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Is it a projectile too far?
The debate about whether professional golfers are hitting the ball further than is desirable continues - and it has done for some while

I read an interesting article in a golf magazine the other day. Among the author’s comments was this thought: “There has been a great preoccupation of late about the distance that a golf ball can now be hit. Many of those who are dismayed by victories in the Open Championship with aggregates under 280... argue that the flight of the ball should be restricted.”

Hardly earth-shattering stuff, you’re doubtless thinking. Maybe, but what I think makes it interesting is that the column was written in 1960, approaching half a century ago, by Percy Huggins, the editor of Golf Monthly. Things haven’t changed very much, have they?

Today, the continuing battle to change the face of golf for a few hundred golfers at the top end of the game goes on. We are bombarded by articles telling us that some of the greatest golf courses in the world are totally out of date. That may indeed be so for some of the mightiest hitters (provided they hit it reasonably straight), but that doesn’t mean the course shouldn’t be used for important tournaments anymore. The golfers all come, they all play, and the person with the lowest score wins. That’s the way it is. It’s the way it has always been. But people complain when a course produces a champion with a total of 290 shots; they complain when the winner does it with 260. You can’t win (no pun intended).

John Daly was one of the biggest at the 1991 Open - off the tee, that is.

I see that for this year’s Open Championship, Royal Birkdale will measure 205 yards longer than it did 25 years ago, when Tom Watson won his fifth title. In another magazine, this time a contemporary issue of the American weekly, Golf World, I read that in 1983, the longest driver on the PGA Tour was Curt Byrum with an average of 276 yards. When the Open returned to Birkdale in 1991, only three golfers were above the 280-mark: John Daly, Greg Norman and Fred Couples.

By 1998, the last time Birkdale staged golf’s oldest major championship, 19 players were averaging over 280 yards. The rise even then seemed inexorable, but it is staggering to realise that today there are 119 golfers with an average drive over 280 yards. To emphasise the point, in the last ten years, no less than a hundred more players have gone ‘over the top’.

Technological innovations in the game have been a bone of contention for a hundred years and more. Inventors north, south, east and west have tried to find/create/produce golf clubs that can do magical things, even if many of the early ones looked like pieces of medieval torture equipment. Things have moved on, though, and I’d say it is quite probable that 99% of people playing golf in this country now are doing so with what I like to term ‘bouncy-faced drivers’. However, since these golfers have handicaps mostly ranging somewhere well north of single figures, going all the way up to 36, none of them – if any – are likely to challenge for anything more important than the club’s monthly medal or, on a big weekend, the Captain’s Prize.

But how do you separate the ‘big boys’ of the professional tours from the rest when it comes to trying to implement legislation? Drawing the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is so difficult for those who make the rules. The club manufacturers seem happy enough, but I don’t think it can be for the good of the game that we seem to be moving towards an era when what is otherwise an outstanding golf course, selected to host a big golf event, appears dutybound to undergo a makeover that will see its length increased to absurd proportions, entirely for the purposes of attempting keep the players’ scores down.

In all likelihood, the problem – if that is what it is – lies not with the bouncy-faced drivers but with the golf ball. Rein that in and we really might be getting somewhere, if what we are after is to stop the top players from going too far. But even that presents its own perils. This is Percy Huggins again.

“Let us remember that the tournament stars who pound the ball these vast distances are only a tiny percentage of the total number of people who play the game. Any changes in legislation should be made with the mass of golfers in mind. Any limitation on the flight of the ball will be unwelcome to the vast majority of golfers. They all want to be able to hit the ball ‘out of sight’. Why rob them of that hope, merely to make the massacre of the championship courses by the few less likely?”

As I said, drawing the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is difficult. And time hasn’t changed things very much.

July 2008

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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