Golf Australia

OPINION: Medinah mauling the last straw

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas rips a driver at Medinah en route to smashing scoring records.

The 1975 US Open at Medinah immediately followed the infamous “Massacre at Winged Foot” where Hale Irwin’s grinding seven-over-par 287 on one of the hardest golf courses in the United States was good enough to win by two shots.

It spawned the now famous quote from USGA blueblood Sandy Tatum, who, in answer to the question of whether officials were trying to humiliate the players, he replied: “No, we are just trying to identify them.”

Many thought 1974 a reaction to the previous US Open at Oakmont – another of the game’s most searching examinations – where Johnny Miller played arguably the game’s greatest round; a 63 comprising long, straight drives and a mix of incredible long, medium and short irons fired straight at the flags.

Lou Graham beat John Mahaffey in the 1975 playoff at Medinah after they tied at 287, but the par was 71. Clearly it was a difficult golf course, stretching out in excess of 7000 yards, the measure of a long course in the 1970s.

It was difficult enough for the unflappable Jack Nicklaus to bogey the final three holes to miss the playoff by two shots. Ben Crenshaw missed it by a single shot after playing the weekend in 76-74 and dumping a 2-iron into the water fronting the 17th green. Tom Watson, who won the British Open a month later by beating Jack Newton in a playoff, finished three behind after a 78-77 weekend.

If Nicklaus was the gold standard of playing championship golf under pressure, Medinah was right there – along with Winged Foot and Oakmont – if difficult golf was the measure.

By the time the US Open returned to Medinah in 1990, the course was 200 yards longer, the cut came down from seven over to one over and Irwin won his national crown a third time, shooting 280.

Now, almost 30 years on, the game has changed beyond recognition.

Engineers showed manufacturers how to make a “two-piece” golf ball play like a wound ball, the ball of choice at 1975 Medinah.

Probably half the field still played persimmon drivers in 1990 with the rest – many because they were being paid to – playing the then “new” metal heads. The ratio of steel-shafted driver to graphite was likely the same, but a 15 years later graphite shafts and titanium heads were the norm.

Current drivers have become weapons of power unimaginable to generations past.

Great drivers such as Nicklaus and Greg Norman lost their advantage as hitting the sweet spot on a modern “frying pan” became much less onerous a task and the result of shots missing it are more than acceptable.

“With today’s equipment,” said Tiger Woods this week at Medinah, “you can maximise a driver and absolutely bomb it. The driver is the most important club in the bag now just because of the way the game is played.”

Adam Scott, another brilliant driver, also weighed in: “If a golf course is soft, we’re just going to tear it apart. They just haven’t figured out yet that long just doesn’t mean anything to us. You can’t build it long enough.”

Of course, the driver was always important. But so, too, were long and middle irons and the longest players who mastered the use of the most difficult clubs to use – Jones, Hogan, Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Faldo (OK, not so long) and Woods – dominated the game.

“Now,” said Tiger, ‘you just pull out the driver, bomb it down there and you’re looking for 3-4 good weeks a year.”

It’s the ultimate result of the most powerful golfing country being obsessed with the marketing of distance and the selling of hope to millions of golfers all looking for the elusive extra few yards.

It’s always been thus.

In 1968, the First Flight company ran an advertisement (pictured left) in Golf Digest asking: “Will First Flight force America to build longer golf courses?”

It’s a chase and a marketing campaign without end and while it wasn’t First Flight which forced the changes, championship courses have all been compelled to make an attempt to keep up.

Those to truly benefit from the technology are the tour pros who now “bomb” the ball so far that Norman’s 1985 driving average (277 yards) is now exceeded by five women on the LPGA tour and only four players (of 195) this season drive the ball shorter than Norman. (For those who didn’t see Greg play, his driving was staggeringly good – and long. For those of you who did, you remember how impressive it was.)

The BMW Championship this past week at Medinah made us yearn for December’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne – or switching channels to watch the US Amateur from Pinehurst – where hard, treacherous greens and the usual seaside winds will add an extra dimension to the game, one making it infinitely more interesting to both watch and play.

The greens in Chicago last week were soft, the ball finished close to where it landed, there wasn’t any discernible wind to consider and of the 70 players, only seven shot Graham’s 287 or higher – all on a course 500-600 yards longer than yesteryear.

