Golf is not nearly the same game it was just a few years ago
Theorists proclaim the main influential difference as being the distance the golf ball travels. Even the greatest player of all time and one of the most prolific course architects, Jack Nicklaus, maintains that this enormous increase has and will continue to change the game.
Nicklaus says the impact has already cost hundreds of millions of dollars in course redesign and an increase in the need for larger properties for golf courses. Furthermore, he is a proponent of reining in those distances for championship play.
Let’s face it, the number of players who actually benefit from longer tee shots is minimal.
Take for example a little story that I observed in 2010 while watching a Canadian Open practice round at St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto.
A fan was standing strategically positioned so he could speak to Stuart Appleby who had recently shot 59 in the Greenbrier Classic.
The fan called out saying “Welcome to Canada, Mr. Appleby. Given the lengthy, heavy rough around the course you are going to have to drive the ball very well this week.”
Appleby paused for a moment and returned the comment. “There might be a bit more to it than that, sir.”
In a nutshell, that is why most people are hitting the ball further than they did before the big explosion in 2000 and yet very few can shoot a lower score than before.
The problem is that the people in charge of preparing courses for PGA Tour play are seeing wonderful time-tested venues either cast aside or annihilated by ridiculously low scores from the world’s best players.
They believe because the ball goes further when struck by these magicians the only way to corral them is to add distance to courses such as Augusta National, which is said to be purchasing a small piece of land from its next door neighbor, Augusta Country Club, to lengthen the famous par five, 13th hole.
The decision was brought on when Bubba Watson drove the ball around the corner, bouncing downhill along the firm, sparsely cut fairway where he launched a sand wedge onto the green.
What a mockery – a pitching wedge into a par five.
First, Bubba Watson’s pitching sand doesn’t fly like other people’s pitching wedge. His can travel upwards of 180 yards. Secondly, not every player in the field can hit a high, smashed slice 300 yards in the air.
Of course, the distance travelled by today’s golf ball is making holes like the 13th at Augusta obsolete, but is the only answer to extend the tee back by 50 yards?
Didn’t the committee Tiger-proof the course when Tiger’s ball ran down the hill on 11 to within 100 yards of the green? Yes, their plan worked. Tiger hasn’t won since, but didn’t Jordan Spieth one of the shortest hitters, tie several scoring records last year?
The problem with 13 isn’t a lack of distance! The problem is the design of the hole.
It used to require a fairly straight tee shot to avoid the trees on the right and still keep away from the small stream on the left. Then, the fairway turns gently left. However, once the top of the hill is negotiated and with some of today’s insane length, a player can reach a reasonably generous, downhill fairway by turning the ball around the corner.
When one of the longer hitters fulfills these requirements, the ball can run for about 50 to 60 yards into short iron range as it bounds downhill.
Historically, following an excellent tee shot, a tournament leader was faced with a downhill, hanging lie with a long iron to one of best protected greens in the world.
So what to do about it?
Buying a piece of land from a neighbor that will severely alter their design might be one answer, but won’t that result in tee shots on 13 hitting into the hill and failing to reach the corner?
The new length might see a return to drives ending up where they did in yesteryear, but today’s players will be hitting six and seven irons, not two and three irons.
Consideration must also be given to the potential of removing one of the most exciting features of the Masters – the chance to do extraordinary things to become the champion.
I think the answer is a group of extremely punitive pot bunkers along the right side of the fairway, just past the end of the trees that dangerously encroach on the edge of the fairway.
They should extend out just far enough and continue down the fairway about 80 yards such that a straight tee shot reaching that distance would be served with a definite lay-up. Avoidance by a 300-plus yard tee ball could only occur with a perfectly-struck, turning shot that followed the contour of the fairway.
Suddenly, the creek becomes more of an issue. Normal length drivers would still be able to compete and the monster drivers force a decision – take it on and either win or lose the championship.
When major associations resolve the subject of distance with added length and showcase it before the largest golf audience in the world, they encourage others to follow suit.
The real answer lies either in a distance roll-back or innovative challenges particularly for tour players. After all, don’t some of the same critics of the “new” distances also proclaim that the ball flies straighter?
People often say, “drive for show and putt for dough.” That isn’t true. The true saying is, “drive for dough, putt for more dough.”
If you can’t do the driving, you’ll do very little putting that matters.
If the ball goes further and straighter, let’s see it, but if you fail trying, the costs should be high.