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On The Ball

By: Tony Dear


460cc drivers, stronger players, launch monitors and fairways cut to three-eighths of an inch are all blamed for the extravagant distances some Tour stars are driving it these days. But none receives quite as much stick as the ball. So is it time to roll it back?

In November 1983, golf course architect and golf correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, Donald Steel, wrote that Peter Thompson's crusade to put tight controls on golf ball technology required "urgent recruitment if things are not to get completely out of hand." In October 1984, he quoted Bernard Darwin, himself something of an anti-technologist, who said circa 1920 that unless the ball was brought back to its "proper limits," course architects would forever be fighting an uphill battle. And in August 1987, Steel revisited the theme, asserting that enough was enough and that left unchecked the ball would cause the game perhaps irreparable damage.

Responsible in recent years for changes to several Open Championship venues including Royal Liverpool, site of last year's event, Steel knows a thing or two about the effect technology, and improvements to the ball in particular are having on the world's golf courses. For more than 20 years, he has advocated a roll back; shaving the ball of some of its yardage in order to preserve the challenge of courses, which he feels would become no more challenging than a pitch-and-putt unless something is done.

He's not alone, of course. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and more recent champions such as Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam have all voiced the opinion the ball needs to be bought in line to maintain the integrity of the game.

This is a compelling argument as there can be little doubt today's most successful players all seem to fit a mold - big, strong and powerful - and that too many short irons are being played into long par-4s, and even par-5s. There are plenty, however, who say "so what?" and that the problem, if indeed there is one, is grossly over-exaggerated. Contrary to what many people believe, this debate over distance has been bubbling away quietly for decades, long before Titleist gave the world the Pro-V1. Since the turn of this century, however, the issue hasn't so much bubbled away as exploded into an occasionally bitter war of words between various factions within the game.

The sides appear neatly divided: past players (the word "past" may be significant) and course architects on one side, legislators (the USGA and R&A) and golf ball manufacturers on the other - a split that makes it easy to dismiss this as simply a case of manufacturers wanting to protect the profits their current inventories are raking in, and legislators running scared of the manufacturers who could conceivably sue them for countless millions if they ever decided to block future developments.

Actually, it's not nearly so straightforward.

The greatest concern as Palmer, Nicklaus, Steel and other skeptics see it is the effect long balls are having on some of the game's more traditional courses. "There's no room to expand Oakmont or Merion any more," says Palmer. "But we'd like to keep playing them." Steel is similarly troubled: "I have hated seeing in recent years the indignities most of our courses have suffered at the hands of our leading players against the inexorable advance in the manufacturing of equipment."

Last year the Ohio Golf Association (OGA), worried that some of the state's courses were no longer sufficiently demanding, stole a march on the Augusta National Golf Club by becoming the first organization to implement a standard ball policy. Instead of a Pro-V1 or HX Tour, competitors at the OGA Champions Tournament were obliged to tee it up with a Volvik ProsPect, a 70-compression ball chosen primarily because it was 10 percent shorter than most players' regular choice of ball. "About a third of our courses are too short to host an important tournament now," said Jim Popa, the OGA's executive director, in defense of the action. "And the number is growing."

Siding with the naysayers, though perhaps less vociferously, is Tom Doak, the occasionally controversial and always cerebral course architect who believes the ball may be causing the game some harm but that the issue is overblown. "100 percent of course developers and architects are being influenced by 2 percent of players," he says. "Handicaps are not coming down because of modern golf balls but golfers want what they see on TV, or at least they think they do. And so courses become 7,200 yards or more even though the vast majority of those that play them could handle 6,500 yards at best."

That, says British designer Martin Ebert, means the time taken to play a round of golf significantly increases as does the cost of playing. "And that's not a good formula for the game," he stresses.

To combat the trend of constantly adding length, Doak believes it is important for developers, clubs, architects and maintenance staff to concentrate their efforts on aspects of the course which require skill and touch rather than strength, something that will obviously need to happen at Merion if it isn't to succumb to modern equipment during the 2013 U.S. Open awarded it last summer. "We can keep courses the same length they are now, but introduce some strategy to keep scores sensible," he says.

