par five – on his way to an eagle for a sublime 63, just one of a record 32 rounds under par that afternoon.

In the final round, 50 of the 68 players to make the cut averaged more than 300 yards off the tee.

These numbers once would have been filed comfortably under the tag of science fiction. But now they’re all too real for a game that needs to address its future urgently and collectively, in much the same way it has with modernised rules proposals and the world handicap system initiative.

They naturally added up to an equal record US Open winning score – and by far the lowest scoring average in the tournament’s history.

Some critics are having a field day saying “links-style” courses such as Erin Hills have no place on the US Open rota because they’re too easy or “have no soul”, whatever that means.

What a load of rubbish that is, logically. Soul comes from history and design genius, not from high scores.

Expect next year’s host, Shinnecock Hills, to be lauded for paying heed to traditions when it returns to the famous New York venue for the fifth time.

Reality check, though: it’s a variation (albeit vast) on the same links-style course we just saw in Wisconsin – and you can bet now it won’t be won at 16 under, nor magically lengthened to 8000 yards.

The quick answer, naturally, to reining in these scores will therefore lie in set-up variations – longer rough, narrower fairways, faster greens, tucked pins to name a few.

And in some senses, this will be a good thing because, hopefully, it will reinvigorate the subtlety of shot-making as opposed to the current dominant trend of bludgeoning.

But it’s a temporary patch on a bigger issue.

My far more learned colleague Mike Clayton wrote these prophetic words just last week: “Any young player studying the tour’s driving statistics understands the five longest hitters make a whole lot more money than the five straightest hitters.”

That, naturally, is eye-opening research for any up-and-comers to undertake. But again, surely it rules out a whole genre of a game that’s very beauty is that anyone should be able to contend; that it’s not always advantageous to one mould of playing styles.

The sport, at this highest level, has become, at all bar the bounciest British links courses, a matter of driver or 3-wood, then your choice of up to five wedges.

Admittedly, these same problems aren’t exactly multiplying in club land. Then again, it’s nowhere near as relevant in competitions that rely on handicaps.

But when you’re advocating building or remodelling courses on the north side of 7500m, you’ve forgotten what the game’s all about.

How do you think that instruction would wash with members of Warringah Golf Club in Sydney’s north as they fight to maintain land its local council wants to claim back for other sports and developments?

Or with clubs that have no space to grow such as Royal Perth, which has a beautiful 6038m layout that is almost perfectly woven into the smallest parcel of land such a facility requires?

That list would be nearly infinite for logistical reasons, let alone finances.

Not to mention the additional maintenance and increase in time to play a round when the opposite is plainly critical to the game’s future.

Which brings us back to the ball – the only logical conclusion.

The game’s primary governing bodies – the R&A and USGA – are, admittedly, in a pickle when it comes to the legal aspects of applying the technological handbrake.

Tennis administrators exercised their power over their balls’ properties to slow it down a generation ago, but in golf, it’s the manufacturers who hold sway.

A protracted legal battle – such as that which once raged over Ping Eye 2 clubs and their grooves – is definitely not an attractive proposition for the sport’s top administrators as they face demands, both moral and financial, on many levels, most notably from those at grass-roots level who rightly claim their absolute importance to the sport’s future.

MacKenzie, the architectural mastermind of some of the world’s most revered courses, implored those in charge to reel in the ball as far back as the 1920s – as with many things in golf, he was ahead of his time.

Now, almost a century later, it’s the only sensible step.

I think very few people would look to Formula 1 motor racing as a moral arbiter, but at least they’ve had a crack over the years at clamping technology to vaguely manageable levels. At the opposite end of that scale, two almost laughable words: America’s Cup.

That, admittedly, is extreme. But you get my point.

Golf is surely, now, at the crossroads of what it becomes into the future.

Top administrators for years have been at pains to keep the game at the highest levels as close as possible to the one us hackers enjoy each weekend. But permit me to face facts on the majority’s behalf, the last time I hit a ball 380 yards was with two solid clunks to a par-four.

That similarity ship has sailed.

So unless they suddenly start doling out new, free land to any tournament golf course that needs it – or unless your club is Augusta National and can afford it regardless – it’s time to stop the ball.

We simply cannot have discussions about building new, longer courses that require the land area of some small European countries. It’s just not viable.

So please, Brandel, I like most of your thoughts, but let’s start pushing in a logical direction.

Better late than never, MacKenzie might say, but finally, surely, it’s ball o’clock.


