Another mesmerizing major championship week has passed, but the Masters is still on my mind. So before we start looking ahead to the U.S. Open, I'd like to spend a little time talking about a topic that now seems to resurface every year at Augusta.
It's the delicate subject of Hootie's balls. No, you're right, that doesn't sound good. It shouldn't. And I really wish he'd stop talking about them.
The Masters always brings a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. The 2005 playing of this great event had both. The ridiculous quotient was achieved by Augusta National Chairman Hootie Johnson before the tournament even started. Good thing Tiger Woods and Chris DiMarco provided such a sublime finish to the actual event to help us momentarily forget some of the silly things Hootie had to say.
For the third time in as many years, Hootie Johnson used his pre-Masters press conference to hint that Augusta may start requiring competitors to use specially made "Masters balls" during the tournament. Johnson has bought into the USGA-fueled misconception that distance is ruining the game of golf - and the equally misguided notion that rolling back the golf ball will "save" courses like Augusta from being rendered obsolete.
Hootie's threatened plan (if the USGA doesn't "do something") is to come up with a set of parameters for golf ball performance. Every golf ball manufacturer would be given these restrictions, then told to make balls that conform to them. Hootie threw out 10 percent less distance as a goal. So those 300-yard drives become 270-yard drives, and 150-yard 9-irons would now travel 135.
Hootie, Tim Finchem and the hand-wringers at the USGA and R&A just don't get it. Distance isn't just about clubs and balls. It's about players today being better-conditioned and having increasingly sophisticated instruction. Not to mention that bigger, more athletic players are getting into the game, and that players today have a more aggressive, distance-centric mindset. Should Tiger stop pumping iron? Should Vijay stop hitting thousands of balls each day? Should Annika stop doing thousands of crunches? Should Ernie Els be forced to play rugby instead of golf?
The USGA has been mum on Hootie's suggestion. Know why? Because it creates two sets of rules: one for tournaments, one for the rest of us. That's called bifurcation, and it makes the USGA decision-makers dry heave all over their wingtips. They believe in one set of rules for all. Remember, that's why they wouldn't let amateur golfers record scores for handicap purposes if they used "non-conforming" drivers like Callaway's ERC. The USGA has drawn a line in the sand, saying today's golf balls go far enough, and that they won't let them go any farther in the future. This hamstrings the manufacturers and deprives the 99.9 percent of golfers who wouldn't ruin the game by hitting the ball farther and straighter (that's you and me, pards) of truly new and innovative equipment. But that's a separate screed for another time.
Hootie doesn't want anything to do with lines in the sand. He wants to turn back the clock. It won't happen, and here's why: The Masters is only as important as the players who play in it. If Augusta pursues an aggressive agenda on equipment issues, the Masters could lose a lot of support and luster.
Take this scenario: later this year, Hootie calls a press conference and announces that the Masters is going ahead with plans for using restricted-distance golf balls starting with the 2006 Masters. He makes the parameters available to the golf ball manufacturers and welcomes all Masters competitors to come early to Augusta and practice with the new balls. After all, Jack Nicklaus said it would only take two rounds to get used to them, right?
What happens next? The manufacturers all flip out, claiming consumers will be confused by the fact that there is now a special ball just for the Masters, and that making the new balls will be difficult and costly. Hootie says "too bad" and moves on. The players grumble, but no one wants to upset Augusta National, so not one player declines his invitation to the Masters.
The 2006 Masters rolls around. Instead of talk centering on Tiger's quest for another major, the buzz is about the "new balls." The players have trouble dialing in distances, and a record number of balls find Rae's Creek. But guess what? The winning score is still double-digits under par, on account of the fact that these guys are good - 10 percent less distance doesn't keep them from still hitting the ball a long way and chipping and putting well. The new balls don't have the intended effect of rolling back the clock to the 1960s, or whenever it is that Hootie has in mind.
But now the players are mad. They had to take a week or more to get used to these special golf balls, then readjust to their standard golf balls. This is the golf equivalent of facing a knuckleball pitcher in baseball. It messes up your swing for a while. Players become more outspoken about the issue, criticizing Augusta directly and sharply. The 2007 Masters sees several players decline invitations due to the golf ball fiasco. Augusta National has weakened its position as the tournament beloved by nearly every player above all others - and all for a controversial cause that didn't actually have much impact on how the tournament ended (see chart below).
OK, that's obviously conjecture. I'm not Mitch Albom [Ed: thank goodness], and that's not an iron-clad prediction of what will happen. But it could. Without the support of the players, the Masters stands to lose a lot of prestige and look foolish in the process.
Hootie and his boys need to take a few minutes and look at the situation with open minds. He says he's disheartened because he recently played Augusta with a 15-year-old who had wedges for his second shot into the two par-5s on the back. My question to him: what did that kid shoot? 75? I bet it wasn't particularly low. Distance alone does not win you the Masters or any other tournament. How many tour wins does Hank Kuehne have? It isn't what club you hit into the green, or how many under par you are at the end of the final round. It's where you finish in relation to the rest of the field. That's the way it was when the game was played with hickory-shafted clubs and hand-made golf balls, and that's the way it will always be.
The obsession with par is arbitrary and it hurts the game of golf. The game is in a new era. Stop making the courses longer, start growing some rough and stop cutting the fairways so short that you could bowl on them. Shortsighted folks like Hootie and his uneasy relations at the USGA need to stop trying to turn back the clock, and instead look at the future of the game.
Photo Credit: © AP.