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Best golf developments of the past 50 years

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In my last column I told you about a vision I have of golf in the near future. It wasn’t pretty. It had its genesis in the short attention span and instant gratification needs of today’s youth, as well as some of the well-intentioned yet misguided proposals to halt the erosion of recreational golf’s player base. I followed with a list of the five worst things that have happened to golf in the past 50 years – events or ideas or people that have hampered the growth of the game.

But I’m not totally pessimistic about golf’s future. There have been other, more positive developments in the game that give me hope that my kids might one day break 80 playing 18 holes in four hours, with their shirts tucked in while enjoying each other’s company and savoring the opportunity to be outdoors.

So here are my five best things to happen to golf in the past 50 years:

5. Keeping it simple. Harvey Penick, with his direct way of communicating, avoiding all technicality, was the well-known teacher of Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Mickey Wright, Kathy Whitworth and countless others, famous and not. All of them came away better golfers and people for having been in his company. In an age when everyone seems to have all the answers about the golf swing, it is worth noting that Penick, who died in 1995 shortly before Crenshaw’s second Masters victory, was known to take a day to answer a student’s question, so careful was he in choosing the right words, realizing their lasting impact. He took this complicated game and made it simple and charged $5 for a lesson. His lifetime of compiled thoughts on golf, the “Little Red Book,” sold for $19. 



4. The Golden Age revival of golf course architecture over the past 20 years. It has given us Bandon Dunes, Cape Kidnappers, Ballyneal, Friars Head and Sand Hills, to name a few. The popularity of these venues illustrates the lengths to which golfers will go to play a course uncorrupted by someone’s contrived aesthetic appeal, both of commercialism and design. Every architect I have talked to pays homage to Alister MacKenzie, yet so few seem to understand his principles of creating an ideal course, principals such as “Every hole should be different in character and there should be infinite variety in the strokes required to play the various holes.” Thankfully the architects of the courses named above are among the few who do. You want to play golf in three hours with one ball and breathe inspiring air? Play Old Macdonald at Bandon Dunes. 

3. Advances in equipment. Much-maligned developments such as perimeter-weighted irons, investment-cast clubs, square grooves, metal-headed drivers, fairway clubs, hybrids and two-piece balls have made this game more exciting and easier for everyone. Whether it was Karsten Solheim and his Ping Anser in 1967 or his K1 irons in 1969, Golden Ram introducing surlyn in a golf ball in 1968, TaylorMade unveiling a metal-headed driver at the PGA Merchandise Show in 1979 or its adjustable-weight technology in 2007, Callaway and the Big Bertha or Titleist and the Pro V1, or countless other technological advances, golf equipment intoxicates us. Critics say the governing bodies have been remiss in their duties to protect the game. Hogwash. It’s not their job to thwart capitalism, but by bifurcating they could have allowed amateurs the joy of these advances while protecting the nostalgic professional records and the nuances of the game. They also would have negated the need to lengthen courses and speed up greens. 

2. Tiger Woods. He possesses an aptitude for this game that we cannot explain. There have been players who were geniuses at striking the ball, players who were geniuses in the short game, players whose genius was in strategy and players who had a flair for the moment. But no player has ever woven all these threads into the kind of tapestry that makes up the game of Tiger Woods.

Such virtuosity, comparable to that of a Mozart, a Michelangelo, a Picasso, a da Vinci, a Rembrandt, makes us wonder how gifts so absolute come into being. We evaluate artists and athletes by how they are able to change history. Tiger has no rival for impact in his profession.

1. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. No sport has ever had two better examples of how to compete, how to win and how to lose. The game is indebted to these two for the safekeeping of its traditions, as either could have used his immense power to avoid the obligations that come with enormous success. Arnold has the popularity of transformative U.S. presidents; Jack has the kind of respect that goes way beyond his mind-boggling success. 

I’m certain of one thing: that the good things that have happened in this game over the past 50 years far outweigh the bad.