Posted by Warwick at
27/07/2017 05:16 PM
Yaawn - ridiculous article based on .000034% of the golfing population - get real!!!!!
Posted by Willem Strauss at
27/06/2017 10:36 PM
I understand some concerns, but why change? Every pro game I watch on TV is enjoyable and most with a tense end where the best guy over 4 days would walk away with the prize. What pleasure to see the pro hit the ball 350 down the fairway. Maybe cut the fairway narrower and leave a longer second cut to give the more accurate hitters a better chance.
Posted by Johan Gouws at
27/06/2017 09:04 PM
Leave the ball alone. what is the loft of the 3 wood that Koepka used? maybe 11 degree? And he was in the zone...and he played well..take your hat off to him..he might not do it again..the woods are full of long hitters balls...make the fairways narrower and the rough longer. Not everybody can hit a ball 387 yards
Posted by Steve Smith at
27/06/2017 05:08 PM
Wimbledon tennis officials had the balls (pun intended!) to make changes to their balls, which has made the men's game eminently more watchable these days than 25 years ago. Women tennis players also play with smaller balls! Do the golf authorities have what it takes to make important and logical decisions??!!
Posted by Perry Somers at
22/06/2017 11:39 PM
It's way past ball o'clock as you call it. The R&A and USGA have been sitting on their hands for too many years. Where's the legal problem with giving stipulated compression specifications to all manufacturers? They would still have their brand on the ball and thrive staff players would still promote their product. The ball would just have to be made precisely the same way from everyone. Where's the problem with that. By the way, Bernard Darwin was writing of the ball going too far in 1920!
Posted by Matt at
22/06/2017 09:39 PM
Alternatively, the fairways could stop 250m to 275m from the tee. If the player hits it 280m, they will find themselves in thick grass with an average lie. The closely mown surface could then resume 50m or so from the green.
Posted by Scott at
22/06/2017 01:42 PM
Tight fairways with minimal rough and firm greens. Deep rough players just hack out and wedge it close. Light rough puts doubt in your mind and can cause flyers resulting in double bogies or worse.
Posted by Ross Murrihy at
22/06/2017 12:52 PM
Toughen up the rough in the landing area, then it is risk and reward
Posted by Garry Kennedy at
22/06/2017 10:04 AM
Great article Mark. I think let the ball manufacturers knock themselves out and produce whatever they like for the weekend hack, but in tournament play beginning at State level, let's issue a golf ball for play (everyone uses the same ball that can, for example, go a maximum 280 metres with a driver). Tournaments can be shared between manufacturers and the longer hitters will still hit the ball further than shorter hitters, we'll just reign in the distances they reach. Then we can keep on enjoying our great old courses.
Posted by Neville Gray at
22/06/2017 09:34 AM
I would prefer to watch a golf tournament where the winner might be 20 under par rather than watch the best players in the world damaging their wrists and backs trying to hit a ball out of a wheat field. Who cares if a top professional hits the ball 350 yards? I have a handicap of 16 so I have two shots to get that far. There has already been enough damage done to "club" golf with the ridiculous, bizarre, course rating system, e.g. Kurri Kurri and Newcastle (white tees) are both rated 123 where Newcastle is clearly 4-5 strokes harder than Kurri. Get rid of 95% of the current rules and subsequent interpretations and get back to enjoying the game
Posted by Gordon Halliday at
22/06/2017 09:29 AM
We must use technology to make the game more interesting and skillful at the e-lite level by modifying the golf ball design. Why not tailor balls to championship courses e.g the St Andrew's ball. Bring finesse and shot variety back into the game.
Posted by Arthur Little at
21/06/2017 11:39 PM
The subject of length of courses is something I have studied over the past 20 years with concentration on making courses shorter in order to have courses fit more people with slower swing speeds. In no way am I suggesting that the sport needs monster courses, but the yardage the present pros need to play to have an experience similar to us mere mortals is between 9200 and 9500 yards. Arthur Little
Posted by Bob Angus at
21/06/2017 10:58 PM
About time this obvious argument came properly on the table. Short answer is to have a 'controlled' ball for all players once they reach a to be defined elite level as it should also apply to the 'shamamateurs' as well as the Pro's. Dont penalise to weekend golfer by making them play a ball designed to curtail ( to some extent ) the length available from today's golf balls because to do so would only add to the problem of the gradually reducing number of club member golfers. Other sports have introduced measures of control to promote technological equality. For golf administration to do so it has to be directed to the ball. The big question really is whether the Ruling Bodies ( R&A and USGA ) have the courage to do so!
Posted by Wayne Murray at
21/06/2017 08:38 PM
An excellent article and certainly must be on GA's agenda to act upon it. What is GA's official view?
Posted by David York at
21/06/2017 08:29 PM
What other sport keeps altering the playing field to accommodate advancement in equipment,in golf in general for small clubs with ageing membership courses are long enough, where will the game bee in 20 years, kaput. I've been playing for 70 years and still going,have been a scratch player with a current handicap of 10 and seen a lot of changes, there is no promotion from the Australian and State bodies to the club beginners from the elite players, the various football codes are going to kill golf in its current form, promotion of golf is all on circulars , no bodies on the ground as there was in my earlier days.I feel for the future of Golf. Regards David
Posted by george marangon at
21/06/2017 06:19 PM
it has to be the ball
Posted by Sasha at
21/06/2017 06:03 PM
I think the pro should play with old technology ie balls and clubs to reduce the length they hit
Posted by Trevor Luscombe at
21/06/2017 05:56 PM
Your comments make are extremely sensible. To make course longer surely is detrimental to the overall game of golf which at club level is struggling to maintain the number of members they currently have. To make the game harder will surely deter not only new people to the game and cause older players to give the game away earlier than they normally would.
Posted by Denis at
21/06/2017 05:09 PM
When "championship" courses remove McKenzie greens and bunkers to test professionals, golf has lost. Balls have to be reviewed - not length - any girl or boy who loves golf knows that!
Posted by Russell at
21/06/2017 05:04 PM
If the ruling bodies are concerned about legal issues from ball manufacturers, then start by making championship layout courses tighter, more hazards and narrower fairways. To make the most of these, ball manufacturers may need different styles of balls (say one's that bite and stop) so their market and innovativeness will not be diminished. Then (in say 5 plus years) put technological restrictions on ball design concerning length - problem solved without litigation. And also avoiding more demands for land.
Posted by David Worley at
21/06/2017 04:20 PM
The problem can be solved easily. Start with the big professional events or even just the Majors - all players must use the same ball which will be designed to go approx. average distances achieved in 1990. The ball will not have a makers mark, it will just say, e.g.. ,US Open 2017. Simple analogy - If I am playing at Wimbledon, I don't and can't bring along my own tennis balls To save our great older courses this is an imperative.

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