The 2016-17 PGA Tour has ended, the PGA Tour Champions is almost finished, the LPGA Tour is close to the end and all the other tours, championships and event schedules are complete.
As with every business, while future planning is a continuous subject for discussion, fans and spectators tend to become more vocal as a new season begins.
Some of this occurs as an unbroken chain of dialogue and some as a result of the introduction of changes to: the rules, the format, the organization or scheduling. Change is a necessity. Without it ,we become stale and life is boring.
In the case of golf, there are some changes coming to the rule book that are supposedly going to make the game less complicated.
The mighty powers that be are quick to point out the changes are oriented toward those who currently play and not specifically revised to attract millions of new players who did not play previously because the rules restricted the amount of fun a person could have.
In the minds of debaters around the world who claim the rules administrators have failed the game by allowing technology to change the basic face of the game, the changes do not address the real issues.
Issues like the distance the modern players hit the ball and the straightness the modern ball is designed to deliver are what I’m talking about. Of course, these subjects give rise to the follow-up opinion that today’s courses require additional length to accommodate these prodigious drives.
Believe it or not, golf is not as old as time. In fact, it only has a history of about 600 years. Crude forms of using a club/stick to propel a round shaped ball are known to exist as far back as the Song Dynasty around the years of 1000 AD. Many others are well documented, but the actual origin of the game of golf as we know it came into being in Scotland in 1457.
During the next 450 years much has changed. In fact, for the first 300 years, there were no rules. Imagine, you carried as many clubs as you could hold under your arm, stored perhaps one extra ball in your pocket, began play by making a small mound of sand or dirt and started hitting shots toward a hole in the ground.
Nobody recorded a score they simply ‘matched’ the number of strokes taken against those of another player – no arguments, no discussions, no championships, no associations, just golf.
Last summer, my wife and visited Scotland and before reading a map of the layout of the Links of Leith Golf Course that existed in the late 1500s, I walked in the park that is there today. I stood in the centre, and with no trouble at all, envisioned most of the five-hole course. Afterward, I found a map and sure enough the holes are still there 600 years later.
As most us know, the first rules were written in 1744 and the average golfer today would barely recognize them as the Rules of Golf. It took nearly 100 years for the first major change in technology when the guttie ball replaced the featherie. Interestingly, for today’s young guns take note, the longest recorded drive with a ‘featherie’ is 361 yards, is achieved by Samuel Messieux in 1836.
If you compare the winning scores at the British Open relevant to technological developments, you can see which ideas had the greatest impact on the best players. Very generally, the scores were quite consistent from 1892 to 1930 once the Haskell ball was introduced just before the turn of the 20th Century, but the 1930s saw two innovations that changed everything – Gene Sarazen’s sand wedge and steel shafted clubs.
In the 1950s scores were lowered because of an influx of competitors as men returned from overseas and opportunities grew, but the next great innovation came in 1972 when Spalding produced the first two-piece ball.
The largest number of game changing concepts such as graphite and titanium. Other than the Polara golf ball which could correct itself in flight and was subsequently banned, little is new. Much has been added and refinements made, but there haven’t been game-changing innovations.
That can be said about many things. Leonardo da Vinci conceptualized flying machines, a type of armoured tank and concentrated solar power in the late 1400s, but it took centuries to develop his ideas into usable products.
So what has been the actual impact of technological developments pertaining to golf? First, I think there are two points to consider. One is the impact on the average player and second is the impact on the elite player.
Without question the elite players have benefitted far more from technology than the average player. Thunderous 375 yards drives are normal making courses built more than a decade ago obsolete unless altered or adjusted in some way.
In my opinion, the biggest change has come with the distance an elite player can hit an iron shot. The days of finessing a beautiful, deft iron shot that finds its perfect landing spot and rolls along seeking the hole is in the past at this level of play.
However, it still exists for the average player who doesn’t have the physical capacity to boom monster shots, but the average country club tennis player doesn’t have a 120 mph serve in his repertoire either.
Technology hasn’t lowered the score of the average player even though they do hit the ball further and straighter it has impacted the top players more.
The most helpful equipment change for the average player is hybrid clubs. These have replaced the most demanding clubs to hit, the mid to long irons. Even with this change the average players do not shoot significantly lower scores.
I am saddened that the grand, old style is gone from the best players, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still play it. I can include as much technology as I can muster, but I still can’t hit a 400-yard drive, so all this talk about lengthening courses for one per cent of the players is a foolish waste to me.
Let average players embrace their new-found yardage and easier irons/hybrids to use, but when the PGA Tour comes to town let them play the same course we play – so what if they shoot 54?
Somebody is going to do it someday, When Roger Bannister ran the mile in under four minutes, they didn’t lengthen the track or cover it in glue. First will come an 18 hole score of 54 and then someone will score 18 consecutive birdie and so what?
Bifurcation has passed its best-before date, even though golf is the sport most affected by technology. If reining in distances was in the offing, it should have come in the 1970s. Furthermore, just exactly which courses need increased yardages to contain the top one per cent of golfers? Only those that host events for elite players?
So why bother?
Not only that but if certain technological developments are removed via changes to the rules, those same developments will be removed for the average player, unless two sets of rules are written.
If bifurcation were to be the case, how would young players learn the skills, the touch and the feel to play with elite equipment? How would we teach people to play golf?
Mrs. Jones, I’m sorry your son will never be good enough to progress to the elite level, so he can learn with game enhancing-equipment. Or, Mrs. Jones I believe your son has enough talent to learn to play elite golf and you should provide him immediately with custom-fitted clubs, a detailed lesson program, proper dieting and physical training and, of course, a hefty price tag.
You tell me he’s 21 now, hates the game and wishes to be reinstated as an amateur so he can play casual golf? Oops!
When we talk about changes to the game over the years there have actually been very few. The Haskell ball went further and elite players shot lower, but the average player didn’t benefit that much. Steel shafts replaced wooden, but today’s average player would probably shoot very close to the same score with a set of hand forged, Tom Morris hickory-shafted beauties.
There are some rules limitations on the manufacturing of game-enhancing equipment, but we aren’t talking about minimalist ideas from the guys around the club. We are talking about large investments in R&D. We are talking rocket science. There will be change and the scores of elite players will continue to be lowered.
What would Old Tom Morris think about it in the year 2617, which is only 600 years from now? Easy, the longest club in his bag will be a 9 iron as he pitches and putts his way around St Andrews in 25 or 26 strokes using advanced GPS and enhanced Tracking Point sighting devices that lock onto the target with a laser system.
All of his clubs have become obsolete because they hit the ball too far and the course will be exactly 6721 yards long – just what it is today.