Dustin Johnson’s nuclear blast in Hawaii Sunday might be remembered as “The Shot Heard 'Round the World” in the war on the golf ball.
His ferocious assault on the 12th hole on his way to winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions was an epic feat that registered outside golf’s niche, even on the first weekend of the NFL playoffs.
His 432-yard drive that stopped 6 inches short of becoming a hole-in-one was Ruthian in every way, including his playful quip about how he “hit it a little thin.”
That’s good for golf, a glorious thing, right?
Not if you’re among the game’s most devoted purists.
If you are, Johnson’s drive was an abomination.
It was another irritating example of how much the game has been corrupted by high-tech witchery, of how scientifically hot-wired drivers and balls are making the game way too easy.
So was Johnson hitting 15 drives of 375 yards or more on the week.
Yes, the Plantation Course at Kapalua isn’t your ordinary venue, with all those hills and high winds boosting big hits, but today’s players are dramatically shrinking the dimensions of venues everywhere.
Johnson’s savage lash at the 12th couldn’t have been better timed, coming in the year’s opening event, because it sets up what finally may be the year golf’s governing bodies force a showdown with golf ball manufacturers.
Two months ago, USGA executive director Mike Davis told the Wall Street Journal that the growing distance players are hitting the ball is having a “horrible” impact on the game.
You don’t say that if you aren’t planning to address the issue in some way. You don’t say there’s a “horrible” problem plaguing the game without bothering to try to fix it in some way.
To be sure, the ball isn’t the only factor fueling the distance explosion. Johnson raved Sunday about how his new TaylorMade M4 driver’s “Twist-Face” technology helps him hit it long and straight, even with a “high toe” miss.
Shaft technology, TrackMan technology that optimizes launch conditions, player fitness, improved instruction and even course agronomy/grooming have all contributed to the distance explosion, but the ball looms as the easy solution.
Sorry, make that the “convenient” solution, because there’s no easy fix to the distance problem, if you even believe there’s a problem, because you can argue scoring averages haven’t been dramatically altered through this power era. You can argue equipment manufacturers have done more to grow the game than the USGA and R&A have.
There’s no room to blame club and ball manufacturers here.
If you think there’s a problem, your issue is with the USGA and the R&A. Club and ball manufacturers have made the most of their research and development departments, doing what every corporation tries to do, to make their products better and more appealing.
If their good work has corrupted the game, the blame’s with the governing bodies. If they choose to go to war against the ball now, they’re left to also confess to being derelict in their duties as watchdogs. They’re left to concede they failed to properly regulate the manufacturers.
The USGA and R&A allowed this distance explosion to unfold, and now they’re caught in a dilemma.
How would rolling back the distance balls are allowed to go hurt the USGA and R&A’s mission to grow the game’s popularity?
How do the USGA and R&A order ball manufacturers to put the genie back in the bottle without being sued?
Expect to hear more about bifurcation as speculation grows over an imminent war on the ball. That’s the idea of creating one set of rules for pros and another for amateurs and recreational players.
That’s another rant for another time.
The question today is whether Dustin Johnson’s monster drive was good for the game or bad for the game, whether it was something to celebrate or something to disparage.
The war on the ball starts with the nature of that question.