The clue is in the title. I’m a professional golfer. That’s what I do for a living. So, logically, it follows that – whether I want to or not – I am going to work on my game in ways that are going to maximise my ability to make money.
And, to a large extent, what dictates the content of those practices and preparations are the playing fields on which I do my job.
As a group, we pros have to be adaptable. We have to adjust our games each week so that, by the time we reach the final round on Sunday, we are more suited to the prevailing conditions than when we arrived. Our swings and strategies must evolve into what will help us shoot lower scores. That is an undeniable aspect of tour life.
Which brings me to distance, ever-longer courses being perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the game at the top level. It is easy to “blame” the equipment manufacturers – and many do – for what many see as excessive yardage. But there is another side to that debate. Those same ball and club makers, after all, give us what we ask for. We want the stuff that is going to best get us round the sorts of courses we see almost every week.
Here’s the thing though. Modern Tour courses definitely tend to advantage – some say disproportionately – the guy who can hit the ball really high and a long way through the air. The weekly challenge is primarily presented by length. The first thing we hear about any Tour course is how long it is. This year’s US Open at Erin Hills was a perfect example. All of which plays into the notion that pure distance is the most important aspect of the game. But that, by itself, is a shallow way to challenge pro golfers.
Right now, Tour courses are generally quite soft and quite narrow. So the game – quite naturally – is dominated by “long, high and straight.” Most weeks there is no big edge given to the player whose strength is shaping shots both ways. When the ball doesn’t do much after it lands, the flight it takes en route is less important than it would be if the turf were firmer. On, say, a fast-running links the amount of spin on the ball matters so much more.
What got me thinking about all this were the really low scores guys were shooting during the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews. In October, the Old Course is softer than in summer, so on a calm day when the pins are not tucked the game’s most famous venue can be overwhelmed. But here’s another thing. If we played there every week we would all gradually morph back – both in terms of our games and equipment – into forms that would maximise our chances at St. Andrews.
Yes, the golfer who can only hit a fade can play the Old Course. But he isn’t going to shoot 61 unless he can move the ball from left-to-right and right-to-left. So, over time, on a course that demands so much subtlety, he will try to add that to his game. Because that will be to his advantage.
Over time too, he will be hitting the ball lower. He won’t bother about how far he hits his drives. He won’t be trying to find extra yardage, because that wouldn’t significantly affect his scores. Instead, he will evolve into a more rounded golfer with a game best suited to the challenges presented by the Old Course.
So, if you are concerned about the way professional golf is going in terms of how far we hit our tee-shots – the so-called ‘bomb and gouge’ mentality – the solution is simple. Let’s “bump” the game back in a direction more people will enjoy. Let’s forget the current norm and set-up courses in different ways.
Most weeks there is no big edge given to the player whose strength is shaping shots both ways. When the ball doesn’t do much after it lands, the flight it takes en route is less important than it would be if the turf were firmer. On, say, a fast-running links the amount of spin on the ball matters so much more.
Changing things shouldn’t be too difficult. Think of it this way. If we played the treacherous and fascinating short par-4 10th hole at Riviera in Los Angeles 72 times in a row for five consecutive years, we would all end up using a ball that spins a lot. Then we would work on hitting 3-irons off the tee. We would work on our 70-yard wedge shots. And we would work on our short games. Because that is what would maximise our chances of victory.
Yes, that is an extreme example. But if all 18-holes followed the same sort of principles, we would have par-3s, par-4s and par-5s where position and shot-shape rather than distance were the priorities. All of which sounds a lot like the challenges presented at St. Andrews, or Augusta National, or Royal Melbourne. And a lot like the game I would rather be playing.
This sort of debate also provokes much passion from many course architects. They see strategic design as the best way of keeping golf in check. They are the wise old uncles looking over our shoulders. They want courses that encourage the sort of game golf could be rather than the game it has become – at least at the top level.
Again, think of it this way. What we are doing right now is chasing big biceps in the gym rather than a more rounded “all-body” fitness. Yes, distance is fun. Yes, it’s cool. But it is only part of a bigger picture. In the pursuit of length we have left some of the best parts of golf behind, and this obsession with pointing blame solely at the equipment is getting old. All the manufacturers are doing is providing the products their customers want. If there wasn’t that demand, the clubs and balls would not be selling.
So the argument that all of the above is the “fault” of the manufacturers is flawed. The blame lies more with the average player – mostly those in America. Generally speaking, they have never taken the time to learn golf properly. They are intoxicated by distance and have lost sight of the rest of the game. All of which is a relatively recent phenomenon. When I was a kid, no one was walking around talking about distance. It wasn’t that big a deal. But today’s golfer seems to be a different animal.
The bottom line? “Bifurcating” the rules so that pros and amateurs are playing with different balls and clubs won’t be enough. That would be a temporary fix – unless the courses also change. If they don’t, the top players will simply find a way to get back to where we are now. In about 50 years’ time we would be facing the same issues.
Besides, it is 100 percent possible to shape the direction of golf through our courses. The best of those have always presented us with the most options. So the most successful players are those with the most variety in their games. It is no coincidence that Seve Ballesteros – perhaps the most creative player in the history of the game – is the only man who has ever won tournaments at Royal Melbourne, St. Andrews and Augusta National.