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Longer golf balls making Old Course obsolete

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — For years now, Jack Nicklaus has been sounding the clarion call on the golf ball. Again and again (and again) he has warned that newly engineered golf balls fly too far and that they are hurting the game on a dozen different levels.

Is slow play keeping people from playing golf? Jack blames the golf ball. “"The main culprit [in] slow play, to me, is the golf ball and the distance the golf ball goes,” he said. “Golf, it used to take three hours, three and a half hours. Today they take close to five hours.”

Lack of strategy in the pro game? Jack blames the golf ball. “I like the old game of moving the ball both ways and using strategy with angles and hitting all the clubs in the bag,” he told Golf Digest. “My greatest concern, because I believe it has the most effect on the most parts of the game, is the golf ball.”

The seeming lack of great players on the PGA Tour? Jack blames the golf ball. “I think they will change the golf ball eventually,” he says. “I think they have to if they are ever going to get back to separating the players a little bit.”

There are really not many problems in this world that Jack Nicklaus does not pin on the ever-improving technology that makes golf balls fly. In truth, it got to the point where people would see Nicklaus and warn each other not to say the words “golf” or “ball” so as not to set him off.

But here’s the thing: Nicklaus is right. If the powers that be do not stop the golf ball arms race — the technological scramble to get a few more yards and a touch more control out of the ball — you can say goodbye to the glory that is the Old Course at St. Andrews.

Full-field scores: 144th Open Championship

Let’s start with this: There is no golf course in the world right now that is long enough for the big hitters on the PGA Tour. As Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck says, if you wanted a golf course that really tested PGA Tour players — one that made them hit three shots on par 5s and long irons into par 4s and par 3s — it would have to be something like 9,000 yards.

The point is hard to argue with. At the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, the 18th hole was 604 yards. Dustin Johnson, trailing by one shot, bombed a drive and a 5-iron to 12 feet. A 5-iron.

True, he three-putted from there — on dead greens that were more dirt than grass — but that only intensifies the point: The green was the only defense for the golf course. A 600-yard hole was not even close to long enough to make that a three-shot hole. There are holes on the PGA Tour now that are 660-plus yards, and they are sometimes reached in two. The 700-yard par 5 will happen someday soon.

What chance does a historic beauty like St. Andrews have against the march of progress? Saturday, for the second time at St. Andrews in the last two tournaments, the Royal & Ancient was forced to delay the Open Championship because of wind. Yes, wind! Scottish golf is built on the wind, it is powered by the wind — heck the word “wind” is the second word in what is basically Scotland’s national motto: “Nae wind, nae rain, nae golf.”

Yes, it was unusually high wind, even for Scotland, with gusts blowing 40 mph and more. But it was hardly unprecedented. The wind did not stop people from playing at the nearby Crail Golfing Society or Kingsbarns. At other Open Championships, play would have gone on.

The difference here seemed to be the speed and lightness of the greens at St. Andrews. Saturday morning the wind was rolling balls all over the greens. Louis Oosthuizen put his ball down, and it rolled away from him like a playful puppy. Dustin Johnson tried to chip up a hill, saw his ball stop, went to mark it, and watched it roll away from him. It was mass hysteria. “It was kind of funny,” Johnson said.

The R&A didn’t really see the humor and quickly stopped the action — they regretted sending the players out in the first place. The real question was: Why were balls rolling in the wind at Andrews when they don’t do that at other Scottish courses?

The answer seems to be that the greens are cut unnaturally low so that the balls will roll between 10 and 11 feet on the Stimpmeter. That is unnaturally fast for links courses, and certainly not the way anyone intended for St. Andrews to play in the early years. But, if you’re being honest about it, the R&A doesn’t have a choice. They seem to understand (even if they don’t admit it) that these players will pulverize St. Andrews if the greens aren’t rolling fast.

This is all that’s left at the home of golf: Make the greens so fast the players won’t just be able to run in an endless stream of birdies. The R&A has stretched and pulled this ancient marvel to make it as long as it can be made. They just can’t make it long enough.  In benign conditions — like it was early Thursday —  the golf course is almost laughably easy. David Lingmerth shot a 29 on the front nine. A dozen other players shot 30 or 31. On the right day and with slower greens, the thinking goes, someone might shoot a 59 out here.

True, as Tom Watson will tell you, when the wind howls (as it often does) the course can still bare its teeth. “Just wait until the wind comes,” Watson said early in the week. And it was true, once the wind started to blow the players were all but helpless. Trouble was, the golf course as it was set up was also helpless against the wind — and the R&A had to shut things down for 10 hours until the wind settled down.

It is not only St. Andrews that deals with this, of course. America’s grand old course, Merion, held the U.S. Open in 2013. And for that one, the U.S. Golf Association had to hide pins, grow some kind of new golf-ball eating rough and lengthen holes until the golf course was almost bursting. There was no room for fans, the holes were so long. Zach Johnson publicly grumbled that the golf course was manipulated; many others echoed his sentiments privately. But there was no choice. If you want Merion in the age of near limitless golf balls, you have to find some way to make it a challenge. More and more historic courses are finding themselves on the brink of extinction as possible major championship sites.

The R&A laughs off any notion that St. Andrews ever could become obsolete. Here was the exchange with R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson.

Question: Do you think it’s conceivable that at some point in the future the Old Course could be inadequate to challenge professional golfers?

Dawson: No.

Question: Could you elaborate?

Dawson: No.

After that, Dawson did talk about the wonderful and universally beloved history of St. Andrews, the subtleties of the Old Course terrain and weather and the fact that the R&A and USGA have both made a commitment to act if golf balls begin to fly even longer than they are now. And that’s fine but: Golf balls will fly longer. Companies fully understand that there are too many people out there willing to pay for longer golf balls. They will find ways to cut drag, to enhance lift, to defy gravity — or whatever else they can do to get a little bit more golf ball air.

And it will be up to the R&A and USGA to act and not just talk. Conditions are expected to be pretty mild on Sunday, which could mean it will be a shootout. Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and other long hitters will be hitting little wedges into holes. Guys will be driving par 4s. We could watch player after player overwhelm a defenseless St. Andrews.

And it comes back to Jack Nicklaus again. He has been warning about this possibility for years. Maybe St. Andrews can hold up now, but what about in five years? What about in 10? Everyone wants to see the Open Championship at St. Andrews. Everyone also wants to hit their drives farther. And, for the people who run golf, a choice will have to be made.