When Tiger Woods first burst onto the world stage at the 1997 Masters, he didn’t just conquer Augusta National, he ripped it limb from limb. His winning score of 18 under par for the tournament is a 72 hole record that goes unbeaten to this day. Woods demonstrated a new kind of golf that year. He combined an unwavering short game with pure power from the tee to completely overwhelm the verdant defences of that storied course. Thus, when Augusta National was lengthened in 2001, it was dubbed “Tigerproofing.” Lengthened again in 2006, the course is now 500 yards longer in total than when Tiger won his first green jacket.
Such scoring was unusual at the major championships and it largely still is, except for at the Open Championship. The last 10 years have seen scores of 15 under, 17 under and even 20 under par winning the championship. The reason? The modern tour player can overwhelm the ancient designs with distance, hitting wedges into greens on holes where the player of yesteryear might have approached with a 5-iron. Often the only defence courses such as our own Old Course have against such relentless scoring is the elements, such as when Darren Clarke vanquished Royal St. Georges in the full ordinance of rain and wind that the summer of 2011 could muster with a score of only 5 under.
According to some, including golf legend Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, the solution is to artificially decrease the distance the golf ball flies in the air. Their argument is that at the current rate of technological progress in the world of golf equipment, courses will have to be lengthened to the point of stupidity. Woods, in an interview with the US sports interview podcast Holding Court, said “If [golf clubs] want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7400 to 7800 yards long. And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8000-yard golf course is not too far away.” He’s not wrong. Last year’s US open, played at Erin Hills on a course over 7800 yards, was a snooze fest won with a score of 16 under par by Brooks Koepka, and at this year’s Abu Dhabi HSBC tournament, Sergio Garcia averaged 18 yards further off the tee than he did for the whole of last season with a new ball with graphene in the design.
Why not just keep lengthening the courses to match? The sheer amount of land which is required for such courses is expensive at best and unavailable outright in countries such as the UK where space is far more limited than the vast expanses of the American Midwest. Not to mention the inordinate amount of time such rounds would take. Tour players play ridiculously slow at the best of time, if courses were to get any longer six or even seven-hour rounds could result, time which the viewing public simply cannot afford to dedicate to watching.
If the golf ball should fly a shortened distance, how would such an effect be realised? Michael Bamberger, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, suggested on Golf.com that “a wound balata ball” could be designed such that “it maxes out at about 300 yards.” Balata, the solidified sap of a tree native to South America, was used for golf balls until it was replaced with synthetic polymers such as urethane, which are used today. It is softer than urethane, and so balls made with it fly a shorter distance than modern balls. A simpler solution would be to decrease the “compression” of the ball, realistically by softening the rubber used in the ball’s core, which would overcome the downsides of balata that contributed to its obsolescence, namely balata’s lack of durability and inconsistency of ball flight.
Unsurprisingly, today’s leading tour pros are very much against the idea. World number one Dustin Johnson, speaking after he nearly holed a 433-yard drive in Hawaii at the start of the year, said “When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don’t really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn’t matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole.” Rory McIlroy, who lead both the European Tour and PGA Tour in driving distance last year was more conciliatory, saying “I don’t think the ball travels too far, but I can see the argument. The only reason I would say the ball travels too far is that it’s made some courses obsolete.”
The trouble is, and I believe I’m speaking for most of us weekend hackers out there, a shorter golf ball would make the game far less interesting for the amateur golfer. Sure, we may be able to get the odd drive to trickle over 300 yards in ideal conditions, but certainly without the consistency and accuracy of the world’s finest. For the vast majority of the golfing population, a course 7000 or even 6000 yards long is plenty long enough to provide a challenge, even with today’s balls. Proponents of the shorter golf ball agree, and so many are suggesting “bifurcation” as a solution. Effectively, pros would play with a ball designed to fly a shorter distance than those played by amateurs.
On the surface this seems logical, but in reality, it goes against the core values of golf, and arguably of sport as a whole. Sure, Joe Root may be as better batsman than I could ever even dream of being, but whether I snick off on 0 or Joe snicks off on 100, it’s the same laws that govern the size of the bat and ball such that we both have to make our depressing walk back to the pavilion. This idea of equivocation of laws and equipment between the amateur and professional game is even stronger in golf, with handicaps allowing players of any ability to compete on a level playing field. It would be a travesty if a young amateur made his career playing with a modern-style ball, only to find he couldn’t compete on the highest level due to an enforced change of equipment. And, honestly, I’m with Johnson on this. I don’t think that the golf ball needs to fly a shorter distance. Take, for example, the Championship course at PGA National in Palm Beach, Florida. When played by the tour pros, it measures only 7140 yards and yet nobody has won the Honda Classic, the tour event played there since 2007, with a score lower than 13 under. There, the rough is thick, the greens are quick, and the water is ever present. The pros may well be hitting wedges into greens on par 4s, but even a wedge shot is scary when hitting over water. Or, look at Merion, the host of the 2013 US Open. That tournament was won with a score of one over par by Justin Rose, with deep rough and firm greens proving a stern test, all on a course only 6996 yards in length.
What needs to change is not the length of courses or the design of the golf ball, but the layout of championship courses. Too often the pros are hitting into 70-yard-wide fairways flanked by almost non-existent rough. Bunkers are sometimes so easy to escape that some pros even hit into them deliberately when they deem a shot onto the green too difficult. I am not advocating for making the courses impossible, too few birdies are just as boring as too many, but just for growing the rough an inch, or adding an awkward pond or two. After all, what amateur golfer wouldn’t enjoy watching the best in the world rinse a few more approach shots.