Sport Golf

Wednesday 20 March 2019

No speed but plenty of missiles as game’s two great challenges meet in Mexico


Rory McIlroy. Photo: AP
Rory McIlroy. Photo: AP

Brian Keogh

The big golf circus is in Mexico this week but with no Tiger Woods to analyse as his comeback gathers momentum, the hot-button topics will be front and centre yet again.

Complaints about the golf ball and slow play are now as familiar on golf broadcasts as those brainless shouts of 'Get in the hole', 'Mashed potatoes' and 'Baba Booey'.

Dustin Johnson. Photo: Getty Images
Dustin Johnson. Photo: Getty Images

And with the WGC-Mexico Championship set to give us more ballistic missile launches at Club de Golf Chapultepec than Kim Jong-un has had hot dinners, brace yourselves for more of the same.

When Dustin Johnson drives the ball 400 yards plus this week using clubs and balls designed by former rocket scientists, don't wonder why it's still happening.

It sells. And we can expect to hear a lot more about it all from Paul McGinley, who is on site with Sky Sports this week.

One of his first tweets from the venue was a reminder that what players talked about on their first visit to Mexico City last year was how the ball was flying an extra 18pc further when you are 7,500 feet above sea level, so golf's big decision-makers will be squirming in their armchairs once again.

It's no wonder The R&A's Martin Slumbers raised more than an eyebrow recently when he was forced to concede that it's all gotten a little out of hand.

"Our 2002 joint statement of principles put a line in the sand, or purported to put a line in the sand," Slumbers said earlier this month about years of denial on distance gains being out of control.

"I think our view is when you start to look at this data now, that we have probably crossed that line in the sand and that a serious discussion is now needed on where we go."

McIlroy, who is absent this week but last year topped the driving distance charts with an average hit of 350.34 yards in Mexico, best summed up the world of professional golf a few years ago.

"Someone very smart said to me a couple of weeks ago, if you want to be in the circus, you have to put up with the clowns," he said. "It's just the way it is."

He almost certainly meant the scrutiny of media and the fans but could just as easily have been referring to the mind-boggling evolution of what was a sedate past-time into a multi-billion-dollar industry and golf's struggle to "sell" itself to the playing masses.

For all the distance the average club player can now hit the ball, adding yards to old courses and years to one's life waiting on the slow-coaches to get around, golf is now facing major challenges on all fronts.

Jack Nicklaus' decades-long call for the governing bodies to rein in the ball or create some kind of low-speed equivalent that would prevent classic courses from becoming irrelevant, has met with opposition from the people who make money from the game - the manufacturers and the media outlets who rely on advertising revenue from those companies to stay afloat.

Bifurcation - of the rules or equipment - has been a four-letter word for the governing bodies for years and finding a happy medium is, as Slumber said, "complicated".

The R&A and the USGA have a duty to guard the game for all, not just the stars, and the intelligent among the tour cognoscenti know that they must take care to protect the integrity of what is now a valuable "product".

Short-hitting PGA Tour player William McGirt has a refreshing take on the ball which contrasted nicely with the views of other players sounded like NRA members defending their right to bear arms when reining back the ball was mentioned again by Nicklaus last week.

Pointing out that the likes of the USGA have been embarrassed into taking steps by the demolition of some US Open venues in recent years, McGirt wants to see the return of a golf ball that curves easily, bringing more skill back into the game.

"They finally admitted the ball goes farther," he said.

"The big thing is, I just wish they'd make it curve again. Let foul balls be foul balls."

Tour players will only start to react when the game reaches such a point that it starts to hit them in their pockets. And the same goes for the USGA and the R&A, who rely on TV money.

"If people aren't playing the game, then they can't pay us," McGirt said.

"If they're not buying equipment, they can't pay us. There's a lot more guys that think about it and care about it then you'd really think."

Pádraig Harrington, who freely admits he has never been the fastest player in the world, has been beating the slow-play drum for a few years now.

"You think it's bad now?" Harrington said on Sky Sports last week. "What is going to happen in five years' time? It is only going in one direction. We need to draw a line in the sand."

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that, "the circus is the only fun you can buy that is good for you".

In golf's case, the jury is out. The problem is that the show must go on.

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