As we chug into Labor Day weekend, the promise of "back to school" teases our frazzled nerves, the end of the golf season is just becoming visible on the distant horizon, and a crucial date has come and gone. August 1 marked the final day of the USGA's invitation for commentary on the proposed changes in golf club grooves. This likely rule change, as well as the various USGA studies which allegedly justify the change, have got me thinking: who, exactly, is being served here?
If we steer clear of the minutiae in these discussions - the specifics about things like the performance of square grooves, the aerodynamics of the launch of a golf ball, philosophical discussions of the playing style of touring professionals - one's opinion on these matters often boils down to his or her conception of the USGA's mission.
Ah, the mission statement. The darling of modern, corporate governance, of total quality management. The USGA website does not list a mission statement, but their television tag line "for the good of the game" certainly could form the basis of one. The website also says that the organization is the governing body of golf, and is run "by golfers, for golfers."
So let's consider how this impending rule change is for the good of the game, and how it is serving the interests of golfers.
From the inception of the game, probably a couple of shepherds whacking stones into rabbit holes with their shepherd's crooks a few hundred years ago, it has been, and will always be, primarily a form of recreation. A sport. Of course in our society, sports are both participatory and spectator diversions, so "for the good of the game" and "for golfers" depends on which game - the one we play or the one we watch - you are talking about. And they ain't the same thing. I don't care how good the handicap system is, how devout you are to the One Rule Book, or how much your driver or putter might resemble Tiger's - the game they play on the PGA Tour bears about as much similarity to what we play on the weekends as the Olympic Marathon does to the Frog Jump of Calaveras County.
So when it comes to something like a rules issue on equipment, whose interests should come first? For me, the answer to this question is obvious: the recreational golfer.
Why? Because without the recreational player, everything else goes away. Should the golf courses, our game's hallowed grounds, be protected? Well, without recreational golfers, there wouldn't be any great golf clubs, would there? How about the beauty, integrity, and tradition of the elite, competitive game? The rich history of noble amateur champions of a century ago, the first great professional players of the 20th century, and today's superstars provide one of the greatest spectator experiences in sports. Doesn't this help grow the game? Sure, but again, without avid, recreational players, you lose the core of the fan base, as well as the breeding grounds for tomorrow's champions.
The entire game and culture of golf today is based on the fact that the game has broad appeal. Whether you depend on golf for your bread and butter or as a solitary escape from your actual life, you want and need millions of willing participants to keep the blood flowing.
Which makes me wonder why on earth the USGA would want to try to make the game harder by enacting new rules on square grooves in golf clubs, or whatever else may be waiting in the wings. The USGA has been mum on the results of their comprehensive golf ball study, but many in the golf industry worry that the groove rule may be merely a trial balloon for drastic new ball regulations. And not to make the ball fly further or straighter, either.
I already had my say on the groove rule, and the purpose here is not to revisit this in detail. But in simple terms, the purpose of the rule is to make the game harder. Yeah, there are many layers of this onion - the USGA believes the rule won't make the game any harder for recreational golfers, just the pros, and the rule may address distance issues indirectly - but peel them all away and you have a group of guys in New Jersey who think the game has gotten too easy.
But if you want golf to succeed, to attract new players and keep the existing ones, wouldn't it be better to make the game easier, not harder?
Two ladies in their 60s can go out on a tennis court for an hour, pat the ball back and forth to one another, get a little exercise, and have a fantastic time. In golf it's not so easy. The game already takes months or years to learn to play passably well. It is a time-consuming game, much moreso than other sports, and one's enjoyment is clearly enhanced when you spend this time actually hitting the ball, not looking for it or walking back to the pro shop to buy another dozen for the back nine.
Yes, it's not sport without challenge. But however good golf equipment may be today - and it's mighty good - it is laughable to think it has eliminated or even made a dent in the challenge of the game, at least for 99-plus percent of us. Short of some sort of George Jetson-esque, robotic golf club that swings itself on the push of a button, and within existing equipment limitations, just about anything that can be done to make the game easier and more appealing to average golfers should be applauded, not abolished.
I have heard many arguments to the contrary. A popular one suggests modern equipment doesn't help recreational players much at all, but helps elite players significantly. This leads to toughening of standards of golf course set up for professional events, as tournament directors and private clubs battle back to avoid being "embarassed" by low scores. These standards eventually spill over to golf courses played mostly by recreational players, or so it is argued, as the average player and greens committee member tries to emulate what they see on TV.
It might take an entire column to convince some of you, but I find this argument to be Grade A, U.S. Prime Crapola. Everyone has a different definition of easy, and we all want different things out of the game, but anyone who debates the issue honestly cannot deny that, in comparison to the implements of past generations, modern golf equipment makes the act of hitting a golf ball in the air and straight much, much easier. I realize that this argument may not be compelling to most golfers under age 40 or so today, since they have likely never played with a persimmon driver with a heavy steel shaft, or a small, thin-soled blade iron. And even for those who have, the performance improvements of various technologies (graphite shafts, titanium, etc.) have been somewhat gradual over the last fifteen years or so. But if you doubt, drag out some of those old sticks and give 'em a whirl.
As to the matter of more difficult course set ups, I just don't believe this is happening on a broad scale for the majority of public, municipal type courses, and probably most private clubs that do not host high level competitive events. But even if it is, I would assert that it is more out of machismo and hero-worship than a of a genuine need to preserve the challenge of golf for the average player.
For me, the only way the USGA's recent posture on equipment regulation makes any sense is if their primary focus is on the elite, professional game, coupled with an ego-fueled compulsion to somehow protect us from the booming drives and low scores professional golfers.
I guess anything can go too far, but really, what's wrong with professional golfers shooting 62 or 63, as opposed to the 68 or 69 of thirty years ago? We're talking about a couple of hundred golfers among millions in the world. I would much rather see them make special allowances in course set up for the high level competitions for these guys, rather than change the rules and make the game harder for a couple of million hackers.
Maybe you like tradition, or even the form of the game you grew up with. Perhaps you aren't convinced that better equipment necessarily translates to a better sporting experience. These are reasonable points to argue, but the game cannot exist without change. Well, I take that back, it can. There is a sport that has existed for decades without change, made known to me by the transcript of an interview with David Fay. "Court Tennis," also known as "Real" or "Royal" tennis, is the indoor, precursor game to modern, lawn tennis. Enthusiasts of this game have kept it essentially in its original form, and as a result there are a total of 42 courts in the world with maybe a couple of hundred people actually playing the game.
Golf must change, and will change. The question is whether we choose to oppose the forces of change, or try to understand and grow from them.
I invite anyone to read the USGA's reports on spin generation. They are tremendously detailed, thorough, scientific papers that describe months of painstaking research by some very talented, intelligent scientists. The studies must have cost the USGA a small fortune. Irrespective of whether you buy the USGA's argument on square grooves, ask yourself how that effort helps you, the average golfer.