Monday 25 September 2017

Officials' failure to keep eye on the ball is killing historic courses

'The official guff keeps pouring out, the most recent being a claim by the Royal and Ancient and the USGA that proposed adjustments to the game’s rules, such as a reduction in the search time for a lost ball from five to three minutes, will speed up play.' Stock image
'The official guff keeps pouring out, the most recent being a claim by the Royal and Ancient and the USGA that proposed adjustments to the game’s rules, such as a reduction in the search time for a lost ball from five to three minutes, will speed up play.' Stock image

Dermot Gilleece

There's a suspicion that well-staffed sporting bodies dream up grand schemes from time to time simply to justify their existence. Which would explain regular initiatives aimed at steering public attention towards problem areas.

One such exercise that springs to mind was 'While We're Young', a much-trumpeted US Golf Association programme launched in 2013 to tackle the curse of slow play. Inspired by a line from the movie, Caddyshack, it was conceived to target four perceived areas of slow play: player behaviour, course design, course set-up and player/group management.

Four years on, it has had absolutely no impact, as far as I'm aware. But the official guff keeps pouring out, the most recent being a claim by the Royal and Ancient and the USGA that proposed adjustments to the game's rules, such as a reduction in the search time for a lost ball from five to three minutes, will speed up play.

They've also undertaken a comprehensive survey of the major men's and women's professional tours worldwide, to measure the additional length which drives have been hit from 2003 to 2016. It revealed that average driving distance has increased by approximately 1.2 per cent during that period. This works out at a remarkably modest 0.2 yards per year, though variability of up to four yards from season to season "was not uncommon".

Most marked was the rise on the US Champions Tour, where average drives are now nearly five yards longer than they were in 2003. This could be explained, however, by players using lower spin-rate balls on courses with accessible pin placements.

As for amateurs, the average driving distance of a sample of UK male golfers was measured at 213 yards in 2016, representing an increase of 13 yards over 21 years. An equivalent average driving distance for female golfers was 146 yards.

Now that we have the figures, let's look at the facts. It is widely acknowledged that the biggest single development affecting driving distance in recent years was the introduction of the Titleist ProV1 in 2000. That, incidentally, was when bright minds decided to put a soft cover on a Pinnacle, thereby sounding the death-knell for core-wound balls.

Three years later, the ProV1x, with a lower spin-rate, was introduced. Which means that when the R and A and the USGA held their far-reaching survey, the genie had not only fled the bottle, but was performing wondrous magic for delighted practitioners. We had entered a new age in golf ball technology in which a remarkable polymer called elastomer had replaced rubber as a source of elasticity. And to ensure golfers stayed loyal to their product, Titleist have since been upgrading both balls every two years.

This, and the relentless strides in golf club technology, has seen strong, athletic players achieving stunning efficiency when applying club to ball.

As a 26-year-old one-handicap member of Clontarf GC, Daragh Congdon is a product of the ProV era (in fact, he plays the ProV1x). And when setting a seven-under-par course record of 62 around Clontarf last September, he as good as drove the green on three par-fours (third, ninth and 13th) and reduced the 495-yard par-five 18th to a drive and an eight iron.

This charming old course, designed by the celebrated English architect Harry Colt and officially launched in 1928 by Walter Hagen, was considered strong enough for professional events over the years. Now, it is being crushed by modern technology which the game's authorities have failed abjectly to control. "As a serious competitor, I have to exploit any advantage my length gives me," said Congdon yesterday. "But it is still sad to see a lovely course becoming dated." And there's no room for any meaningful expansion.

Meanwhile, we have officials, through this latest survey, attempting to demonstrate that they're policing the game, whereas they lacked the steel to take action when it mattered. A simple solution, for instance, would have been to insist on the ball remaining wound. Instead, they did nothing.

With the US Masters just around the corner, word is that Augusta National are considering a lengthening of their 510-yard par-five 13th at a projected cost of $27m, which would include the purchase of land. Yet not even this is likely to have any impact on legislators.

As Jack Nicklaus pointed out: "Fact is, more golf courses have closed in the US in each of the last 10 years than have opened, thanks in great part to changes in the golf ball and the distance it travels." His solution? "With the length the guys hit today, the simplest solution is to change the friggin' golf ball," he replied.

Designer's hat donned, he went on: "We need to develop a golf ball to suit the golf course, rather than build courses to suit a golf ball. Whether it's a ball that goes 50 per cent, 75 per cent, or 100 per cent, you play a ball that fits the course and your game. It's not that big a deal. We used to do it when travelling to the Open and switching from the large ball to the small. It took us only a day to get used to a different ball."

Harry Colt once expressed the hope that his courses would endure as a lasting record of his craft and of his love of his work. Sadly, this will become a faint hope unless legislators somehow find the resolve to protect his rich legacy.

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