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Norman, Nicklaus, and Watson on the Ball

Jul. 11, 2005     By     Comments (5)

Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, and Tom Watson think that the golf ball goes too far, and they're not shy about telling people either.

They may not be "on the ball" in terms of playing well, but that doesn't stop them from talking about "the ball." Specifically, the golf ball and how far it flies these days.

Greg Norman
In the latest edition of T&L Golf, Greg Norman authors an article called "A Ball Just for the Best?" In short, Norman proposes bifurcation - having different rules for different classes of players. A shorter ball for pros and the ball we all enjoy today for the rest of us:

In my opinion, the game of golf should have two standards for balls: One for professionals and another for amateurs. Sure, there would be some gray areas (which ball would top amateurs, including college players, use?), but the powers that be could sort out those questions.

The devil is in the details, and Greg Norman is far too saintly to tackle those. Greg, whose career is best summarized by a "c" word that rhymes with "poker" has added another title to his repertoire: blathering talking head, complete with unsubstantiated assertions like "The distance that pros hit the ball now is affecting the long-term vitality of the game." Or try this on for size: "And lengthening and toughening courses is adding to the expense and time required to play the game." Proof of either statement? Nowhere to be found.

Greg Norman seems to believe that by advocating bifurcation, he'll win the support of the average weekend golfer. "He doesn't want to take my technology away," he seems to think they'll say. Unfortunately, most golfers don't care about the pros, and those that do don't want to see Tiger Woods launching tee shots shorter than ours.

But really, the biggest problem with Greg Norman for those in the know is that he's criticizing only the golf ball while simultaneously lining his pockets with MacGregor cash and promoting all of the technology that's added 25 yards to his driving. Golf fans aren't as stupid as Greg Norman believes them to be.

As a first step, let's have balls manufactured specifically for the Masters. In fact, Augusta National officials have already alluded to this as a possibility. Since the Masters is not sanctioned by the PGA Tour, the PGA of America or the USGA, it is the only professional event that could dictate such specifications. And believe me, if the players were told that they had to use gutta perchas or featheries, I guarantee that they would all still show up.

Not everyone agrees, Greg.

Such a move would also spark other governing bodies - those that might be a little timid right now - to jump on the bandwagon and say, "All right, finally someone has done it, and now we feel comfortable enough to voice an opinion and take some action as well."

The USGA has stated several times, including most recently at the 2005 U.S. Open, that they're perfectly comfortable with the distance the golf ball flies. They've already jumped on a bandwagon, Greg, and it's the bandwagon of enforcing the current rules, realizing that the limitations of physics have kicked in, and the realization that there's a lot more to distance than the golf ball. They're also probably smart enough to realize that a golf course architect with a fat MacGregor contract (MacGregor, of course, does not make golf balls) would come to the conclusion he has.

"Course architects, who have seen many great designs become obsolete, largely agree on the need to control distance," Norman continues. He of course fails to mention that it's not the obsoleting of old courses that sway their opinions, but the cost required to build new ones - costs that are passed on to customers and costs that architects have to justify. Costs that must be blamed on something beyond inflated ego and the need to preserve as many housing lots as possible.

Norman talks about 8,000 yard courses and how much it will cost to play "when the golf ball travels even further," plainly ignoring the fact that the current golf ball flies as far as it can legally fly, and the only way to make the current golf ball fly further is with better conditioning, better clubs, better shafts, better course agronomy and conditioning, and, well, basically anything but changes to the golf ball. The golf ball has effectively reached its limit.

Greg Norman would like to "see golf courses remain about 7,300 yards from the back tees. In addition to keeping costs down, think of the environmental benefits of disturbing far fewer acres." Translation: "the less space a golf course takes up, the more space we have for far more lucrative housing opportunities. The more lots we can fit on a 400-acre site, the more money the developer can make and the more they can pay me to design the course."

Jack Nicklaus
Hanging out in Canada for the Canadian Skins Game, Jack Nicklaus spoke with Kim Thompson of The Question, Whistler's newspaper. She titled her article Jack's Lament for the Game and quoted Nicklaus as making several anti-ball statements. He begins with "The game is changing and now I understand what Bobby Jones was saying when he said, 'It is a game of which I am not familiar.'" Jones, of course, was referring to Jack Nicklaus and his own long driving game, an asset Jack Nicklaus parlayed into 18 major victories (including six at The Masters).

Jack says that he "first called the USGA (United States Golf Association) in 1977 on the golf ball and they laughed at me for 18 years. In 1995, they started talking about it seriously." A few years later, the USGA - due to lighter shafts and clubheads and increased player conditioning - added a higher swing speed to the Overall Distance Standard (ODS) to match today's faster-swinging pros, and the ODS remains in effect these days.

