Defacing Mona Lisa of golf is a crying shame
Authorities need to rein in technology rather than tinker with St Andrews
AS a phenomenal year in golf draws to a close, one issue burns and rankles more than any other. Golf should be basking this winter in the warm after-glow of the most thrilling Ryder Cup in history.
Or Rory McIlroy's graduation last August into a player both worthy and well capable of replacing Tiger Woods at the summit of world golf.
Or that stroke of genius by Bubba Watson from the pine needles to the right of the 10th fairway in sudden death at Augusta National, which brought the Masters to an unforgettable conclusion.
Even the recent announcement by the sport's ruling bodies, the R&A and USGA, of plans (at last) to outlaw the "anchoring" of long putters (by 2016!) pales into relative insignificance.
Nothing that happened in 2012 gave more shocking notice of the parlous state of modern golf than the desecration of the sport's greatest shrine, the Old Course at St Andrews.
It was signalled one Friday evening late last month, when a press release from the St Andrews Links Trust revealed "a number of improvements are being planned at the Old Course to help maintain its challenge for the world's top golfers ahead of the return of The Open Championship in 2015."
The tractors and earth movers swept onto the ancient fairways the following Monday amid howls of protest from players, pundits and purists alike.
There has been more than enough time in the intervening three weeks for the prime movers behind this initiative, the R&A, whose Championship Committee first "went to the Links Trust with some suggestions", to set minds at rest.
Yet an adequate reason why they'd take such drastic measures, the golf equivalent of "touching up" the Mona Lisa, has not been forthcoming.
Judging by architect Martin Hawtree's redesigns at Lahinch and Portmarnock, few were better qualified to suggest changes to "enhance the challenge for elite players while remaining true to the special character of the Old Course".
And there have been no further crude attempts to lengthen the course – no more tee boxes will be built beyond its boundaries. Still, the work carried out on holes two, seven, 11 and 17 and scheduled to take place at holes three, four, six, nine and 15 in phase two next winter, are, by R&A chief executive Peter Dawson's admission, "the biggest in a century".
Two bunkers are being removed from the right of the second fairway and two more traps go closer to the right edge of that green.
A large depression in the middle of the seventh fairway has been filled and a slight mound created, while more undulations are being added to the right of the green.
The back left portion of the 11th green has been levelled to create more hole locations and the famous Road Hole bunker widens by half a metre on the right and the front edge of the 17th green recontoured to gather more approach shots landing in that area.
So Mother Nature's greatest gift to golf, a masterpiece moulded and crafted over millennia by the elements, has been redrawn by an architect's pencil and reshaped by JCB.
Why? After several weeks of attempted explanation, it all boils down to two words: vanity and neglect. Their efforts to bolster the defences of the Old Course before the 2015 British Open was not motivated by fears of a 59 being posted there.
The R&A's concern is not with random acts of individual genius, but the withering effect of modern technology on the image of their Championship should the wind not blow on British Open week.
A storm on Friday in 2010, for example, lifted average round score at St Andrews that week to 73.069 strokes, making the Old Course the fifth most difficult on Tour that season, behind Pebble Beach (US Open) in first and third-placed Augusta, but ahead of PGA venue Whistling Straits.
However, more benign conditions in 2005 saw the average round score drop to 72.672, leaving St Andrews in 18th place on the list of most demanding courses on the PGA Tour that season.
As ever, the US Open (at Pinehurst) rated first. The US PGA (at Baltusrol) was third and Augusta National placed sixth, prompting pedants to ask if St Andrews in 2005 offered a challenge worthy of the oldest and biggest of golf's Majors?
The R&A revved up the earth-movers and provided the answer to that question three weeks ago. That St Andrews is no longer considered capable of defending her honour against the modern professional is directly attributable to the neglect of the world governing bodies in anticipating the impact of technology and, principally, the modern golf ball.
A cursory glance at average driving distances on the PGA Tour over the past 25 years (see table) shows relative stability until 1997, when John Daly became the first player to top 300 yards off the tee – and he'd remain alone in the 300-plus club until 2003.
Yet the landscape changed entirely in 2003 with Hank Kuehne, who hit his drives an average 321-plus yards down the fairway, just one of nine players in the 300-plus brigade – by 2004 there were 16 in this club, then 26 in 2005.
It's not by coincidence that, in 2003, Titleist launched the hard, low-spin ProV1x – a ball specifically designed to maximise the high clubhead speed of professionals and which would be matched, if not exceeded in performance by Callaway, TaylorMade, Srixon and other leading manufacturers.
Legislators fiddled as a new generation of players burned up the fairways, rendering countless masterpieces obsolete; sparking a costly race for longer courses and bringing us ever closer to the once unimaginable 8,000-yard mark.
It's staggering that Fred Couples, long known as 'Boom-Boom' in the States because of his prodigious length, drove the ball an average 273 yards at age 30 in 1989; 10 yards further after turning 40 in 1999 and was a staggering 25 yards longer at age 50!
Instead of having the guts to limit golf-ball performance (and risk big lawsuits), the USGA and R&A in 2010 banned box grooves in wedges and irons, surmising that professionals would therefore be less inclined to risk hitting into the rough.
This 'measure' had a profound effect on Padraig Harrington, especially around the greens, but no impact statistically on the distance he and others are driving the ball. This was typical of the blinkered thinking which led directly to the shocking desecration of the Old Course. Shame on them!