Morri: Tiger Is Right, The Ball Goes Too Far

Brooks Koepka's power display at this year's US Open exemplifies the problem of the golf ball, writes Rod Morri.
In golf there are a handful of subjects that are the game’s equivalent of bringing up politics or religion at a dinner party.

One of them is the distance the modern golf ball flies and none other than Tiger Woods fanned the flames of this always simmering debate on a podcast appearance this past week.

Woods is, of course, not the first legend of the game to suggest modern distances are a concern, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player among the legion of greats to have said the same thing for several years.

But are they right? Does the modern golf ball go too far? I believe so and here’s why.

To be clear, the distance problem exists predominantly at the professional and top amateur level of the game though its impact spreads much further.

If we want elite golf to be more than a glorified pitch and putt exhibition then tournament play needs to be on courses that are increasingly longer.

The problem with that is that they are only ‘tournament’ courses for one week of the year. The rest of the time they are simply ‘courses’ which average golfers play.

The added financial and environmental costs of bigger golf courses aside, it simply defies logic to combat a problem caused by equipment by changing the playing field to accommodate. No other sport does it but in golf it seems accepted.

Secondly, the madness of the distance debate is that it is relative. If the ball was rolled back by 10 per cent for everybody tomorrow, all golfers would retain their place in the ‘pecking order’.

Rory McIlroy would still hit it further than Jordan Spieth and I would still hit it further than my mate Thommo.

The only difference is that instead of needing to play the US Open on a course 7,800 yards long (7,300 metres), it could be played on a course requiring several acres less land and several acres less maintained turf.

Thirdly, the only people who benefit from the distance arms race are equipment manufacturers.

For as long as the game has been played, golfers have wanted to hit it further and the laws of supply and demand dictate that if people want to buy something then somebody will find a way to sell it to them.

It is worth noting that any rollback of the ball - however unlikely that seems - would have only a negligable impact of the vast majority of club golfers whose swing speeds aren't fast enough to reap extra distance from modern golf balls. 

A 15-marker whose driver carry is 220 metres would fly the ball a similar distance whether they were using a Pro V1 or softer balata from 20 years ago.

There is nothing wrong with equipment makers hawking their wares but when the effects of their technological advances begin to impact negatively on the game then it is legitimate to question if that is the right way forward.

And besides, nobody is giving up golf because they don’t hit it far enough and certainly nobody is taking up the game because they think they can hit a long tee shot.

Lastly, though, and most importantly, the challenge of the game at the top level has fundamentally changed.

In what should be an arm wrestle between golfer and course, the balance of power has shifted too far in favour of the player who can hit the ball prodigious distances.

That Brooks Koepka hit nothing more than a 7-iron into any of the par-4 holes he played in winning the US Open means he didn’t just have an advantage over his fellow competitors but over the course itself.

Two of those two-shot holes were in excess of 450 metres and five others were longer than 400 metres. The numbers are frankly baffling.

If Koepka was an outlier, what happened at Erin Hills wouldn’t be of concern but he is not.

In fact, he is only seventh on a list of more than 40 PGA Tour players who averaged - yes averaged – more than 300 yards (270 metres) off the tee in 2017.

To those who will inevitably point out that no previous generation of elite golfers has been as athletic and physically trained as this current crop - so what?

Whether the distances gained in the last 20 years are due solely to improved physical training (they’re not) or a juiced-up ball and clubs built to maximise distance, the outcome is the same.

The game is less interesting to watch and less interesting to play when distance is the predominant indicator of success (as this blog post during the week discovers).

Arguing over the good or otherwise of golfers hitting the ball ever further has been part of the game for centuries.

When the gutta percha ball replaced the featherie in the mid 1800s there was hand-wringing over the issue and when the rubber ‘Haskell’ ball came along at the turn of the 20th century the theme continued.

Sadly, the chances of a rollback are on the ‘never going to happen’ side of unlikely and if history is anything to go by, hitting distances will continue to increase as will the scale and size of new golf courses.

But will the game be better for it? I say no and increasingly it seems others, including Tiger Woods, agree.


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