2006: Eyeballing it

I wonder when a PGA Tour player last won an event while simply eyeballing distances on every shot.

Ben Crenshaw did it over the final nine of the 1995 Masters when he beat Davis Love III by a stroke. Crenshaw never mentioned a yardage with caddie Carl Jackson from the 10th hole in. They just talked a little. He pulled a club, felt the shot and hit it.

How cool would it be to see that kind of skilled course management return to tournament play? Assessing shots, judging the distance by feel, figuring out the lay of the land and how the ball will react when it hits the ground. Now those are long-lost skills. What Tour player today would trust his judgment?

I know. It makes sense for leading players to rely upon science, numbers and accurate data rather than such elusive things as perception and feel. Why should Tiger Woods (or Steve Williams) have to guess on a shot?

But that’s precisely the point, namely that they wouldn’t be “guessing.” In actuality, they’d be relying upon the accumulated wisdom, course experience, knowledge of shot, memory and Tiger’s ability to produce what he visualizes.

Those are golf skills, too – talents much closer to the traditional character of the game that Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Peter Thomson used when they were regularly winning championships without relying upon yardages.

The latest USGA decision allowing regional golf associations to sanction the use of electronic range finders in championships, which went into effect last month, highlights the issue. We won’t see such devices during PGA Tour events or the four professional majors. Not in the immediate future, anyway. But lots of players at the state and PGA section level will be carrying various distance-measuring tools. That means they’ll be spending less time looking at the course and more time trying to hone in on a number. Good for them. Anyone in competition who doesn’t avail themselves of the latest allowable technology is going to be at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, the trend reveals something interesting about where the modern game is going and who most benefits from it.

The decision reflects a distinct skill level that a very small section of the golf community possesses. What good is precise yardage to a green center, over a bunker or to that flat spot 3 feet short of a hole location unless your swing is reliable and repeatable enough to get the ball there consistently? That’s a skill of calculated precision, brought about by training and working thousands of hours with instructors and biomechanical engineers on everything from video and computer-graphic swing analyzers to launch monitors and materials testing.

No wonder there’s talent compression on the PGA Tour, with nearly everyone hitting in the range of 280 to 300 yards off the tee and possessing swings that are virtually indistinguishable when you watch them at the practice range.

That’s the offense side of the golf equation. The defense is the golf course, with architects, superintendents and tournament officials devising all manners of protection to fend off the high-tech aerial assault.

Courses get stretched to 7,600 yards. Hole locations get squeezed to within three paces of the edge of doom. Greenkeepers triple-cut and double-roll in an effort to make up in speed what greens might lack in contour.

Precise yardage is thus a tool in the player’s offensive arsenal. The result is that the game gets a little simpler to play, the mystique of the ground game and of local knowledge becomes effaced, and the golf course is reduced to a three-dimensional video arcade.

If tournament officials at Augusta National and elsewhere are serious about preserving the golf course as a relevant test, why not eliminate yardage completely and require that golfers eyeball each shot? If you think this sounds weird, just try playing a round or two that way, with you and your buddies agreeing in advance to feel the shot rather than base it on precise distance.

It’ll be a whole new experience. It will feel strange having a lob wedge in your hand, not knowing if it’s 61 yards or 75. More alienating will be the experience of facing a par 3 over water and having to estimate the carry and whether you should risk flying the bunker on the right or choose to play it safe to the left.

That’s all a skill, too. It’s also a part of a home-field advantage that can make the game more interesting, more of a challenge and more demanding for better players.

In addition, it would be a good excuse to get rid of those dopey 150-yard markers on golf courses, as well as red, white and yellow flags that are shifted each day according to the depth of the hole location. Eliminating irrigation heads with yardages (front, middle and back yardages at many “aspiring” golf courses) would speed play since golfers wouldn’t have to waste time searching for them before each shot.

Of course, a lot of wacky golf holes with forced carries suddenly would become unplayable. But maybe it’s time we realize how architects have responded to the proliferation of distance knowledge, namely by building holes that can be played only one way.

Frankly, I’d love nothing more than to see a Masters come down to a second shot on the 15th hole at Augusta National, with Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, trying to figure out whether to go for the green and with what club – without the benefit of yardage.

Perhaps that’s unrealistic. But it’s not unrealistic to occasionally set aside the reliance upon distance and get a feel for a course the old-fashioned way. It makes you more attuned to design and to the ground. And it tests a skill that has disappeared today at the game’s premier levels.

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