Talk about a timely reminder. Two days after the R&A and USGA acknowledged that long hitting in the game needs to be curbed, there I was being offered conclusive proof that golf has changed beyond recognition, even though a legendary figure believes the “surface hasn’t even been scratched”.
“One of the holes today was 310 yards into the wind and I hit a driver then a 2-iron – and I was still short,” declared Fraser Mann, one of the competitors in the “IceBreaker” James Braid 150th Anniversary Hickory Open, played at both the Braids and Merchants of Edinburgh Golf Club last Thursday.
“I’ve just come back from the States,” added the former Musselburgh PGA professional as he joined a small group of fellow hickory enthusiasts in the launch event for the first Scottish Hickory Tour since 1930, “and 310 yards for the guys with modern clubs is a 3-wood pitching on the green.”
Old Tom Morris will be turning in his grave over that and how refreshing it was to see Mann, fellow World Hickory Open winner Andrew Marshall and others getting a real kick from tackling the two capital courses with hickories on the 150th anniversary of five-time Open champion and prolific course designer Braid’s birthday.
“You don’t need to have a long course to make it interesting,” insisted Mann, touching on one of the main observations by the R&A and USGA about how the length factor across the game is “taking golf in the wrong direction” at a time when the sport is facing an ongoing fight in terms of participation.
His solution is the one shared by many others. “It is quite simple for the governing bodies to sort it: just bring in a ball that doesn’t go too far,” he added. “The manufacturers just have to get together and say, we’ll have one ball for a tournament and another for club golfers.
“It needs to be done otherwise golf courses are going to need to be 8000 yards in ten years’ time, yet they will still be hitting drivers and wedges into long par 4s. I saw during my visit to the States that the young guys are training in the gym seven days per week and they’ll make Tiger Woods look like an average distance hitter in five years’ time.”
Gary Player, a long-time advocate of rolling back the golf ball along with Jack Nicklaus, said something similar during a chat before his attendance at last week’s inaugural Golf Saudi Summit in King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea coast.
“A guy like Brooks Koepka in 30 years’ time will be a pea-shooter,” predicted nine-time major winner Player, still full of beans at 84, of one of the game’s big hitters. “That’s a shocking thought, but it will happen because of these guys coming through in college now.
“I’m going to tell them at Augusta this year that, in the next 30-40 years, someone will stand on the first tee and drive it on the green. That will be a big shock, but it’s a fact. They’ve got guys now training to allow them to hit it 460 yards. I’m living from experience and we haven’t scratched the surface.”
Having intimated an intention to break the “ever-increasing cycle of hitting distance”, the R&A and USGA have now entered a consultation phase, after which equipment manufacturers will be given the chance to have their input. One thing being assessed is the potential of a “local rule” which would allow tournament committees to “specify use of clubs and/or balls intended to result in shorter hitting distances”.
In Player’s eyes, the “ball has to be taken back 50 yards” and he believes that will happen, though the South African reckons winning an Open Championship at Muirfield in 1959 with sub-standard equipment would be more satisfying, for example, than Phil Mickelson getting his hands on the Claret Jug at the same venue in 2013 with state-of-the-art modern clubs.
“My winning total then was 284, which was better than Phil’s 281,” he claimed. “We were using cracked balls and cracked clubs, had spike marks on the greens and the bunkers were raked with a semi-rake. Now a machine rakes the bunkers from Timbuktu to Johannesburg to New York the same depth and the ball goes 50 yards further.
“If I miss a fairway a day now, I’ve had a bad day. It’s just made golf a different game. It is really hard to separate the best players from a tenth player as the equipment is so forgiving. I’ve seen so many things happen and I get a little perturbed when I think about what it has turned into.”
He’s not alone, either.