Does the golf ball go too far?
29 NOV 2017
By Peter Mumford
In my entire golf experience, which stretches back over 50 years, I can honestly say that I have NEVER even considered for a moment that the golf ball goes too far.
I used to think it curved too much. Sometimes I even swore the old balata balls could hook and slice in the same shot. And some of them could actually spin too much. Back in the 80’s, Spalding had a ball called the Tour Edition that you could land on the back of the green and spin off the front. Just ask Greg Norman. It probably cost him a few titles.
For certain the golf ball has done a lot of strange things over the years, much to the frustration of average golfers. But I can’t recall anyone ever complaining that it went too far.
So what are we to make of this latest brouhaha that has industry leaders, tour officials, manufacturers and course owners taking sides in a debate about, once again, controlling the distance that a golf ball travels?
First, let’s get one thing clear. This is not our fight. If anything, most average golfers would like the ball to go further. Of course we could move up a tee deck or two as we get older but that may be admitting something that we don’t readily want to admit.
No, this fight is about keeping golf courses relevant as players get stronger, equipment gets better and agronomy keeps improving.
The USGA has drawn a line in the sand to limit the trampoline effect off the face of your driver. They’ve created other rules to do with dimple patterns, spin rates and ball flight – all designed to limit overall distance.
None of it has worked on professional golfers. Regardless of reports you see that conclude that Tour players on average aren’t hitting it any longer now than five or ten years ago, the fact is that the longest hitters on Tour are bombing the ball way longer than they used to and every year there are more big hitters in the mix.
I’m sure you saw comments by Tiger Woods that suggested that golf courses will soon need to be 8,500 yards to challenge Tour players and that the ball needs to be “rolled back” for the good of the game.
It’s a bit ironic that Tiger is expressing concern about how far the ball goes. I don’t recall him having those same concerns when he was younger and the longest hitter on Tour.
However, he’s not alone in voicing an opinion on the matter. Both Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have been long time proponents of a restricted flight ball – usually calling for a 10% roll-back. That would bring some of the longest hitters from 350 to about 315, while the shorter hitters drop from 300 down to 270. It’s still a huge advantage for the bombers but at least means 500 yard holes aren’t played with a driver and a pitching wedge as Brooks Koepka did on a few holes at this year’s U.S. Open.
These days a 500 yard hole is a driver and a pretty good 3-metal for me. And that’s if I hit both right on the screws, not that either club has screws in the face anymore, but you know what I mean.
As I said, this isn’t our fight. Which brings up the dreaded concept of bifurcation.
Other sports, notably baseball, have different equipment for amateur and professional competitors. In baseball, amateurs use an aluminum bat while the pros are limited to wooden bats. Nobody seems to have an issue with this.
However, golf is supposedly different. One of the unique aspects of golf is that anybody, regardless of skill or experience, can use the same clubs, the same ball and play the same course from the same tees as the pros and compare results. Or you can entirely play your own game from different tees and still enjoy the comparisons.
Of course, relatively few of us are over-powering golf courses or rendering them obsolete with 350 yard drives. As I said, this distance fight doesn’t have anything to do with our game.
But we do have a stake in it as golf fans. For the most part, we like to see the pros make lots of birdies and occasional eagles. Winning scores of 20 under par are far more exciting than even par. The long ball is still one of the most awe-inspiring things you can see at a PGA Tour event.
That said, I think we’d all like to see professionals hit fewer wedges into par 4’s and see how they’d do with a four or five iron. Most of us certainly don’t want to see classic courses like Pebble Beach or Riviera drop off the PGA Tour schedule because they’re too short for the modern game. To do that, there does have to be some additional limits put on distance.
But just for the pros, not us. Which of course means bifurcation – different equipment for pros and amateurs.
I think it’s inevitable but before they try that, I’d like to see the PGA Tour make some changes in their agronomy policy. As it stands now, Tour fairways are baked within an inch of their life, rolled, re-rolled and then sparsely watered in order to produce an extra 30-40 yards of roll. How about letting the grass grow a quarter of an inch and softening up the fairways with some extra water. And maybe narrowing the fairways and letting the rough grow longer and thicker? That still advantages the players that carry the ball the farthest but by eliminating the roll, they effectively get that 10% roll-back everyone is clamoring for.
The ball manufacturers aren’t admitting anything at this point but with all the talk going on, it would be prudent and even likely that some or most of them have already experimented with a reduced flight ball.
For those of us with swing speeds south of 95 mph, ALL golf balls basically go the same distance so it’s conceivable we could hit the reduced flight balls and notice little or no difference at all. For slightly faster swing speeds, they would notice more of a change but maybe not enough to worry about. So, it’s conceivable that a new ball with the right technology could put the needed limits on the professional game and not affect us amateurs much at all.
I’d actually love to see that because at heart, I still don’t like the idea of bifurcation. Deep down it’s probably rooted in some psychotic fantasy that if I practice more, exercise more, get better coaching, get better analytics, sleep more, eat less junk food and use the same equipment as Jordan Spieth, I could actually play like Jordan Spieth. Of course that’s totally disregarding the innate talent differential and the vast age discrepancy.
Regardless, we’ll have to wait and see how this plays out. The game is extremely strong on almost every level and can likely withstand bifurcation, a distance roll-back or anything else they throw at us.
We’re still going to tee it up and do our best, week after week.
But if they are going to make some changes to the golf ball, if they could just give me an extra ten yards, that would be perfect.
Peter Mumford is the Editor of Fairways Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @FairwaysMag