In the name of modern golf, the 2004 PGA Championship was played on a course, Whistling Straits, that was 7,514 yards.
In the name of modern golf, the 2006 Masters will be played on a course, Augusta National, that is 7,445 yards.
In the name of modern golf, the city of Bolingbrook, Ill., is studying a proposal to build a municipal golf course that would be 8,400 yards.
Sad but true, British Open officials drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa. For the 2005 Open at St. Andrews, they scribbled five new tees on the canvas that is the Old Course, bumping the length to 7,279 yards.
Why are we witnessing such a mad scramble to create longer courses? Why is Augusta National undergoing its second lengthening job in three years?
It is a reaction to golf’s little problem.
At the British Open, Tiger Woods was No. 1 in driving distance with an average of 341.5 yards. An average of 329 yards was required to finish in the top 10. Anything short of 320 yards was outside the top 20.
Additional length at the Old Course proved to be no hurdle for Woods and friends. Only the shorter hitters were victims of the distance explosion.
At the 2005 PGA Championship, where fairways were relatively soft, John Daly led the field with a driving average of 334.6 yards.
Let’s be honest: Longer courses invariably play to the strength of long hitters. Although Woods has a cannon for a driver, his biggest weapon is his irons. Because he can hit these irons farther and higher than most players, while maintaining pinpoint accuracy, his advantage grows as the yardage grows.
So the stretch-it-out strategy isn’t working.
Officers of the R&A and USGA have said over and over they don’t want two sets of equipment rules, one for pros and another for everybody else. This means all golfers will be affected by any distance cutback.
I don’t want to see golf balls shortened (with lower ball speed) or drivers throttled back (with less velocity off the face), but it seems clear to me that one of these two scenarios will occur.
The only other choice is this: Accept longer drives, embrace lower scores, stop complaining. Except that nobody is embracing lower scores. This is why courses keep getting longer and longer.
Another consequence of golf’s little problem: Conditions keep getting tougher and tougher. As I walked around St. Andrews on the weekend, I observed exactly what I have seen many times at the U.S. Open. To protect par, greens were allowed to become firm and crusty. Combine this with merciless pin placements, and scores always will soar.
Perhaps I’ve absorbed the jargon of too many conflicts, but there is collateral damage in this distance war. I know several longtime Augusta National members who say privately they don’t really enjoy playing the golf course anymore.
And I suspect the townsfolk of St. Andrews are wondering what will happen next, in the name of modern golf, to their revered old layout.
- by James Achenbach
If golf’s 2005 majors were a political campaign in America, it would be a replay of the 2004 presidential election. The Democrats were optimistic as the electoral season dawned, but on election day, their ideas were deemed to be suspect, and the status quo survived another challenge.
By now, most are familiar with the arguments the roll-back-the-ball crowd brings forward. Basically, the contention is that modern technology has ruined the game we know and love. Today’s professional golfers are overwhelming golf courses in every precinct of the nation, from Augusta to Pinehurst to Baltusrol.
However, let’s take a closer look at the election returns.
We’ll start with the first major, won by the guy who dumped fuel on the embers of this whole debate. The dead ball advocates clearly were unamused by Tiger Woods’ 349-yard, uphill, into-the-wind drive to open the final round at Augusta, but bear in mind Woods finished only 12 under par at the Masters. That’s 3 under per day by the world’s best player.
Along the way, he managed to visit some of the more scenic off-fairway locales, rolled his rock off the 13th green and holed a miraculous chip shot on the 70th hole after airmailing the flag. Hardly seems like it was an easy 12 under. His peers probably would agree. Only 16 players finished under par at Chez Hootie.
Let’s move on to the U.S. Open at Donald Ross’ Pinehurst No. 2. Ross, had he been there, would have nodded approvingly as not a single player finished below par. Michael Campbell shot even-par 280 to win on a golf course that drew nary a complaint from the Tour boys. Pinehurst showed that there is more to golf than muscle. Subtle greens, rolling fairways and demanding second shots tested every player’s ability and patience. Pinehurst No. 2 was open off the tee, but it was no bombers’ paradise.
Now to Baltusrol Golf Club’s Lower Course, A.W. Tillinghast’s 109-year-old layout. Sure, it’s been toughened a bit over the years, but like Pinehurst No. 2 it retains its essential character. Hence, the winner of the PGA Championship managed to get it “all the way” to 4 under. Only eight others joined Phil Mickelson in red numbers. You’d think a course designed more than a century ago would succumb to today’s clubs and balls and weight rooms.
Not the case.
For those keeping score, that’s 25 scores turned in by 22 of the best players in the world – the only ones able to post a four-round total under par in the three U.S. majors. Twenty-five out of 405 entrants – 6.1 percent. Cause for concern? I think not.
This ball debate reminds me of politics in another way: The anti-tech crowd rarely let facts get in the way of their suppositions. They’ll point to low numbers at some regular Tour events and claim that the game is under siege.
But let’s not confuse entertainment with big-time championship golf. Thirty-five under par in Palm Springs in January is fun to watch on television. But it’s not the U.S. Open, the Masters or the PGA. Or, for that matter, The Players Championship.
If 2005 is any indicator, there is no need to change a thing. The game is just fine, at all levels of play.
- by James Nugent