Worst golf developments of past 50 years


(Editor's note: Brandel Chamblee's five best things to happen to golf in the past 50 years will be posted in this space Monday.) 

I have this vision of golf in the near future: My kids are playing a three-hole course in 15 minutes with their caps on backwards, YouTubing every swing, tweeting every thought and partially paralyzed by swing-tip apps they just downloaded. Such is the nature of our over-caffeinated, increasingly distracted youth, as well as some of the proposals to counter the decay of the number of people who are playing golf today. Indeed, the governing bodies are desperate to grow the game. Well intentioned as they are, when I hear these “grow the game” proposals I can’t help but think that golf may not be for everyone. Perhaps it’s just too expensive and hard, but other trends in the game have hurt its growth, too.

This got me thinking about the worst things that have happened to golf in the past 50 years – events or ideas or people that have made the game less compelling by making it more complicated, more expensive, more time-consuming.

Here, then, are my five worst things to happen to golf in the past 50 years:

5. Overly complicated instruction. “The Golfing Machine,” a book written by Homer Kelley and published in 1969, breaks the swing down into numerous components, each of which has three to 10 variables, resulting in an almost endless number of possible combinations. So complicated is this book that it comes with instructions on how to read it, and prospective students are encouraged to seek out “AIs” – authorized instructors of Kelley’s method. Kelley, who died in 1983, seems to have been a well meaning and well educated man, but his book achieved cult status and unfortunately spawned copycat books and teachers both “authorized” and not who want to make the game so complicated that they alone are the ones with the answers. 

4. The Stimpmeter. It’s a device used to measure the speed of greens, which seems harmless enough, but it has led to an addiction to slicker greens. The double-digit speeds of some of these greens are incompatible with many of the well thought-out green complexes of architects old and revered, subjecting their work to redesigns, which inevitably miss the original point – fun. Greens committees put pressure on golf course architects to stress the grasses by mowing them to whisker height so they can brag about their course’s green speeds, oblivious to the fact that putting on such slippery surfaces inevitably slows play to a glacial pace. 

3. The rule against anchored strokes. An effort to quash an unsightly professional trend, this is another blow to the declining base of this game. Golf is supposed to be a game for a lifetime, and the anchored putter was a port in the storm of fraying nerves caused by aging. The USGA and R&A, both of which have done so much good, stood silent on this issue for 40-plus years and then stood insolent to the petitions of many. Bifurcation is a stupid word for what would have been a smart move, to provide for the differences between the professionals and the 50 million others who play at a vastly lower level.  

2. Slow play. It gets blamed for declining participation numbers more than the changing social dynamic of women working more and men playing less. The combination of these two factors has assured that golf, at least in this country, will never experience the growth it saw in the 1960s. Tour players, whose influence on slow play is said to be the root from which this ugly tree has grown, are not the problem. Events have conspired against them – an industry-wide conspiracy, actually. Because of technology, players are longer and far less accurate, so they take more time to size up shots. Holes have reached absurd distances, which take longer to walk, and greens have reached insane speeds, which take longer to putt. Distances from greens to tees are often longer than the holes themselves, which take more time to navigate. Again, bifurcation would have taken care of most of these issues, but combined there is no chance Tour players will move appreciably faster in the future. Because what we see is what we do, the rest of us won’t be speeding up, either. 

1. Losing Tony Lema and Payne Stewart. The deaths of Lema in 1966 and Stewart in 1999, both as the result of aircraft accidents, robbed golf of two of its most engaging champions in the primes of their lives. Lema was just 32 and had from 1963-66 finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of the tournaments he entered, including a 5-shot victory over Jack Nicklaus in the 1964 Open Championship at St. Andrews. By the time of his death, Lema had become second only to Arnold Palmer in popularity. Stewart made the putt of his life to win the 1999 U.S. Open, his third major title. But what he did afterward said more about who he was than that putt. Taking Phil Mickelson’s face in both hands, Stewart tried to ease the pain of the loss by reminding him of the larger picture of impending parenthood. When Grantland Rice wrote: “For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, He marks – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game,” he was writing of men like Tony and Payne.

Coming Monday: Brandel's five best things to happen to golf in the past 50 years.