If you’re like me, you are getting a little tired of the distance/equipment/technology debate in golf.
No one on either side ever seems to come up with a winning argument. And everyone on both sides is convinced that their vision of the future is best for the game. But that’s not enough.
I get both sides of the argument. I get that the PGA Tour has maybe never been more interesting to watch than it is now. Tiger is back. Phil is winning again. And there are so many great young players. Why mess with it?
I also understand the purist argument that we are “losing” so many of our great courses at the pro level. But none of the reasons stated by both sides really resonate with me. Distance is only part of the equation. It is an issue to be sure. But only one issue. The game is bigger than someone hitting the ball 350 yards. I have no problem with that, as long as it is really hard to hit 350-yard shots. I want those shots to be so thrilling because they are also rare. It’s not the distance per se, it is the ease with which the distance comes.
My view is that golf needs a flip side. If every drive you hit goes 350 yards, you are naturally going to want to hit one 380 yards. But that is going to get boring. You need to thin a few and neck a few to really appreciate the great drive. Golf is more exciting when you’re not sure what is going to happen. If you knew the result of every shot, you’d soon stop playing. There would be no mystery.
That thought came to me standing on a fairway the other day. I was thinking back to a time when I played courses where the lies were less than great most of the time. But every so often, I would get the perfect lie for the shot I wanted to play. I’d be walking to my ball all pissed off at what I was about to be faced with. Then, when I got there, I couldn’t wait to hit the shot. That’s the best feeling in golf. A good lie is only a good lie if you don’t always get a good lie. Otherwise, it’s just a lie.
In turn, when I play courses on Tour – where the lies are almost universally perfect – that random aspect of the game is largely lost. Bad bounces are the same. I know some Americans on the PGA Tour who profess to “hate” links golf because of the bounces. But they are missing the point. Getting five bad bounces in a row is what makes the good bounce so good. If every bounce was good or bad, they wouldn’t be good bounces or bad bounces. They would just be bounces.
This philosophy works all the way across the game. If you have “chip-out” rough and soft bounces and perfect grass and big clubs with massive sweet spots and perfect greens, the inherent conundrum that is golf is all but lost. Thrills must be paired with frustrations and disappointment. It’s called balance. – Geoff Ogilvy
There is such a thrill when you get a good bounce, especially after a few bad ones. That feeling far outweighs the tedium that would come with getting the same bounce every time. Imagine how boring the game could be if we never got good breaks or bad breaks.
In order to enjoy golf to the fullest, you have to accept the other side of the game. If you don’t, the fun is gone. It becomes vanilla. If you birdie every hole you ever play, a birdie would just be a par.
Both sides of the game – good and bad – have to be completely equal. Look at the modern drivers with their massive sweet spots. If you always hit the sweet spot, the thrill of really “nailing” a shot is lost because you haven’t mishit any shots prior to that moment of total pleasure. You can only really enjoy flushing a shot when you know what it feels like to not flush it. There is no excitement to be had from hitting a shot well if you hit them all well. And, if you do anything all the time, the game loses the balance that makes it great.
This is why people play golf. Watch a beginner. If the first shot he or she ever hit was a big high draw, the game wouldn’t have much appeal. It only appeals because the first thousand shots go along the ground. Then one finally gets into the air. At that, the look on the face of our new golfer cannot be replicated. That’s what golf is. Then the next 20 shots go along the ground again. Then they hit another good one. And eventually the good ones come along more regularly. That’s why we all play golf.
In contrast, no one plays because it is easy, every shot and lie perfect – and you birdie every hole. This may sound a little perverse, but that is actually just as boring as hitting every shot poorly and making a string of bogeys. It’s the same. So to get the most out of making a birdie you have to make bogeys too. That’s what makes the birdies so much fun.
And that is the point being missed in modern golf. It is really irrelevant how far the ball goes, as long as the drama of the game is balanced. There have to be highs and lows together, an aspect of the game epitomised by Augusta National. No course does that better. Augusta is not all “black” or all “white.” It is a million shades of grey. Ideally, 10 percent of every round should be black, 10 percent white and 80 percent grey.
RIGHT: The rough during the 2006 US Open won by Geoff Ogilvy. PHOTO: Getty Images
Look at the Masters. It is, in many ways, the perfect tournament course and it perfectly illustrates this principle of balance. Especially on the back-nine, all kinds of numbers come into play. There are eagles and birdies and bogeys and double-bogeys. And so, great excitement. Conversely, a traditional US Open is the opposite of the Masters. In America’s national championship, the elimination of thrills is the aim.
Equally, think of the golfers we all most enjoy. It’s not the “consistent” guys who make pars on every hole. It’s the guys for whom every round is a roller-coaster. Seve Ballesteros. Phil Mickelson. Tiger Woods. Those guys didn’t or don’t hit every fairway. There is an uncertainty about their play that makes them fun to watch. And they all look like they are having the most fun too.
I have no idea when the missing of this point began. But it has much to do with human nature. It is natural to want to make things easier. It is natural to make everything lop-sided in favour of the “good.” It is natural to want rid of everything “bad.” But, eventually, good morphs into “normal.” And there is no thrill. If you take that away, the whole point of the game is lost.
In other words, we need more “bad” in the game so that we can fully appreciate the “good.” The offensive thing about the deep, manicured rough we see so often on American-style courses is that the two or three minutes of hope as you walk to your ball is lost. If you know for sure that the lie is going to be bad, there is no point in hoping that it might be okay. If you know with absolute certainty you are “dead,” you are miserable. And there is no fun to be had in that.
What can be fun is hitting your ball into rough on a proper links. Four out of five times you are going to be hacking out. But you never quite know for sure. It might just be alright and playable. And that thought is one of the great joys of golf.
The solution, it seems to me, is obvious. The premise of any debate needs to be “how do we embrace golf’s balance?” How do we incorporate the “downs” that make the “ups” so good? We don’t play for the downs. We play for the ups. But the ups are only good if the downs are there.
This philosophy works all the way across the game. If you have “chip-out” rough and soft bounces and perfect grass and big clubs with massive sweet spots and perfect greens, the inherent conundrum that is golf is all but lost. Thrills must be paired with frustrations and disappointment. It’s called balance.