Anyone got the balls to change?

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YOUNG and old, great and good, just about everyone who is anyone in professional golf has been humming a similar refrain for some time: at the sharp end of the sport the ball is going too far.

Indeed, the numbers don’t lie. Over the past ten years, the average drive on America’s PGA Tour has increased by an amazing 27 yards, an unprecedented explosion in distance.

Almost all of those extra yards are down to new equipment, too. Even fitness failures such as John Daly and Craig Stadler are 20 yards longer off the tee than they were a decade ago.

Jack Nicklaus, owner of the greatest competitive record in the long history of the game, has long contended that elite golfers need to be playing a ‘tournament ball’ if the validity and relevance of the world’s most revered courses are to be maintained.

Arnold Palmer agrees. Just recently, the game’s most popular figure had this to say: "What we have to do is stop the golf ball. The one area where you can keep golf in proper perspective is the ball."

Ex-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman is another distressed at the state of professional golf in the 21st century. "The ball diminishes your mistakes, and the more powerful you are, the more important that is," says the former British amateur champion.

"Golf used to have a wonderful balance between power and precision. Now power is an overwhelming part of the game. From a skill level we’ve gone backward. The United States Golf Association [who make the rules with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club] is responsible, and won’t own up to it."

Plenty of others have lots to say on this subject, all of them basically accusing golf’s rule- makers of falling asleep at the technological wheel. Over the past 12 months, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Nick Price, Bob Charles and Nick Faldo, to name but a few, have publicly and privately lambasted the USGA and R&A in an effort to halt what they see as an inexorable reduction in the talent level needed to play great golf.

All in all, a pretty powerful and credible lobby are calling for action and changes that will also eliminate the need for ‘on the edge’ course set-ups like the one we saw at Shinnecock Hills in last year’s US Open.

Not that we are immune to such extreme measures on this side of the Atlantic, even if the winning score, commendably, has never been a concern of the R&A. Cast your minds back to the Open at Muirfield in 2002. The rough that week would have felt like home for Tarzan, a situation that led to the almost complete elimination of drivers - the most difficult club in the bag - from the thinking of players. The result was a lot of sleep-inducing 2-irons from the tee.

The bottom line is that golf at the highest level today is far less interesting to watch than it was even ten years ago. An almost- constant diet of 3-wood/wedge holes on the PGA Tour has inspired viewers to switch off in droves. As has slow play.

During last year’s Buick Classic at the Westchester Country Club, weekend rounds were taking five hours - for two-balls. All because one of the most notable courses in America offers a couple of par-4s the field could potentially reach in one shot and par-5s they can cover in two.

So what’s going on? And, more importantly, what can be done to counter this seemingly-unstoppable decline into tedium? Is anyone going to knock, say, 30 yards off a good drive, and restore some sanity to the game? Sadly, the answer to that last question is: probably not.

According to Peter Dawson, secretary of the R&A, that a distance problem exists in elite golf is merely a matter of opinion. He is having none of it. Jack and Arnie are just two old farts - my words, not his - wishing that they were younger and could still play.

In the same week that it was announced that the Old Course at St Andrews will play around 140 yards longer for this year’s Open than it did in 2000 - wonder why that is? - Dawson further contended that large increases in driving distance are a thing of the recent past.

"I don’t think anyone was clever enough [certainly not at the USGA or R&A] to foresee the technological advances we have witnessed in the last decade or more," he began. "And I don’t think we are clever enough today to see what they will be like 20 years from now. What I can say is that we have the problem surrounded; two decades ago we did not.

"I don’t like the word problem either. The parameters of golf-ball technology, for example, were set in the 1970s. And balls today still conform; the rules have not been relaxed. So modern balls do not go any farther than did the Pinnacles and Top-Flites of the past. The difference is that the manufacturers can make ‘long’ balls the top players can play with around and on the greens."

Fair enough, but hasn’t the line in the sand been drawn too late? While many famous names would argue that it has, Dawson veers towards ambivalence.

"Should players gain 20 yards just from equipment? Well, it is a fact that they have. Would I rather golf be played 20 yards shorter than it is now? Probably. Do I think it has damaged the game? Not so sure about that. Not in a big way, anyway.

"Besides, we have reached a technology plateau. There is next to nothing more that can be done with the ball. The spring-like effect in drivers has been limited. Head sizes are limited - at a level higher than I would like to see, I must admit. But it is there. And shaft lengths are limited too.

"For me, fitness will be the only factor from now on. If that proves to be wrong, then something will be done. And I think something will be done anyway. If I am right and distance continues to increase at around one yard per year for players continuing to get bigger and stronger, in a decade the best will be ten yards longer. Which is more than we would like to see."

Okay, just what would long- overdue action from establishment bodies mean in reality?

"It is a more complex process than most people realise," Dawson reflected. "We would have a lot of people to take with us, big constituencies. There are the top players, the tours, the average players, the manufacturers and so on. And change isn’t easy to effect.

"Take the situation with patents. The golf ball manufacturers have the present ball surrounded. One has the patent on a 1.70-inch diameter ball. Another company has the patent on a ‘slower’ ball."

In other words, it is a minefield of conflicting interests, just one of many reasons - you may have noticed - that Dawson puts forward for doing nothing.

"One thing that the professional game is concerned about is that we don’t make a change that affects the competitive position of their players relative to one another. If we made a change to the ball’s spin rate, for example, that would give some players an advantage over others.

"We would need acceptance from golf as a whole about what to do. But some things are, for me, set in stone. We totally believe in one set of rules. It would be a huge mistake to split them between elite golf and the rest. It is a central pillar of the popularity of the game that you think you can play the same game as Tiger.

"If you split the rules, who would make them? I worry that the result would be the thin end of a wedge where, 40 years from now, you’d have two golfs, one played with a tour ball and one played by the rest of us. The tours would want to make their own rules. Then, as an example, a television company might think that 18 holes doesn’t quite fit its scheduling, and wouldn’t 15 holes be better? Or someone might say that two-foot putts are bit boring; let’s do away with them.

"I know I’m exaggerating to make a point, but I worry about that sort of thing creeping in. I don’t think we should be taking such risks with the game of golf, and it doesn’t have to be now. I feel very strongly about this: not on my watch."

Lastly. Don’t worry about any of the above making the slightest difference to your pathetically-inadequate game. If you are like the vast majority of golfers, your technique is so bad that it won’t matter what clubs and balls you play with.

Hey, the truth hurts.