Try as I might, I can’t remember a single one of my professors at the University of Texas asking me what we would like to be tested on. What I would have given if my freshman classical lit teacher, Miss Gross (really her name), had asked if we preferred Hemingway, the master of the short story, to the Russian novelist who apparently got paid by the word, Leo Tolstoy. The innate laziness of students, individual bias and consensus, runs counter to the academic goals of professors and Miss Gross had the temerity to think she knew better than her students what curriculum would be appropriate for a proper education.
She was right, of course, but “consensus” has become much more en vogue, as the world via social media bows to groupthink. This has become more evident in universities, politics and even golf, where the game has become almost unrecognizable from what it once was.
The top-five players in the world (Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Justin Rose) rank 128th, 126th, 108th, 127th and 100th, respectively, in driving accuracy. The top-five players in the world are pitiful at what Ben Hogan called the single most important shot in golf. Hogan looked at his target through a scope, these players use a scattergun. Yes, I know we now have something called strokes gained: off the tee, but given the current status of the game that is just a metric to tell us who is the longest, straightest and most crooked.
The hardest thing to do in golf is to hit the ball long AND straight.
Hogan not only understood this, he obsessed over the idea and spent a lifetime building a golf swing that allowed him to hit the ball as far as he could and as straight as he possibly could. His only metric was the ribbon width fairway of a U.S. Open. The reason Hogan would be sick to his stomach if he walked up and down the ranges of PGA Tour events today is because many of the golf swings are built for half of this equation, to hit the ball long. In fairness this is not the player’s fault, at least not as far as they know.
The most popular golf course architect remains Alister MacKenzie, a man who died over 80 years ago. MacKenzie’s guiding philosophy was to build courses that brought the greatest pleasure to the greatest number and his work, aesthetic gems like Cypress Point and Augusta National, built on ocean cliffs and on a former nursery farm, have gained immense and lasting fame.
But perhaps more enduring, and I argue more damaging to the professional game, is his philosophy of design to appeal to the greatest number.
Wanting to imitate links golf, MacKenzie favored little rough, few fairway bunkers, the imitation of nature for aesthetic appeal and rolling greens and surrounds. Testing professional golfers was never the primary objective. Understandable given that when MacKenzie was designing golf courses the game was, besides being much harder than it is now, relatively new in the United States. Making it more popular was the goal.
Players, professional and amateur, loved the forgiving nature of his designs, and budding architects wanting to imitate MacKenzie’s work, adopted philosophies along similar lines. To this day when having a debate with a group of Tour players or golf course architect nerds, the consensus will be to have little or graduated rough off of the tee, “to allow for the recovery” many will say, followed by “to give the greatest pleasure to the greatest number.”
The year MacKenzie died, 1934, was notable: it was the year the Masters began, it was the first year the PGA Tour began recognizing the leading money winner and, far less widely known, it was the first year of a three-and-a-half decade reign for Joseph C. Dey as executive director of the USGA.
“From the moment I met him I could tell he was in charge of the game of golf,” Jack Nicklaus once said about Dey.
Dey shepherded golf in the United States and almost single-handedly instituted a uniform code of rules for the USGA and the R&A and helped start five USGA championships and four international team competitions. Beyond that, he was the man in charge of setting up the courses for the U.S. Open.
His course setups were not built around consensus, they were driven by one simple overriding philosophy: to find the one player who was most in control of his emotions, mind and golf shots. U.S. Opens were often punishing to the best players and unforgiving, both off of the tee and around the green. There was no thought to the recovery, which is by definition bowing to the next shot. U.S. Opens were about great execution of the shot at hand, right here and now. The demands of precision were intimidating but they made the best players think. Hogan, in particular, thought longer and harder than anyone about the demands of a U.S. Open, and conquering them.
Hogan had a Euclidean determination to build a golf swing that would withstand the greatest pressure in the game, U.S. Open pressure. What he built was an immaculate marriage of tenacity and technique, a swing that transfigured the game and remains the single most compelling example of beauty in golf. Now try to imagine what his swing would have looked like if driving the ball straight were of very little importance.
Sure Hogan gets credit for building the golf swing, but Dey should get the assist. If the executive director of the USGA had sought a consensus, it’s doubtful that his setups would have been as demanding. Necessity being the mother of invention though, Hogan invented something nobody had ever seen before or since.
Which brings me back to the state of the game today, where players flail away with impunity off of the tee, claiming to be great drivers of the ball because of something called strokes gained: off of the tee. The implications here are far reaching, far more than just being able to scatter shots all over a course and still win.
Because golf course setups have become far more forgiving – owing to the MacKenzie philosophy, complaints and suggestions of the players and to the social media chorus that we want more birdies – players seek to launch shots as high as they can, with as little spin as they can, with as long of a driver as they can handle. Distance has become a means to an end so much, that many are crying for a roll back of the ball when all that needs to happen is to roll back to an era when one man had the guts and the acuity to not listen to the players, or the pervading philosophy of fairness.
Imagine if the U.S. Open and other events returned to this demanding philosophy. Players out of necessity would choose balls that spin more, heads that were smaller so they could shape shots, shots that would start lower for more control and golf swings would evolve to find the balance of distance and accuracy. In time an athlete would come along who could solve the puzzle of how to hit the ball far and straight.
Players are not hitting the ball so far today because that’s the way the game is going, they are doing so because the set ups of golf courses do not make them think.