Dean Snell, senior director of research and development in TaylorMade's golf ball division, also believes the burden is on maintenance staff and those responsible for setting up tournament courses. "Yes, the ball could be rolled back, but why not just shape or narrow the fairways a bit, or lengthen the rough so that players think twice before slashing away with a driver? There's no penalty for finding the rough at most PGA Tour events. So players can get an iron on the ball and spin it no matter how far off the fairway they are." Snell also suggests watering fairways or not cutting them so low would help.

"Set up the course with rough or hazards which penalize golfers for making a decision without the appropriate skill to support it," agrees former USGA technical director, Frank Thomas, who refuses to acknowledge a problem exists. "Technology and progress are facts of life and have influenced golf for a hundred years. Golf is not becoming less popular because 99 percent of us are hitting the ball too far."

As well as the "crisis" facing our courses, many believe the ball is also responsible for the game becoming too easy - long hitters receiving too much of an advantage and performance gaps between the top 100 players in the world, say, becoming ever smaller. In this statistic-friendly game, it's not difficult to find a few to back the theory up. For example, Tiger Woods hit 71 percent of fairways in 2000 but 17 percent fewer five years later. His position at the top of the world rankings hasn't been affected, however, possibly because he's now hitting the ball over 18 yards farther. Missing a fairway is no big deal, it seems. In fact, smacking a driver as far as possible regardless of where it lands is clearly the way to go. Also, in the first seven tournaments of this season's PGA Tour, the winner averaged 38th place in driving accuracy while the top 10 leaders on last year's PGA Tour money list averaged 117th place in the same statistical category. A skill you and I grew up thinking was important no longer seems to matter.

That, apparently, had been the thinking of the Ohio Golf Association when it took the bold step of introducing their tournament ball. "We wanted to level the playing field," said Popa. "Long hitters get too much advantage today. We wanted a ball that allowed the longer hitters to remain the longest in the field but by 10 to 20 yards, not 60 to70."

One man impressed with the courage the OGA displayed in courting trouble from the USGA was Ohio native Jack Nicklaus. "If the USGA is unable to make an effort to move the ball back," he said, "then we need to do something on our own."

In fact, the USGA made some sort of effort in April 2005 when it asked ball manufacturers to submit reduced distance balls - 15 to 25 yards shorter than the current standard. "After receiving a good number of different prototype samples, we selected three different versions from three large ball manufacturers for further testing with larger quantities," said Dick Rugge, Frank Thomas's replacement at the USGA. "The further testing will be completed later this year, but there are no plans to make any rule changes at this time."

Rugge goes on to say that all recent measurements of Tour player performance indicate stability. "And we expect this period of stability to continue into the future," he adds. "We recognize that some believe this stability is at the wrong level, but we see this as an opportunity to spend the time and resources required to fully understand the technical issues."

While Rugge is happy to spend time researching the subject before committing to any major changes in the rules regarding the ball, Thomas has already concluded the ball is not a problem and roundly criticized the USGA for approaching the major manufacturers. "That was one of the most ridiculous decisions in its history," he says. "If the USGA [and R&A] stuck to its principle of one set of rules for all golfers and they did eventually roll back the ball, it would affect all of us. People who don't hit the ball a long way and are not causing the game any harm wouldn't accept this, so the USGA would lose power from those who voluntarily abide by its rules. We would have no order to our game."

Over the top perhaps? Maybe not. OGA officials reported their experiment with the Volvik ProsPect was a success and will be trying it again. But the consensus among the players was that while the best players still came out on top and the course did prove more challenging, playing in the tournament had been much less fun than it should have been. "Let's just say if you began the game playing this ball and never knew any different, you'd be perfectly happy," said Sports Illustrated's Gary Van Sickle, who played all 54 holes. "But nobody wants to give up anything now, especially the guys who fly it 295 yards."

Not surprisingly, the OGA tournament gave rise to much discussion among other organizations over the possibility of introducing their own standard tournament ball, and not far behind was the issue of bifurcation - essentially one rule (or in this case, one ball) for professionals and another for amateurs - an idea once thought of as heresy but now regarded by some, including Doak, as a potentially sound move. "I have never been in favor of two balls, but I'm starting to think the time has come for a change," he says.

