Picture: 123RF/DEKLOFENAK
Picture: 123RF/DEKLOFENAK

In the recent Limpopo Championship, a co-sanctioned event between the European Challenge Tour and the Sunshine Tour, the field of 156 professionals were faced with a modern course that measured more than 7,000m in length. The closing hole at Euphoria, a tricky par five, was stretched to well over 600m, while two of the par threes measured over 200m.

To give you some perspective, the classic East London Golf Club layout — a par 73 — measures 5,960m. King David Mowbray Golf Club in Cape Town, another classic old course, is 5,916m from the tips.

Yes, the Euphoria layout is at altitude, so the ball goes further, but one has to wonder, in the face of ever-increasing driving distances on tour, how much longer will new layouts be stretched? And isn’t there a better solution that would bring courses such as East London, Humewood and King David Mowbray back into the fold?

Given how far the professionals are hitting the ball, these classic layouts have become obsolete in that they are no longer played as they were designed to be — at least by the professionals, anyway.

Former SA Open champion and the “Voice of Golf”, Denis Hutchinson, recalled how, in his prime, he used to hit approach shots to Royal Johannesburg & Kensington’s difficult 10th and 11th holes — reportedly the two longest consecutive par fours in the country — with 4- and 5-irons.

“Nowadays,” he laments, “they are going in with pitching wedges.”

So what has been the cause of the huge gains in driving distance? Ask any playing professional and they will likely tell you that the modern athlete is stronger, more supple and better able — through the use of ball and flight tracking technology — to hit perfect launch angles and spin rates.

I’d argue they are only partly right. For sure, most modern golfers follow a stricter fitness regime than their predecessors, but it is the steady improvement in modern golf equipment that has had the bigger impact.

Take Stewart Cink for example. At age 47, the American recently won the RBC Heritage on the PGA Tour — a full 21 years after he first won the event. Back in 2000, 26-year-old Cink was averaging 254m off the tee and this year his driving average was 280m. If you believe that a 47-year-old is fitter and stronger than a 26-year-old, then I want some of that tea that you’re drinking.

Greg Norman was far and away the best driver of a golf ball in the 1980s, but his driving distance of that era (about 250m) would see him place 213th in today’s PGA Tour driving distance category. Out of 216. 

Modern technology helps the ball go further off the clubface, but it also allows players to swing harder at the golf ball than before. Today’s clubs have much bigger sweet spots and result in smaller dispersion patterns, and the ball is designed to curve much less than before. So for most players it is simply a matter of “grip it, rip it and find it”. Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Driving distance has become the single most important factor in the game.

Sure, you still need to be able to chip and putt well, but if you can’t bomb the ball, there is no place for you in the modern professional game. If you don’t believe me, just ask Luke Donald or Tim Clark.

Tournament organisers turn to three strategies to protect their courses when the weather can’t. They can grow the rough and narrow the fairways, but the big bombers don’t really mind that. Wouldn’t you rather be coming in with a wedge out of the rough than a 5-iron from the fairway anyway?

They can firm up the greens so they won’t hold the approach shots coming out of the rough, but modern irons tend to spin the modern ball pretty well. And speedier greens mean slower rounds.

They can add extra tee boxes to lengthen the courses, as we have recently seen at two iconic courses in St Andrews and Augusta National, but longer courses mean slower rounds and higher maintenance costs. And higher maintenance costs translate into higher green fees for the 99.9% of the players who won’t be using the tees in question — you and I.

From a sustainability perspective, all of this makes little sense, either financially or environmentally. And the problem with any of these measures is that they hurt the game for the average club golfer, because they reinforce the three main reasons that people are leaving the sport: it is too hard, takes too long and is too expensive.

I do feel some sympathy for the custodians of the game, however, despite their culpability in allowing us to get to this point. For as power hitting takes over the game — to the point where a player like Bryson DeChambeau is altering his body shape to gain more distance — we are approaching the tipping point where something needs to be done. The problem is that the very same technology that is making the game more enjoyable for weekend warriors has completely altered how the game is played at a professional level.

Somehow, they need to find a way to balance the integrity of the professional game while maintaining interest in the game from an amateur perspective.

There are a couple of options available, none of which are without complications. The first is a concept called bifurcation, which essentially means that professionals and amateurs would use different equipment.

Professionals could, for example, have limits imposed on the length of their clubs, be made to use a softer golf ball or play with clubs that are less “springy” while the amateur, who has also benefited from the improvement in equipment, though to a lesser degree, would be free to carry on as normal with his or her current set of clubs.

The problem here is not only in policing the different equipment but also the spirit of the game, where most amateurs enjoy playing, for the most part, with the same equipment as our heroes.

The second option, and one that has received strong backing, is to roll the ball back. They could, for example, impose compression restrictions that make the ball go, say, 70% of the distance it currently goes. Given that most amateurs struggle to really compress their golf ball anyway, the effect on the average amateur would be negligible in comparison.

Yet this move would likely be a public relations disaster. Recreational amateurs struggle to hit the ball far enough, so to be told that they now need to play balls that go shorter could turn a number of golfers away from the game.

There are also the equipment manufacturers to think about. To sell golf balls, the pros need to be playing — and thereby marketing — the same ball as the amateurs. That’s what drives their golf ball sales.

Would those in charge be willing to alienate themselves from the all-powerful equipment companies? I think not.

It’s a tricky situation that should have been dealt with 25 years ago when the combination of the new multilayer golf balls and titanium drivers saw driving distances explode.

I can only wish the golfing decisionmakers the best of luck. 

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