Nicklaus continues "It is evidenced by looking at the top five money earners on the PGA Tour. Not one of them are in the top 20 for driving accuracy. I am not saying they can't play differently, but they have chosen power over strategy because it has been rewarding." Though Jack Nicklaus was known as a fairly accurate iron player, one would be hard pressed to remember a time when Jack was known for anything but his long game off the tee. How many times did Nicklaus rank in the top 20 in driving accuracy in 25 years on the PGA Tour? Zero. 'Nuff said.

Tom Watson
Speaking during an interview at the Ford Senior Players Championship on July 7 and after his first round, Watson was asked about Augusta National, saying "It's too long a golf course for me. I can't even get a good punch in at Augusta." He later said "I agree with Jack a hundred percent. The golf ball ought to be pulled back. Golf courses are being made too long. Look what they have to do at St. Andrews."

The manufacturers beat the USGA and the R&A. They made a golf ball that beat them. They hoodwinked them. Now it's time to bring the golf ball back, I think, for everybody. The question is, do you bring it back for everybody? If you look at it, the longer hitters will be affected more by it than the shorter hitters, from the percentage standpoints of how far they hit it. That's what you've got to do.

Watson clarifies his "hoodwink" statement as meaning "once you compress the golf ball, the way they made it in 2001, finally got the technology in that golf ball, if you hit the harder, you got a bigger jump than you would from just a normal straight progression. You got more. You're going the compress the whole golf ball. I don't buy that."

If you're as confused by that statement as I am, please don't feel bad. Watson immediately follows with a much simpler clarification: "They made a golf ball that conformed to the USGA and R&A distance standards, but the longer hitter got more of an advantage hitting that golf ball." In other words, Watson suggests that the inner core in today's golf ball is livelier than the USGA/R&A could test and that players and manufacturers took advantage of the ruling body's inability (or unwillingness) to compress the ball. One has to presume that Watson is speaking of the USGA prior to the revision to the ODS that measured ball distances at higher swing speeds.

Of course, Watson continues waxing paradoxical by suggesting that he's not sure:

I don't know. That's what a lot of believers think. I don't know scientifically whether that's accurate or not. I'm spreading false information probably. From the people who I trust as far as their eyes are concerned, that golf ball, once you compress it a certain amount, that ball starts to really get the benefit of going a lot farther. And these kids can do that.

And then:

I don't know where the swing speed is. The USGA has a monitor right now that swings it at 122 miles an hour. Now they've gotten it up there. They've got it up to where now they can test that ball. I don't think you'll be seeing any greater increase in the golf ball, the people that hit it in the last year. I don't think it's going up, if I'm not mistaken.


Here are some interesting bonus facts. The longest drive in recorded competition is 515 yards by Mike Austin. The longest drive in Open Championship history is 430 yards by Craig Woods. The years? 1974 and 1933, respectively.


  1. Sean Murphy says:

    What Watson was basically trying to convey is that the core of the golf ball is only slightly compressed at around 120mph swing speed. When golf balls were compressed with every swing speed, including 105mph swing speeds, long hitters were still longer, just not nuclear long. Yes the USGA is going to have to re-write the rules book, and it wouldn't set any new precedent in seeing the USGA reverse one of its stated positions. Everyone remembers the old reflex irons of the 1970's and how the face give on these irons was deemed illegal by the USGA. And then today we see Drivers whose Faces give. Thus the USGA has the opportunity to right a wrong, or basically do what ever they want.

  2. Pete Robbins says:

    In all other sports I know of that are played with a ball, the ball is standardized. I believe that professional golf tournaments and important amateur golf events would be played at their best, and would be most competitive, if each player were required to use the same standard ball. The tour governing authority should dictate all aspects of the ball to be played, including diameter, dimple size, number and shape of dimples, thickness of cover, number of core pieces, their constitution... and any other physical aspect of the ball. The ball used for these tournaments should not be sold commercially, although the specifications should be readily available to any manufacturer of golf balls. In this way, it would not influence the sales of any brand of golf ball. Once the characteristics of the standard ball were selected, they should remain the same until it becomes evident that a specific change or changes need to be made. Given such a standard, there would no more controversy over golf balls.

  3. In all other sports I know of that are played with a ball, the ball is standardized.

    Unfortunately, you'd be handicapping a significant portion of the field if you instituted such a rule. The split on the PGA Tour between "spinny" and "not-as-spinny" is almost 50% already. Pick a ball in the middle and nobody's happy. Pick one or the other and half the field is handicapped.

    We have rules and regulations that cover the golf ball. They regulate distance, size, weight, and other properties. That's as "uniform" as the ball needs to get.

    Your proposal bifurcates the rules and I find it silly to suggest there'd be "no more controversy" over golf balls. There'd be an uproar!

  1. [... They may not be "on the ball" in terms of playing well, but that doesn't stop them from talking about "the ball." Specifically, the golf ball and how far it ...]

  2. [... They may not be "on the ball" in terms of playing well, but that doesn't stop them from talking about "the ball." Specifically, the golf ball and how far it ...]

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