Of course, this isn’t the USGA setting up a US Open, but rather the PGA Tour which is more interested in “entertainment” than a winning score close to par.

But the combination of the driver technology that Tiger clearly laments and the modern ball has rendered a 7600-yard course with soft greens defenceless.

Nothing plays as it was intended by the great designers and while they expected technological advancement, it’s gone far beyond what is reasonable.

“Today, many are trying to obtain a temporary advantage by buying the latest far-flying ball on the market. It is often suggested that we have already got to the limit of the flight of the golf ball. I do not believe it, as there is no limit to science.”

Alister MacKenzie wrote this in the early 1930s, and while he advised clubs to leave room behind tees so they could be moved back in the future, he never thought to advise them to buy the houses on the other side of the fences beyond.

While the golf at Royal Melbourne will, as always, be brilliant to observe, we will see a course playing so short it would be unrecognisable to its architect.

Nor do we have to wonder what he would make of it all.

Apoplectic is hardly an exaggeration.

Justin Thomas was unquestionably brilliant this past week at Medinah, where he answered all the questions the course posed. His 263 represents amazing golf, but is it a full 24 shots more compelling than Graham’s 287 was 44 years ago?

The question for the game, for the professional tour and the administrators in New Jersey and St Andrews is: How will you manage the technological assault on the game’s great courses and a game so out of balance at the top level?

Or do they abdicate their responsibility to restore the balance MacKenzie and his great contemporaries understood and built?

The evidence of what we watched from Medinah is the golf isn’t so interesting when the questions are so easily answered with power and wedges.

Fellow Golf Australia columnist John Huggan didn’t even need all 280 Twitter characters to sum up what so many think about the current state of things.

Huggan wrote: “Re Medinah. The low scoring is not really what causes the head to shake. No. It’s the way in which those scores are being compiled. No subtlety. One strategy. Very little thought. A dumb-downed version of a great game.”

You can disagree all you want, but he’s right.

Sadly.

Mike Clayton is a columnist for Golf Australia, a former touring professional and a long-time supporter of Australian golf. Mike's opinions are his own, but Golf Australia welcomes his input into discussions on the game's future.    

Justin Thomas
Justin Thomas on his way to winning at Medinah last week.


