John Huggan: A pleasant reminder of the way the game was meant to be played

Barnbougle Dunes, one of Australia's best courses
Barnbougle Dunes, one of Australia's best courses
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SINCE last week, your faithful correspondent has been, it must be admitted, indulged. Four rounds of golf on consecutive days took place on what are widely acknowledged to be Australia’s four best courses.

In no particular order: Barnbougle Dunes, below; Lost Farm; Royal Melbourne (West); Kingston Heath. The last of those, of course, was the venue for the recent Australian Masters, won by world No.5 Adam Scott in a competitive and so entertaining last-day showdown with Europe’s Ryder Cup talisman, Ian Poulter.

Clearly, my playing companion, European Senior Tour professional Graham Banister, and I (especially me), do not play the game in the same way as either Scott or Poulter. Banister can certainly hit shots reminiscent of his younger colleagues but he would be the first to admit he lacks their clubhead speed and consequent distance. Which is why we didn’t try to play the Kingston Heath that played host to the Masters. On nearly every hole we teed up significantly closer to the green. The pros, as we were tacitly and practically admitting, play a different game, one that, sadly, is more and more of a science than the art it is supposed to be.

Over the past two decades, enormous (and largely unchecked) advances in club and ball technology have done much to make professional golf less interesting to both watch and play.

In contrast with the likes of shot-making geniuses like Lee Trevino and Seve Ballesteros, today’s leading players are reduced to the routine production of shots that are depressingly similar to look at.

So, while it was clearly possible to admire the skill displayed by Scott in victory seven days ago, it was also all but impossible not to yearn for him to be able to hit shots that varied more in both trajectory and shape. Which is not to say that one so obviously talented is not capable of such feats. It is just that the equipment he uses makes it all but impossible for him to do so. The modern, straight-flying ball, especially, does not lend itself to imagination and flair.

All of which is not criticism of Scott nor any of his fellow professionals. They play golf to make a living and get round in the lowest score possible. Which is why, last week, just about half of the 120 competitors at Kingston Heath did not have a 3-iron in their bags. Instead, they carried a so-called “hybrid club” – a good thing for the technically flawed amateur but just the opposite when it comes to the more gifted pros. At a certain level of aptitude, those clubs simply make the game too easy.

In a recent Golf World column, former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy – not, coincidentally, one of the best long-iron players on the planet – bemoaned the negative effect hybrids have had on the professional game. We have reached the stage where it is possible for the best players to buy a better game.

“Today there are few tour professionals who can’t hit a 230-yard shot high in the air from even a bad lie,” said Ogilvy. “But go back to, say, 1986 and there were only one or two who could hit that shot with a long iron. The rest had to find a way to get the ball near the green. That was the reality.

“When it comes to lengthy shots, the gap between good and bad at tour level has been narrowed significantly. Until the last 20 years or so, long irons and drivers were almost exclusively the domain of the truly gifted. So they had a massive – and deserved – advantage. Now, however, that edge has all but gone. For every guy who can still hit a 3-iron, there are 50 others who can hit the same shot even better with a hybrid.”

By extension, the explosion in the distance leading players now hit their drives has forced even the best courses to compromise the original intent of the architect. Even the strategically brilliant Kingston Heath has been altered and stretched. Over the past three years, as many as eight new tees have been built in an effort to combat those longer tee shots. And it isn’t working. En route to clinching the Aussie Masters title three years ago, Tiger Woods hit a drive and a half sand-wedge to the 18th green. Last week Scott did the same thing, from a tee maybe 30 yards farther from the putting surface.

The situation, of course, is even worse in America, where the PGA Tour is – with fewer and fewer exceptions like Colonial and Hilton Head – a weekly exercise in blasting mindlessly from the tee.

Indeed, in what was a busy last week of golfing chatter across the globe, the most depressing comment came from Nicolas Colsaerts. The Volvo World Match Play champion, fresh from his eventful Ryder Cup debut, announced he will be a PGA Tour card-holder in 2013 (which is fair enough and hardly makes him unique amongst the leading Europeans these days). But it was the Belgian’s reasoning for the switch that gives one pause.

“I’m going because of the courses,” he said.

While it is true that Colsaerts’ high-velocity game will be well suited to the one-dimensional demands on the world’s most lucrative circuit, it is also a fact that the general sameness of the challenge is hardly likely to make him a better player. A diet of seemingly endless 7,500-yard courses comprising thin ribbons of short grass, thick rough and thoughtless bunkers on either side of the fairways will surely boost his bank balance but will do nothing for his ability to create shots other than those that are (you guessed it) “high and straight”. Boring, boring, boring.

A trip to Australia would help improve Colsaerts’ apparently narrow view, as would a chat with his Ryder Cup team-mates Poulter and the newly engaged Graeme McDowell. Last week at Kingston Heath, the pair could not hide their delight at being asked to at least attempt a thoughtful brand of golf almost unknown on the US or, increasingly, European tours.

“This is a fantastic place to play, a real advertisement for how a course doesn’t need length to be tricky or tough,” said McDowell, who would eventually tie for eighth place.

“I love a course that asks you to position the ball off the tee with many clubs as opposed to the modern-day course which is ‘bombs away’. It reminds me of so many things. It’s a bit like the north-west coast of England – your Royal Birkdales and your Hillsides. It’s got a heath-like feel to it too. It’s ‘linksy’, especially with the wind whipping across. And, with the double greens, it feels like St Andrews in places, with the rolling undulations. It has a little bit of everything and is just a very interesting place to play.”

Ah yes, “interesting”. Remember that?