DCSIMG

John Huggan: Golf equipment tightens straitjacket

Different ball game: Bigger clubs, balls that fly further but spin less and courses with narrow fairways and punitive rough mean the likes of Geoff Ogilvy rarely get to play the range of exciting shots that Seve Ballesteros, below, did. Photographs: Getty Images

Different ball game: Bigger clubs, balls that fly further but spin less and courses with narrow fairways and punitive rough mean the likes of Geoff Ogilvy rarely get to play the range of exciting shots that Seve Ballesteros, below, did. Photographs: Getty Images

  • by JOHN HUGGAN
 

Equipment manufacturers have already made golf less exciting to watch and now they want to interfere with the rules-makers too

Imagine if you will a world of golf in which neither the R&A nor the United States Golf Association exist. OK, so the various manufacturers of gin, tonic, dandruff shampoo, blue blazers, brightly-coloured corduroy trousers, brogue shoes and those funny checked shirts might not be too happy, but it remains true that the game Scotland gave to the world would be poorer if someone other than our blue-blooded and expensively-educated chums were left to make the rules by which we play.

Perhaps our Open Championship courses would not be scarred by the misguided changes of the last decade and the US Open would annually be a lot more interesting to watch without all that boring rough, but golf’s rules-makers bring a unique motivation. Their aim, while admittedly occasionally misdirected, is only to do what is best for the game. Unbound by the many and varied conflicts of interest that would inevitably lead the various professional bodies astray, the R&A and the USGA possess a purity of intent, even if they are – equally inevitably – far from perfect. Those basic and undeniable truths make all the more disquieting the news that, following on from the recent rants emanating from TaylorMade chief executive Mark King – a man who would apparently like to see the R&A and USGA “obsolete” within ten years – the PGA Tour is considering a challenge to the proposed ban on the anchoring of long putters to the body during what is laughably called a “stroke”.

If PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and his happy band are allowed to become the arbiters of what is and isn’t good for the sport, then we have finally reached the beginning of the end.

Actually, that is a bit of an overreaction. In his defence, neither wee Timmy nor any of 
the other tours across the globe have, until now, shown any real interest in making the rules, preferring not to get involved in what has become something of a litigious minefield.

Which may actually have been a mistake. Since the R&A and USGA allowed the Mark Kings of this world to run amok as far as distance is concerned, the world’s circuits – as a direct result of a ball that travels too far and driver heads that are way too big – today offer a product that is surely less attractive than it was, say, 15 years ago.

So, while many fans will argue that watching the likes of Bubba Watson hitting a 330-yard drive is both exciting and great theatre, those unsophisticated individuals are also misguided. Quite apart from the fact that it is all but impossible – especially on television – to distinguish between a Bubba tee-shot and one that flies, say, 40 yards less, the professional game is an obviously poorer spectator sport than it was as recently as the turn of the century.

“It is absurd to imagine that professional golf would be less entertaining if we hit our drives 30 yards shorter,” confirms former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.

“I’ve heard multiple players argue that we are entertaining because we hit the ball so far. But Arnold Palmer hit his drives maybe 280 yards and he was the most entertaining golfer in history. It’s unbelievably arrogant to imagine that anyone on tour today is more entertaining than Arnold.”

Just last month at the Abu Dhabi Championship, a string of pros were heard to complain about how the golf they are typically being asked to play has become so one-dimensional.

On courses where the fairways are too narrow and the rough too long, the most exciting aspect of golf at the top level – the risky recovery shot – has been all but eliminated.

Hamstrung by the length of the grass off the fairways, every player, no matter his ability, imagination or talent, is forced to play the same shot – the mindless 75-yard hack out with a sand-wedge. That, of course, is point missing on a grand scale. The aim of true competition is surely to first identify the most skilful, then allow him to flourish – not to reduce everyone to the same level.

Throw in a modern ball that spins so much less and so makes the shaping of shots from right-to-left or left-to-right that much more difficult – many players are bored out of their minds hitting the same straight shot time after time – and the game has lost much of its artistic appeal.

Gone are the days when the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Lee Trevino were hitting a huge variety of shots over the course of 18 holes. And this is progress, Mr King?

There are also players sitting on the PGA Tour’s Policy Board who can be just as unthinking, particularly when talking about that old rhetorical stand-by “the good of the game”, a subject to which most have never before given a second thought. Take Steve Stricker, a nice man by all accounts but clearly not one of golf’s great philosophers.

“I was for the anchoring ban to start with, but my feeling has been swayed a bit,” said the 46-year-old, known as one of the game’s best putters. “I think the timing of it is poor. We’re at a point in time in the game of golf where we are trying to keep players, lure people into playing the game. A majority of [tour] players feel that a ban only puts a negative spin on that and maybe detracts the local guy, the club member, the public player, whoever, from playing at times.”

Quite apart from the fact that Stricker surely means “dissuades” rather than “detracts” (and that the number of amateurs using long putters remains the tiniest of minorities), where was he when the distance explosion over the last decade led to courses being stretched beyond what the average player can cope with and, most damagingly, the seemingly endless five-and-a-half-hour round became the norm? Those two things, it seems to this observer, have led to falling participation levels more than a ban on putters used by one player in a thousand.

Stricker and his fellow pros, of course, are paid by the equipment companies whose products they endorse, yet there are still some players worth listening to. One is Ogilvy, a member of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council. In contrast to much of the recent bluster, the 35-year-old from Melbourne offers a characteristically reasoned view of what is going on behind the scenes.

“This is just a guess,” he says. “As far as long putters are concerned, I get the feeling the tour is trying to protect a few marquee players. Which is an understandable position. I think Tim [Finchem] is also using the situation to say to the R&A and USGA that the tour should have a more important seat at the decision-making table going forward. Which again is fair enough. We should have a say in the process.”

Hmmm… maybe Mr King is right after all. Let’s get rid of the R&A and USGA and put Ogilvy in charge.

 

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