Thursday 22 February 2018

Dermot Gilleece: In no other sport is the ball such a precious piece of equipment

Spain’s Jon Rahm on his way to victory in this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Spain’s Jon Rahm on his way to victory in this year's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Portstewart. Photo: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

Holiday golfers of dubious competence will be familiar with the experience of dispatching golf balls to a watery grave on some fiendishly tricky par three on the Iberian Peninsula. Then, almost as the ultimate indignity, there would be the presence some holes later of industrious locals laden with the same, identifiable balls - for sale.

In no other sport is the ball a more precious part of the player's equipment. While in the process of building a score, we will scavenge for it like it was hidden treasure in hostile terrain and almost leap with joy when its beguiling whiteness comes gloriously into view.

Of course regular losses are part of the high handicapper's lot. Which seems all the more unfair, considering the very significant bonus the golf ball is currently bestowing on our more gifted brethren. And they're most likely getting their supplies for free!

I'm reminded of an American, Francis Spatcher, and his decidedly interesting experience in the 1990s while playing with a colleague at the Forest Park course in New York. "I teed off on the fourth hole and hit a pretty good drive down the fairway," he recalled. "As I approached my ball, a lady emerged out of the woods.

"She looked my golf ball over and then proceeded to hit it. Somewhat curious, I approached the lady and said: 'Madam, I believe you hit my ball.' Whereupon she eyed me indignantly and snapped: 'Well, I couldn't find mine.'"

As another golfing season draws to a close, power-hitting looks to have become the dominant feature of the game for both sexes. Here at home, there was the sight of Jon Rahm slaughtering the par fives at Portstewart GC en route to victory in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open. And we had Justin Thomas joining an ever-expanding group of big-hitters in the US, while the top-10 women professionals, including 18-year-old American newcomer, Angel Yin, had average drives of between 270 and 280 yards.

This latter development is especially interesting. Canada's Maude-Aimee Leblanc tops the LPGA rankings with average drives of 279.135 yards, which is almost 20 yards further than Laura Davies was producing 20 years ago. It's also the sort of distance Jack Nicklaus would have been achieving in his pomp. And it's largely attributable to the golf ball.

When Frank Thomas was in charge of research for the USGA, he had special tests done on earlier equipment. This led to the shock discovery that the Tourney ball used by Nicklaus for several of his 18 Major triumphs, was so poorly constructed as to make the player's achievements with it border on the miraculous.

Last week's comments by Rory McIlroy about the cost of land, 9,000-yard courses and the possibility of a tournament ball, notably for the Majors, appeared to have potential until one remembered the words of his boyhood hero, Tiger Woods, from all of 13 years ago. That was when I raised this very issue with Woods, prior to his second appearance in the American Express Championship at Mount Juliet. He had been using the new Nike ball for four years at that stage and had clearly no great wish to abandon this lucrative attachment in favour of some generic model.

Our exchange went like this:

DG: "Would you be prepared to play with an official tournament ball designated for each event?"

TW: "What do you mean by 'tournament ball'? Do you mean with the same spin rate, same launch angle, hover, same speed of core?"

DG: "I mean a uniform golf ball that would be the same for everybody."

TW: "So everybody plays with the same spinning golf ball?"

DG: "Same golf ball."

TW: "I don't think that would be right because there's too many guys have different games and different types of swing. But I think you should put a limit on the speed of a golf ball, the spin-rate of a golf ball. You can increase the spin of the golf ball and make it so that we don't hit the ball as far. You can decrease the speed of the core. There's different ways you can get around it so that we're all playing under certain speed limits. Hopefully that will be the answer to a lot of the problems that we're having with golf course design around the world."

Remarkably, Woods seemed to have no interest in gaining an advantage over his contemporaries through superior equipment. In fact, his great rival Phil Mickelson publicly acknowledged as much. And there was telling evidence from Mark Calcavecchia, a foursomes partner at The Belfry in 2002. "I hit Tiger's ball at the Ryder Cup, and it went nowhere," he said.

Ben Hogan's primary concern about golf balls was that they would be actually round. So he would put a pencil mark on each ball from a new box, before dumping the lot into a bathtub filled with water and Epsom Salts. Then, one by one he would spin the balls and if any of them consistently floated downwards, he would know the rubber bands inside bad been wound unevenly. Only perfectly round balls went into his bag. He also checked them under a magnifying glass, searching for excessive paint in any of the 280 dimples.

Experience tells us that manufacturers can't be trusted to implement the limits suggested by Woods or McIlroy. As Nicklaus put it: "They have figured out a way of staying within the legal limits of a golf ball and making it go further." A classic case of a sophisticated mouse-trap creating more sophisticated mice.

What does all of this prove? For one thing, it demonstrates that Nicklaus and Woods were even better golfers than we imagined. And that it takes more than power-hitting to dominate the game, as indicated by McIlroy's recent difficulties, even as leader of the PGA Tour driving statistics with average launches of 317.24 yards.

Meanwhile, there is impressive historic evidence of the golf ball's status as a prized piece of equipment. My thanks to Pat Ruddy for this extract from the magazine Golf, of November 16, 1891. It informs us: "The earliest reference to golf in the records of the burgh of Banff [Aberdeenshire], is in the year 1637, when Francis Brown, 'ane boy of ane evill lyiff', was hanged on the Gallows Hill of Banff."

His crime? "For, inter alia, stealing 'some Golff ballis', two of which he confessed 'he sauld to Thomas Urquhartis servand.'"

We're further informed that the punishment was "a warning to future generations of the danger and disgrace of stealing Golf balls." Which gives a certain perspective to those experiences in the Iberian sun.

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