Comments

Posted by Paul Fitzgerald at
11/09/2019 07:00 PM
Different ball for the pro’s and or narrower fairways beyond 300 yards. I remember Peter Thompson saying the USA players could not handle the old British ball as it took more skill. Courses for the prestigious tournaments to be set up with greater difficulty to ensure the really good players win them.
Posted by Michael Judd at
10/09/2019 06:08 PM
Why not go back to wooden woods.Cricket banned metal bats as did baseball.
Posted by Chris Winslade at
04/09/2019 02:15 PM
I agree with you Mike, but have to wonder about your redesign of Royal Canberra which is now a bomber's paradise. You used to have to play every tee shot in the game there,now there is not a par 4 or 5 on the course where the long boys have to think twice about hitting driver or having to shape it left or right. With all the fairway traps around 200 to 220 off the tees only hurting the shorter hitters, architects are also to blame.
Posted by James Downey at
01/09/2019 09:04 AM
The developments in equipment is challenging the game in many ways, not least in perception and expectation. Before changes to the club and ball created a new form of the game I believe golfers enjoyed playing and watching it just as much or perhaps more. Certainly there was a gap between the elite players and the rest but their game was recognizably a better version of the same game. Now in the male game there is an enormous chasm. There is no doubt that the clubs and balls have been the primarily responsible. Don't tell me that Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Norman, et al weren't excellent strong athletes. Unfortunately, the elite have gained disproportionately more than the rest from the equipment. This is a statistical and scientific fact. If the equipment was wound back how much would the average player lose? I'm 69 and occasionally take my 1981 Maxflis out for a hit. My persimmon driver goes a little less and the irons quite a bit less but then the 5 iron I have now probably equates to the 3 iron in the Maxflis. Would my game be that different and would I enjoy it that much less. Did you really get another 20 metres out of that new $700 driver? You wouldn't want to say no! A great feature of golf is the handicapping system which allowed players of different ability to compete on an equal footing. The disproportionate gains by equipment for the elite profoundly challenge this feature. The elite are on a different planet. Many of our courses including many of the historically great ones are surrounded by suburbs now and therefore have little or no ability to expand. If they are rendered obsolete where do we go. Never mind the expense and environmental impact if we were able to make them big enough to contain the modern elite players. Tennis realised that expanding the courts was impractical so they limited the rackets and balls. Baseball realised that bigger stadia were impractical so they limited the bat to wooden ones. MacKenzie said cour
Posted by Michael Allan at
28/08/2019 08:27 PM
Ralph Ramsay nailed it; we get old, times change. Let's not discount the modern players are athletes. Soccer needs more goals (for fans), golf needs more eagles (for the mass). We can twerk for sure but suppliers and players are playing to the rules - hats off to all of them.
Posted by F. X. Flinn at
24/08/2019 09:21 AM
The ball goes too far. The upshot is pros are not tested for every club in the bag anymore, and newcomers to the game don’t see anything to it besides hitting it as far as possible. Either the ball gets rolled back or we might as well limit pros to 7 clubs — 2 drivers, 4 wedges and a putter, because that is basically all they are using. For amateurs worrying this will cost them distance, don’t worry, you can move up a tee box, which you probably should be doing anyway.
Posted by Matt at
23/08/2019 08:39 AM
There must be some scope for increasing risk/reward for length. Smaller landing spots the longer you go, with difficult bunkers and/or long rough as the risk. I am surprised how often players get off easily on tour after spraying long drives all over the place. Give them real penalties for wayward length.
Posted by Mike Clayton at
22/08/2019 09:31 PM
Thanks to all for your nice comments. Hopefully it makes some sense.
Posted by Michael Todd at
22/08/2019 02:39 PM
Have been thinking more about this and the best answer is probably pot bunkers. 2 or 3 of them on each fairway at about 320 metres from the tee. Forcing players to lay up or otherwise hit extremely accurate tee shots. Links courses have long used these for defence and now parklands and resort courses will too.
Posted by Warren at
22/08/2019 01:24 PM
comment
Posted by Michael formato at
22/08/2019 04:45 AM
Can not agree more to take long and mid irons out of the game is a travisty and a less skillful and boring game is the result
Posted by Shannon Hiers at
22/08/2019 03:12 AM
Severe rough, tight pins and dog legs are the only defense left. No finesse or shot making needed to play today's game.
Posted by Steve Vozella at
22/08/2019 02:31 AM
Watching the BMW was disappointing beyond. I kept thinking 'is this course now that easy'? I want to watch these guys have a tough time making birdies and eagles. Be careful, Tiger grows the TV audience bigtime. When he's not playing, ratings will plummet.
Posted by Michael a liggett at
22/08/2019 01:35 AM
Right on, the ball must be dialed back.i played Medina 3 several times in the sixties and it remains one of the hardest courses anyplace.
Posted by Michael Todd at
21/08/2019 07:04 PM
I never really realised how bad things had got until I played in a pro am last week at my club. I am in my mid 50s and on an 8 handicap and hit my driver 240 metres and a 3 hybrid 210. So I can still have a crack at the odd par 5 in 2 shots and there is risk and reward for me. The 2 young guys I was playing with were hitting a driver and a 7 or 8 iron into some par 5s and regularly putting it out 320 metres. What is to be done? Make all clubs bar the putter have at least 20 degrees of loft? Toning down the balls is probably the best thing for a start. Make them heavier or something? At the very least we have to stop right now though before things get any worse.
