A Few Thoughts on Distance

After the USGA saved golf from the sacrilege of anchored putting, it is now fixing its sights on how far world-class athletes are hitting the ball.   It’s time I weighed in.   Everyone else has…

Everybody has stories about how much father the ball goes now.   There’s a 427-yard par 4 that when I played it in high school in the late 60s I would hit a driver and a 3-wood and still be short.   Now I get on with a driver and a hybrid iron.

On the GolfWRX forum a guy commented that thirty years ago he was a mini-tour player and a long hitter, but now in his 50s he hits the ball even farther.

Sounds like it’s all ball.   But here’s more to it than that.

In those earlier days we played with a balata ball, that spun like crazy.   That was great around the green, but off the tee, you don’t know what a banana slice is until you’ve seen a slice with one of those.

The woods, not so much the irons, were much smaller.   You had to hit the driver dead center to get anything out of the shot.   Off-center hits were not forgiven.

That meant the game was more about control than about power.   Our swing was more about controlling the club than letting it rip.   So naturally we didn’t hit the ball as far.   And I’m sure the balata balls weren’t designed to go as far, either.

What that adds up to is the ball has evolved.   Changing the cover of the ball from balata to surlyn, changing the innards from wound rubber to a solid composition, those changes are as natural as going from the feathery to gutta-percha.

And, yes, there’s the addition of big, hollow-bodied drivers in place of tiny laminated maple drivers.   They contribute to longer tee shots, too, especially on off-center hits.

With the evolution of the ball comes the evolution of the game.   It’s a power game now, certainly on professional tours, and to lesser but still noticeable extent in the recreational game.   There’s no going back, and there’s no need to.

There seem to be three problems with distance floating in the air.   The first is that golf has become a drive and wedge game.   Yes, it has, but mainly on the professional tours.   That will never be a problem for me, even if I move up to the forward tees.

The second problem is that old courses are becoming obsolete.   Merion (East) had to be tricked up beyond belief to make it a challenging venue for the U.S. Open in 2013.    The Old Course at St. Andrews is perhaps two more Opens away from having to retire from the Open rotation.    Augusta had to buy land from an adjoining course to lengthen the 13th hole, a formerly formidable hole that is now one of the easiest.

The third problem isn’t getting much attention from the powers that saved the game by banning anchored putting.   If distance is a problem, it’s a problem only for the people who run professional tours.   It’s not a problem at all for the 25M recreational golfers who will be tested the their limit at Merion or the Old Course or on the 13th at Augusta.

I still use all my irons, not to mention long hybrids, to hit into the collection of par 4s on any course I play.   If the powers that be want to return the professional game to that state, either build longer golf courses, or don’t, and just get used to the new game.

There has to be a balance achieved between what the best players can do and the courses on which they display those skills.   Right now, the players have jumped ahead, maybe too far ahead.    It’s time for the courses to catch up.

This is a lot like the delicate competition between predator and prey in nature.    There is a fine balance.    If the predator is too fast, then all the prey will get eaten and the predator will die out, too.    If the prey is too fast, the predator will starve, and so will the prey when it over-consumes its food source.

Distance is here to stay.   Either we accept it and adapt, or start doing stupid things.   And the powers that be have demonstrated clear talent for the latter.

I’ll finish with this quote from Judy Rankin in her My Turn interview:

“The debate about drivers hitting the ball too far doesn’t apply to women at all.  In fact, it doesn’t apply to most men.  Let’s say there are 25 million golfers in America and 25 million elsewhere in the world.  Of the 50 million golfers on the planet, excessive distance is an issue for maybe a thousand of them.”

One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Distance”

  1. Bob, good summary of the issue. I think an easier and cheaper solution is the ball rather than the expense of enlarging a few courses to get a PGA event. The big guns would still have a similar distance advantage and maybe they could bifurcate the ball – pro and amateur.
    Peter

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