"It makes no sense to alter courses for everyone because of what a handful of players are doing. Some will say that only those who play the back tees are affected, but I disagree - every trend in golf architecture from faster greens to deeper bunkers to narrow fairways to tree planting goes back to clubs trying to preserve the challenge of their courses in the face of the equipment revolution. I am also confident that if the ball specs were changed for the Tour, there would be a trickle-down effect. Mini-tour players, club pros and top amateurs would switch, too, and eventually so would any player who wanted to prove he's tough enough to play with the pro ball. That's exactly what happened when the bigger American ball was legislated for the Open and Amateur championships. The authorities in Britain didn't make the 1.62-in ball illegal for club play, but over 15 years it slowly faded away."

Totally opposed to the idea of bifurcation is Steel, who disagrees with Doak, and Thomas, saying amateurs would accept a slight roll back. "We only need one ball," he insists. "Cut it back 10-15 percent for the best players and club golfers will only lose 2-3 percent."

Before the game's ruling bodies rush into any decision about the ball (which, as we have discovered, they are unlikely to do), it's important to bear in mind, says Snell, that manufacturers might actually have taken the ball as far as it can go anyway. "The modern two- and three-piece urethane cover balls are about as good as current materials and regulations allow," he said. "So I think the only chance we'll see major distance increases in the near future will be through advances in driver technology, better technique and strength and even better custom-fitting than what's available now."

It's hard to know who to give the last word to as both sides are right . . . and possibly wrong. My instinct is to give it to the "no problem" brigade because, like the majority of golfers, I believe the enjoyment of the masses is enhanced by new equipment and considerably more important than old, traditional courses such as Prestwick and Musselburgh in Scotland and Myopia Hunt, Chicago and Newport in the U.S. no longer being considered as venues for major championships. Yes, it's a shame the Open can no longer be held at Prestwick, but the game has survived and so have we. And would you give up your TaylorMade r7 460 and sleeve of Pro-V1s to see Musselburgh back on the Open rota?

As for long hitters pushing other courses to their limits, it is surely more advisable to attempt a few changes to the set up of the course before changing the ball. Longer fairway grass might yet be the answer to all this. And a change to the rules that may occur before long, whereby U-grooves on irons and wedges are outlawed after USGA research showed they are significantly better at producing spin than V-grooves, would probably have an impact too. If they were unable to spin a ball out of the rough quite so easily, professionals might not be so gung-ho off the tee.

Thomas really doesn't mind pros giving it some juice off the tee. "Entertainment is the major objective for tour events and long drives and low scores do a good job of meeting that objective," he says. Indeed, why would FedEx have offered a $35 million fund if they thought no one was watching?

"The game has got problems though," said Thomas. "It's not attracting as many new players as it should, we have too many courses and rounds per year are on a downward trend, in the U.S. at least. But I promise you, it has got nothing to do with the ball."

Tony Dear has been writing about golf for 11 years. A former assistant club pro from Sussex, England, Tony started out as a freelancer in 1992 before taking a staff writer's job at Fore!, a magazine based in Peterborough. As the magazine's chief instruction writer, it was Tony's job to compose instructional articles aimed at a youngish readership whose letters to the editor suggested they often got confused by technical jargon and theory. Tony brought his simple approach to teaching golf to the magazine, helping boost sales by 10,000 issues. As a result, he was nominated within the company and nationally for Young Writer of the Year awards.

From there, Tony moved 20 yards across the Emap UK office to join Today's Golfer. There, he was soon promoted to a senior editorial position, focusing on equipment, and became a significant part of a team that saw sales figures double within the magazine's first 12 months.

After three years at Emap UK, Tony was dragged kicking and screaming across the Atlantic by his American wife ("not really, I love it over here") and, after short spells in Phoenix and Denver, wound up in Seattle in May 2003. He recently moved to Bellingham in the far northwest corner of the far Northwest of the U.S. and became a father to a son on whom he has already staked for the 2029 Open Championship. At present, he is freelancing for a number of print and online publications back in England including Today's Golfer, Golf World, Bogey, The Open Championship Magazine and Casino.com. He is also a contributing editor for Denver-based Colorado AvidGolfer.

Recent features include a look at Colorado's self proclaimed 'links' courses, an interview with Suzy Whaley, with whom he played nine holes ("and got soundly thrashed") and a 64-page instruction supplement for Today's Golfer.

Tony has authored three books in the last five years and been nominated for several specialist and young writers awards. "Although I've never actually won one," he admits. He is a member of the Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association based in London.