Posted by MCB at
21/08/2019 04:28 PM
Superbly written. I just played an elite match in Denmark at Lubker golf course. It was opened about 10 years ago, designed by Robert Tre t Jones Jr. The opposing team made us play off the Gold Tees, sonethi g even they normally don't bother with, just to press their advantage. The 1st hole was 640yds with an optional 255 yard carry over water off the tee. A 240 yard par 3 and some non optional 220 yard tee shots over water. One of our less longer hitting players had to try land it on the ladies tee. The course requires great skill but at a prerequisite d ball carry of 260yards minimum to reach the long holes in regulation. There's a tipping point where long hitting wins out nearly all the time when the course is stretched out to Championship length. I love it, used to love it, when the US Open was set up ridiculously hard, they've even changed that now. As good a course as Pebble Beach was, it was set up for long hitters. It wasn't so unusual for Woodland to come to the top.
Posted by Bob Hill at
21/08/2019 03:53 PM
Equipment advances have changed (not necessarily for the better) many ball games. Cricket, baseball, tennis etc but is the game any better for it. I think not! Golf Course Architects need look beyond yardage and look more to penalty area placement which relate to the new game. Green profiles and of course pin placements Rough is meant to be just that .... rough. It is meant to penalize a poor shot not be a mere inconvenience. BTW you can also ban the green reading books. 24 under par on a championship course is laughable.
Posted by Andrew Smith at
21/08/2019 02:32 PM
We all understand that golf companies make a living from selling hope with their equipment. I have often wondered what would happen if there was a small change or tweak in the ball conditions. I can still remember when there was a British ball and US ball, so a a precedent exists. If the maximum mass of the ball was made slightly smaller, air resistance would have a noticeable impact and bring the distances back a little. In particular the players with the largest club head speed (pros). It would also keep the companies on an even playing field with each being able to offer those who purchase their equipment a promise of better and longer. Just a thought.
Posted by Tony at
21/08/2019 02:14 PM
This is exactly why I prefer to watch women's golf. Their lack of length makes them play all of the clubs in their bag, and they need to be inventive in their shot making. Watching blokes bomb 320m drives, followed by 150m wedges, followed by 6' uphill putts, is as boring as boring gets!
Posted by GG at
21/08/2019 12:03 PM
Great article Mike and spot on. The other consideration of making courses longer (ie. more hectares of grass to look after) is sustainability in an environmental sense. It's already happening in Australia where water rations mean that fairways have to go without water during periods of drought, and i can only see such restrictions getting worse over time.
Posted by Kevin at
21/08/2019 11:17 AM
I agree that at the highest level the game is almost to easy. Being a PGA Professional for over 35 years I can attest that the gap between the tour players and the next level is enormous. Not much can be done that wouldn’t hurt the game for the other 99.5% of the worlds golfers.
Posted by Ron Prichard at
21/08/2019 05:08 AM
Absolutely right on the mark.
Posted by Ralph Ramsey at
21/08/2019 03:31 AM
What a joke. I'm 74 yrs old. Been playing for over 50 yrs. Golf is no different than all professional sports. Anyone saying Bill Russell could play center today is a liar. Bigger, faster, stronger. Brooks would be just warming up bench pressing Gary and Lee. I love today's game. I watch to see players do things that amaze me. I was a +1 handicap at one point for a year or so and never approached the skill if today's player. The biggest factor of today's technology is the video, the understanding of the physics of the swing and being able to implement it. These guys are in the gym at night, not the bar. It's not a game of country club 5'4" rich kids anymore. They had to think their way around the golf course, they didn't have the athletic ability, the strength or size to power a push lawnmower. Not mentioning that makes the whole article a joke
Posted by Tony at
21/08/2019 01:47 AM
A wonderfully crafted article. What chance the "powers that be" take a blind bit of notice? Remember when you stood on the tee and there was risk/reward? Where's the risk now?
Posted by stephen brennan at
20/08/2019 11:53 PM
they struggled at royal portrush and i was there all week to watch it...only natural skilled golfer was shane lowry and he won it....americans couldn't cope with a real course......
Posted by Richie at
20/08/2019 10:50 PM
If the tours want to do something about the pro game, do he it. But if the ball or technology gets rolled back for everyone that plays, it will be ridiculous. It would be providing and answer to minority problem that effect the overwhelming majority. Leave equipment technology alone for amateurs to enjoy.
Posted by Dave Robertson at
20/08/2019 08:15 PM
The article is perfectly correct golf has become to predictable soft fairways and greens drive wedge putt boring let’s get hard fast fairways and greens we will see who the players are . Unfortunately the Presidents Cup is run by the USPGA so will see a Royal Melbourne turned into a pitch and putt course I hope I’m wrong will see
Posted by Peter Styles at
20/08/2019 05:59 PM
golf in the States now is little more than Darts for the top players ..300 odd down the middle .. whack a n iron onto the dart board and tap in a bulls eye ..not worth watching ..the equipment has finally ruined the wonderful game of golf ..

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