In golf, especially at the professional level, the best techniques have always hit the longest shots. Always.
Bobby Jones was long. So was Sam Snead. Jack Nicklaus was the longest of anyone. So was Greg Norman. And so was Tiger Woods. They all created the most clubhead speed because the way they swung was the most efficient way to do so.
Today, the best players have all grown up smashing the ball from day one, which is not a bad way to find your technique. You’ll find the most efficient way to swing the club. Which is generally the best way. And, strangely, the opposite of how past generations grew up trying to hit the ball. In the past, more emphasis seemed to be placed on hitting shots straight rather than far.
That’s all gone now though. What we have today is a bunch of great athletes with great techniques, using great equipment. Like it or not, that’s where professional golf is at right now. And Brooks Koepka is the benchmark. The days of someone like Corey Pavin, Jim Furyk or Zach Johnson – even Nick Faldo and Peter Thomson – becoming No.1 are gone. Starting today, it would be way more difficult for, say, Furyk to have the career he has had to this point. Not impossible. But way harder.
That is the way the game has evolved. We have reached the point where superior athletes are learning the swing better and faster than anyone else. The premium for them is to swing hard. Previous generations never had that. There were the odd exceptions – it would be hard to argue Arnold Palmer did not hit the ball hard – but generally golf was all about hitting the ball in the fairway, it was all about precision and being ‘smarter’ than the next guy.
That all comes with implications. Players now just have to be better than those who came along before. To win that is. Which is not surprising. In every sport the participants are getting bigger and faster. Ten seconds used to win the 100 metres in the Olympics. Not anymore.
“He is smart enough to play the game he needs to play in order to win consistently.”
In golf, the courses have a lot to do with how the game is played at the highest level. We haven’t quite reached the stage where there is only one way to play on Tour. On a baked-out links, for example, length off the tee is not necessarily an overwhelming advantage. Look at how Tiger won the 2006 Open Championship at Hoylake, using a wooden club only once in 72-holes. And that could still be done today, in the same sort of conditions.
Here’s the thing though. The professional game has simply adjusted to the surfaces on which it is most often being played. It is played in ways that best suit the set-up of most courses. If we had short, bouncy, firm courses with lots of bends and twists, guys would learn to shape shots more than they do today. But when we see courses like Bethpage Black at this year’s US PGA Championship – a ‘maxed-out’ version of how the game has been trending – guys are simply going to hit the ball as far and as high as they can. Because that is the best way to shoot a low score.
That’s just reality. Let me repeat: The best golfers in the world are going to play a game best suited to the types of courses on which they are asked to perform. It’s that simple. And over the past 20-30 years we have increasingly seen courses that reward everything that Brooks does well. He is the poster-child for that style of play. So is Dustin Johnson. They are very similar. They hit the ball forever and seem to have no fear. And their games are perfect for most of the courses they are playing.
All of which is not to say that Brooks and Dustin would not have been great in any generation using any equipment. They are gifted individuals. So if you asked Brooks to be Jim Furyk I’m sure he would be good at that too. But he is smart enough to play the game he needs to play in order to win consistently. That’s what the best golfers always do. So to win right now, you have to play like Brooks. But if courses were shorter and demanded more accuracy, I feel sure he would win there too. But he’d do it in a different way. If he was presented with Hoylake 2006 conditions, he would probably still win ... Hitting 4-irons off the tee.
Long and straight has always been good. But the difference between the long hitter and the short hitter is perhaps bigger today than it has ever been. I might be wrong in that. But little or no run on the fairways does seem to have accentuated that notion. Today’s equipment helps too. A better athlete swinging hard and well is going to hit the ball well over 300 yards. And straight. He just is.
RIGHT: Koepka has won four of the past 11 major championships. PHOTO: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
That’s a big change in emphasis. Especially in America, golf used to be looked upon as something of a ‘geeky’ sport, one played by those who were not big enough or strong enough to compete in football, basketball or baseball. But that has changed. A lot. Now, the better athletes are gravitating towards golf. Brooks, for example – or Gary Woodland – could have excelled in other sports. But they chose golf over other sports, maybe because Tiger Woods made golf ‘cooler’ than it had been before. Historically, that had never before been true.
So the way our heroes play the game today is the coming together of a few factors. The best golfer in the world has more good attributes than ever before. He is just a better cocktail of ingredients. On the other hand, it does come with a price. To an extent, we should lament the demise of the little guy. It is a shame that Furyk and Pavin and (Zach) Johnson could not repeat the careers they have had if they started right now. At least, it doesn’t feel like they could, without hitting the ball as far as, say Bubba Watson. Like Corey, Bubba never hits a straight shot. But he hits them 50 yards longer. On a long course, the fight between the two would hardly be fair.
One of golf’s greatest appeals was that every man had a chance. Everyone was good at something. But now, the very best are good at everything. They have filled in the gaps.
In passing, Rory McIlroy is more like generations past in at least one respect. While he may be the best golfer of all-time outside 100 yards from the hole, he just doesn’t make as many putts as the next guy. Nowadays, to win consistently you have to be in the top-10 in driving, greens in regulation and putting. I’d still put Jones. Nicklaus, Hogan and all the rest up against today’s best but they would have to play the modern – and more complete – game to do so. The bar has been raised at the very highest level, which is as it should be, and always has been.