I was on an aeroplane when the thought occurred.
At least for those playing at the top level, golf clubs have been getting easier to use for some time now. Which has allowed us to hit shots that are miles better than those we grew up hitting. A high draw that carries at least 250 yards through the air is just one example. I couldn’t imagine doing that as a teenager – it was a fantasy shot – but it became routine when I made it onto the Tour.
And yes, it is fun to smash a driver as hard as you can and produce that high draw. Or hit a hybrid 240 yards over water and stop the ball close to the hole. That is all positive. Of course it is. But what was energising my brain was the thought that I used to have a lot more shots in my repertoire than I have now. When I was 18 I could hit a bigger variety of shots than I can now at 42.
Don’t get me wrong though. My good shots now are miles better than my best when I was 18. But I feel like I’ve lost a bit of the ability to play all those little “in-between” shots that you need to play and score really well. While I have gained what I like to call “ease of shot” from my modern equipment, almost any need for me to ‘fit’ my drives into specific fairways has been lost. I don’t get creative because I really don’t have to get creative. I hit the shot that my driver is designed to hit. Because that is easier to do. “Ease of use” is the phrase that keeps popping up in my brain.
Questions like, “should I hit a big slice here?” or “should I just lay-up short of that pond?” hardly ever enter my head these days. Just about every time I have a perfect club in my bag for the shot I am faced with. I just dial it in and hit it. All of which does, of course lead to better results for me as a professional. But I can’t help feeling it has “dumbed me down” as a golfer.
Another example: I am way better out of sand now than I was when I was, say, two. By far. But I’m only better hitting ‘Tour’ bunker shots. On Tour we have similar sand just about every week. The greens are similar every week. So I became really, really good at that shot. But that is a much narrower band of shots than I grew up playing in Melbourne. There, the bunkers vary from course to course. And, playing amateur tournaments all over the place, I was faced with wildly different conditions just about every time out.
I’d be playing from firm sand one day and soft sand the next. Others would be hard in spots and soft in others. So I became very proficient at ‘reading’ the sand. And in turn, I could play an awful lot of very different shots. I would square the face so that the club wouldn’t bounce. Then I’d hit others with the face wide open. All of which depended on what one of the almost infinite variety of lies I was faced with.
The last few years have been very different though. Whenever I get into a lie I don’t see that often, my ability to adapt as well as I once did has largely gone. My ‘normal’, standard bunker shot is way better than it ever was. But all the little ones in-between are gone. My instincts have been dumbed down. Because I haven’t needed them as much.
This whole thing is, of course, neither good nor bad. It’s just different. I am extremely good at one aspect of the game. But at the same time not as good at another. And that is the “adaptability muscle” I haven’t been flexing.
I could say the same about the fairways I played as a kid versus those I typically see on Tour. Growing up, I hit a lot of shots off fairways that were not quite Augusta National standard. So I would get good lies and bad lies. And again, I was really good at figuring out what sort of shots I could and couldn’t hit from all of those lies. I knew when I could spin the ball. I knew when impact was likely to be a little bit “thin” when the ball was sitting down. I knew when the shot would likely ‘fly’. I knew when I had to go low. I knew when a fade was my only option. All kinds of stuff.
I can still play all of those shots. But I haven’t had to on Tour. Not nearly as much. Because the lies I get are so consistent. Again, I have become very, very good at a narrower form of the game I grew up playing.
Putting is the same. On Tour, the greens are almost the same speed every week. There’s not much thought required as far as finding the pace is concerned. But growing up, things were very different. There was no consistency, only variety. So it would take me two or three holes to get a feel for the speed of the putts. And again, just by doing it so much, I improved in that area. I was good at just looking at a green and getting the speed right. Sometimes even before I hit a putt.
Now, if the greens where I am playing are not ‘Tour speed’, it can take me eight or nine holes to get the feel for distance and pace. Especially if the greens are slow. And I’m not alone. Most Tour pros struggle all week on slower than normal greens. Going fast is okay; going slow is hard, which is not because we can’t putt on slow greens. No. It’s because the greens on Tour vary so little in terms of speed.
Yet again, we are just not as adaptable as we used to be. Outside of our comfort zone we can struggle.
Anyway, where am I headed with all this?
Don’t imagine that I am saying that the players of today are somehow inferior to those of the past. That would be silly. The standard of golf now is incredible. But it is less adaptable. And there are one or two exceptions. Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson come to mind. They exude creativity, as do some others. Even with equipment that sometimes doesn’t encourage creativity, they have as many shots as anyone has ever had. From any era. And they are lot of fun to watch because of that fact.
What has been eliminated, however, is any need to ‘work out’ your driver. Back in the day, you had to figure things out for a couple of months. What can I get away with? Can I tee the ball low and hit this shot? Can I hit it off the deck? What happens when I hit one off the toe? What happens if I grip down a little?
Now, guys have their drivers figured out after four shots, which is great. But it fails to massage the instinct muscle all golfers have.
Bottom line? I think we have to be careful of going too far down the ‘ease of use’ track and not make fairways and bunkers so perfect. That’s all great. But there is a negative side to that excellence or near-perfection. The better your normal shot gets, the fewer shots you actually have in your armoury. I am living proof of that. There needs to be some tension between both sides of our argument. There needs to be some challenge if the game is to retain your attention over a long period.
So my message is, amidst all of this scientific help we all get these days, don’t lose sight of the artistic side of golf. Yes, it’s fun to smash long tee shots with your metal driver. And it’s nice to have a beautiful lie on the fairway. But don’t be afraid to roll your ball into a poor lie now and then. Just to see what you can do.