JOHN COCKAYNE: One-handed golf and feather-filled balls: the solution to innovation
The recent US Open piqued more than my usual interest in a Major, largely because of the ensuing debate prompted by the style of Bryson DeChambeau’s win.
Innovation, leading to better performance, is embraced and applauded, not vilified in all sports — except golf, it would seem. At least this would appear to be the case, judging by the arguments over DeChambeau’s “bomb [the drive] and gouge [the ball out of the knee-high rough]” style. To be fair, it is one in a line of many in golf’s history and golf’s controlling bodies’ dichotomy between style and technology/performance, is long running and remains as intriguing as it is mystifying.
I say this because what would we think if the International Athletics Federation, alarmed by Usain Bolt’s lowering of the 100m world record, decided that to combat this scourge of superior performance, it would have to act. After some debate, it would compile a shortlist of options to hamper Bolt’s performance: from increasing the length of the 100m race to 120m and tricking up the track by making the athletes run over a soft sand course, to putting obstacles on the track and/or taping Bolt’s ankles together.
With this type of attitude to progress and change, where would the high jump be today if the Fosbury flop had been banned? How effective would Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo be as players, if the game was still being played in hobnailed boots with a hand-laced leather ball that used to triple in weight with the first few drops of rain? Would basketball be the same if the NBA, alarmed by the number of points being scored per game, had increased the height of the hoop to 15 feet?
Innovation and change, which is legal, breathes life into sport by allowing the boundaries on performance to be pushed forward.
Why is this not the case with golf and what is it with DeChambeau’s victory that has offended the sensibilities of so many? The advantage of being big and strong is not new. Jack Nicklaus’s appearance on the golf scene as the “Ohio fats” with his booming drives is historical fact, as is Tiger Woods’s getting “strong” for golf, nor is the fact that long hitters, if they can retain control, have an advantage. Using clubs of the same length is not new either, as Tiger Shark produced a set of irons all at seven iron length quite a few years ago and neither are extra-long drivers as used by the specialist golf long-drive competitors.
If these elements are not the issue, a list of questions arise.
How is it “wrong” for a player to break par on a US Open golf course by employing an approach that is new to combat course set-ups, which are notorious for their trickery and unfairness? How does a player winning by six strokes become unfair, or compromise the game’s integrity?
We seem to have forgotten that Woods won the 2000 version of this same event by 15 strokes, or that Old Tom Morris won the third version of the Open Championship by 13 strokes. As the controlling bodies tried to “Tiger proof” the courses, are we now going to see “DeChambeau proofing”? And what will this entail for golf? Perhaps there will be a weight or muscle-fat ratio limit for players. Possibly players with biceps larger than prescribed dimensions will be disqualified or only be allowed to play using one arm.
In all of this angst and conjecture, what really concerns those who decry DeChambeau’s performance? The marvellous layout at Winged Foot will remain just that and unaffected by all the furore. If it could, I am certain the golf course would be the first to salute DeChambeau for finding a way to beat par and the rest of the field over one week of competition, because that is all it was — just one week and just one tournament.
In all of this discussion, the silence of the game’s governing bodies is laudable and appropriate. It is both, because if “fairness” is an issue then bodies, which set up golf courses where a prefect drive will run off the fairway into knee-high rough or glass-topped greens make even keeping a ball marker in place on the surface a trial, are hardly qualified to contribute to this debate.
Time will tell if DeChambeau has found a winning method he can reproduce consistently. If he has, then good luck to him and all those who will surely follow. If one performance generates the reaction I have seen from some pundits, then maybe we should have done with it, wind the clock back and resume playing in a waistcoat, tie and buttoned-up jacket, with wooden shafted clubs and leather balls stuffed with feathers.
What golf needs more than anything, at all levels, from its management processes to competitions’ formats, is change and innovation, if it is to remain relevant through the rest of this century and beyond.
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