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Just a thought or two – or three or four – about distance in the game

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Easily deducible from the Distance Insights Report is the desire on some level to turn golf’s clock back to a previous era – to the '80s, the '60s, or maybe even to the '40s. I get the sense from some concerned about the nature of the game today, that the further back we go, the better. The reasons implicitly and explicitly laid out are simply that the golf ball is going too far, obsoleting landlocked fabled and famed golf courses, and encouraging a much larger ecological footprint for all others, calling into question the game’s sustainability. 

To argue the inverse, that the game is in a great place now, making a roll-back or bifurcation unnecessary, and that sustainability issues are actively being addressed, opens one up to attack from those who are foppishly sentimental as being ignorant to the greatness of the golden age of architecture and insensitive to the thirsty nature of golf courses. 

This philosophical Grand Canyon is malicious nonsense; a person can love and study the history of this game and still appreciate the present nature of how it is played. A person can recognize that golf courses have been deleterious to the environment and the need to reshape public perceptions of golf course aesthetics – where going green means going brown – and still be optimistic about the new research into water conservation and drought-resistant turf which could have far reaching applications outside the golf world. 

But just as a mental exercise, let’s take each concern separately and see if we can find common ground. 

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Since 1980 – the first year that statistics were kept on the PGA Tour – driving distance has increased by close to 40 yards, changing the nature of the way the game is played. Distance, when accompanied by a fairly high degree of accuracy, has always dominated professional golf, but it seems as if distance, without the same degree of accuracy, is now disproportionately rewarded. The increased distance that players now hit the ball means that holes, or shots, that previously required a high degree of skill, or thought, now only require brawn. 

First, as I have said on numerous occasions, I am concerned that power is playing too big, and accuracy too little, of a role in professional golf. Currently, the cost for playing from the rough, without considering the penalty for going out of bounds or in the water, is roughly a quarter of a shot. To restore the balance of accuracy to distance, to let’s say the 1980s when the Curtis Stranges and Tom Kites of the world were on somewhat equal footing to the Greg Normans and Seve Ballesteroses, shouldn’t there be a higher penalty for missing a fairway? I propose playing a few tournaments, one of which is the U.S. Open and restoring it to its former glory when it intimidated the best players, where the penalty for playing from the rough is a half a shot or higher. 

Opponents to this philosophy, who say that the severity of the rough is inversely proportionate to its appeal, should be mollified by the fact that half of the majors already stipulate to this belief. A fact that bothers me in no way. I love the Houdini escapism nature of The Open and the Masters and would never hope for it to be altered. I see great value in that design and nature. Without that philosophy we would never have been able to fully appreciate the genius of Seve Ballesteros. But should we ignore that great technical control is just as interesting as great creativity? I want to see another Ben Hogan as much as I want to see another Seve Ballesteros. 

Grow the rough at five or 10 of the biggest events on the PGA Tour and see if it doesn’t result in the more accurate players being rewarded and/or the longest hitters gravitating toward balls that spin more and sacrifice some distance for accuracy. It’s an organic option to changing the game by mandate. 

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Chamblee: ‘The game is out of whack,' but the solution is simple

As for the obvious fact that the distance players hit the ball today has changed some holes and shots to a diminished degree to what the architect intended, I can only concede that it’s true. Specifically the 13th at Augusta National, a par 5 that was meant to present the player with the technical problem of hitting a shot right to left around the corner, challenging the tributary to Rae’s Creek, in order to get a more level lie to hit a longish shot into a green protected by the same creek. The second shot was meant to be, according to co-designer Bobby Jones, a momentous decision. Byron Nelson and Arnold Palmer both hit woods into the green and made eagles on the way to their first Masters victories. Conversely, Billy Joe Patton (1954) and Curtis Strange (1985) both came up short with their woods, found the creek and lost. 

Careers and legends hung in the balance as players fought the bats in the attic in the middle of that fairway. 

In defense of today’s game, the momentous decisions on that hole come not from the fairway, but on the tee and out of the second cut, or pine straw. Given that the ball is much harder to curve, a player has to take on the creek much more now than ever before, given that today’s players are much more inaccurate than in the days when Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie designed the hole, the momentous decisions now more often come from the trees.

Has there been a more momentous decision and shot made in the last 20 years, or for that matter in the history of the 13th hole at Augusta National, than the one that Phil Mickelson hit from the pine straw from behind the pine tree, that barely cleared the creek, late Sunday in 2010? And to extend that to another hole, has there been a more memorable shot than the boomerang wedge that Bubba Watson hit deep from the trees on the 10th hole during the playoff in 2012? 

The 13th hole at Augusta National was originally designed when hickory was the dominant choice in shafts and 250-yard drives were followed by oohs and aahs. At 480 yards it was not, by par 5 standards, a long hole. Consider that the first hole of the 1870 Open Championship at Prestwick Golf Club was a 578- yard par 5, in an era, not just of wooden shafts but of gutta percha balls, it was a driver and two shots with a brassie (3-wood) to get home for a good player. The 13th hole was always destined to be a “tweener,” much like the 17th at the Old Course, which cannot accurately be described as a par 4 or a par 5. The 13th hole is not as difficult as it once was, but it is still the best and most beautiful hole in the world, regardless of whether it is a par 5 or par 4. 

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Finally, let us not pretend that the issues of golf’s sustainability are a new topic. The first conference on golf and the environment was held in 1995 at, of all places, Pebble Beach. Great strides have been made, such that now the idea of sustainability involves the holistic consideration of a golf club, from looking to build courses on land that was formerly polluted to cultivating drought resistant turfs and golf courses that must be in compliance with the EPA’s registered pesticide regulations. Potable water used on golf courses has been increasingly contested, no doubt exacerbated by climate change, golf courses have had to drastically reduce and alter the use of water. For instance, U. S. golf courses used an estimated 1.859-million acre-feet of water in 2013, a 21.8-percent decrease from the 2.379-million acre-feet used in 2005 and recycled water was used 15.3 percent of the time in 2013, compared with 10.9 percent in 2005. 

The USGA, to its credit, has been listening to the concerns of environmentalists and in the golf world leading the way to sustainability initiatives, but I might offer one alternative to the growing concern of golf’s growing ecological footprint. 

Along the same lines as the man in the 1950s who promised to increase the sales of a toothpaste company by 40 percent, if only they would pay him $100,000, to which the toothpaste company finally agreed, only to be told to simply make the hole bigger. Professional golf, which is to say The Open Championship, from 1860-72, was originally 12 holes. If golf is looking for the quickest way to reduce its ecological footprint, and indeed, the time it takes to play the game, shouldn’t the USGA use as an opportunity for demonstration of its commitment to sustainability, a 12-hole course for say, the U.S. Amateur or the U.S. Junior?

Just a thought.