In his February 8 Globe and Mail Column, virtuoso golf writer Lorne Rubenstein makes an interesting observation about televised golf: there is very little attention paid to architecture.
While I am not sure this characterization is accurate in the literal sense - every telecast of big tournaments I can remember has at least some segment on the course, either with flyovers and commentary, or the omnipresent telestrator commentary - I would certainly agree that compared to, say, swing analysis, golf viewers are indeed starved for good content on architecture. Is there anything to be learned from this sort of thing, other than the difference between tifdwarf bermuda and zoysia? I think there is, although I suspect the expert commentators would reach different conclusions than would I.
Read on to learn what I think you'd be missing.
In comments about the recent Pebble Beach National Pro Am and the FBR Open, Rubenstein used the architecture issue as a springboard for discussion on the favored "armageddon" topic in golf circles: distance. Rubenstein wrote (emphasis added):
J.B. Holmes mauled his drive 365 yards on the par-5 sixth hole at Pebble Beach yesterday. He had 174 yards left to the hole and hit the elevated green that sits at cliff's edge above Carmel Bay. Holmes drove the ball similar distances last week when he won the FBR Open in Scottsdale, Arizona. The way Holmes played the hole provided an ideal opportunity for the Golf Channel's analysts to discuss how the hole was meant to be played when it was designed. Golf Channel producers might have prepared a feature, using illustrations from bygone days. None of this happened.
Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with discussing how a hole is played today compared to the "original intent," but why is it that we seem to insist on viewing every issue in golf today through the "distance problem" lens?
The above-quoted statement from Rubenstein's column capsulizes what I think is the seriously flawed logic in the modern debate on golf ball distances. I think Rubenstein accurately presages exactly what most golf experts would focus on if they did run detailed segments on course architecture. The basic premise is that golf courses are the gold standard by which we judge issues in the game, and the classic ones, by virtue of their "truth" in shot values and aesthetics, are to be preserved as closely as possible to their original form. We'll call this the "Traditionalist Dogma."
The Dogma states that, for example, if Mackenzie meant for the fifth at Augusta to play as a drive and middle-iron, but modern players are using hybrids and short irons routinely, then something is wrong, and must be fixed. The primary target for repair today is distance. The added length of drives eliminates the intended landing areas, thus shortening the holes and increasing the emphasis on raw power in the game. Jack Nicklaus, among others, has stated many times that he thinks the modern game emphasizes power too much at the expense of precision. While many argue for reducing the distance the golf ball travels, the same effect is had by lengthening golf courses, a practice that is in full force on practically every championship golf course across the globe.
At one time I agreed with this thinking. After all, what better criteria could there be for defining a "gold standard" than a piece of earth whereupon there has been a history of success in hosting and deciding national championships? If the Old Courses, the Augustas, Royal Melbournes, Merions, and Muirfields aren't standards by which to guide the game, what is? Ian Poulter's hair? And if players can demolish holes designed as three-shotters with a driver and 7-iron, isn't it time to put the breaks on something?
After some consideration, my answer is no.
Before I go on, a disclaimer: I have no doubt that Lorne Rubenstein has more knowledge of golf, sensibility about the essence, the soul, and the traditions of golf in his little finger than I have in my entire, seriously flawed body. I also don't mean to extrapolate from this one article that Lorne Rubenstein is dogmatic on distance or the golf ball or even Obama v. Clinton. I am not trying to pick a fight with someone several weight classes above me. But Rubenstein's choice of issues to highlight is, by virtue of his vaunted status in the golf world, highly significant, I think. And as long as I'm doing Thrash Talk you can expect that any high profile foray into the distance issue is going to trigger the dissenting opinion.
As to the practical issue of distance, it seems nobody on either side is willing to budge, but I'll try again. Shortening the flight of the ball alone will accomplish nothing of significant value. Lengthening courses is the same thing as shortening the ball, and I see no evidence that this practice has accomplished anything, at least as far as reducing the relative importance of power over precision goes. If you want shorter, accurate hitters with advanced shotmaking skill to have a better chance today, put the pros on 6900-7000 yard courses with design features that take the driver out of the hands of the long hitter. To neutralize distance, we need intelligently designed shorter courses, not longer ones.
It's not like baseball. In baseball, a homerun is usually a long fly ball. Move the fences back, and it becomes an out, not a triple… most of the time, anyway. In golf, there are no fences. Shorten the ball, and the long hitters instantly become proportionately longer, and the importance of power is either unchanged or increased.
Bill James, the man who has revolutionized our understanding of baseball, argued in his Historical Baseball Abstract in the mid-1980s that if you took modern ballplayers and put them in the ballparks of the 1920s, with the same equipment and the same rules, within a few months they'd be playing the game and putting up statistics pretty much like Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, et al did in that time. If he's right, which I suspect he is, we can apply the same logic in golf and see that, to get us back to Nicklaus in 1966, we'd need to do much more than roll the ball back 20%. So much - no titanium, no graphite, wound balls, et al, we're talking all of the equipment, and courses too - that it would probably be impossible, unless the equipment makers, tour players, and greens committees of virtually every championship golf course in the world wanted to do it.
Which brings me to the second part of my critique of the Traditionalist Dogma. Should golf courses really be the gold standard?
Golf is a game played by men and women, and whether it's two professionals vying for the U.S. Open, two buddies in a Saturday morning Nassau, or you alone against your best score, the essence of the game is competition. Golf is not an art form, competitors and players are not elements of a still life or composition with the beauty of the golf course as the central element.
In any competitive endeavor, human nature leads some of us - the best among us, mind you - to use their creativity to find the best way to succeed. While there is no doubt that equipment has a huge influence on the style of play, maybe what we are seeing in golf today is not a bunch of robots bashing away with titanium, but the evolution of golf. Maybe power is simply the better way to do it. Even if it isn't the better way, it's a different way, and it's brought us an exciting, different brand of golf and the greatest champion in history.
To me, these men and women, the champions and their battles, not the courses or the details of the shots, are the gold standard.
Changes in equipment didn't happen overnight, although it may seem so. The transformation from persimmon driver to the modern oversized, titanium mailbox with fishing-pole shaft (as well as the parallel developments in ball technology) involved a long series of intermediate "species," the development of which was heavily influenced by the preferences of tour players. Any equipment company manufacturer will tell you that they are reluctant to bring any product to market that does not have the endorsement, either direct or tacit, of tour players. It's the best way to sell the product. The pursuit of distance and power in golf technology has not been a one-sided affair, foisted on us by equipment companies and their scientists. It reflects the melding of science with the creative and competitive energies of athletes.
Much has been made of the effect of equipment on the style of play, but very little about the possibility of the obverse: that style of play and preferences of experts may have an effect on trends and developments in equipment technology.
So even if we could erase the last 30 years' worth of technological advances, what would it accomplish? To me, it would take the accomplishments of a generation of champions (culminating in the greatest of all, mind you) and the creative energy they displayed and the battles they fought, and say "it doesn't count." It's like placing a big asterisk on everything accomplished in the last generation because you don't like how far they hit the driver or what numbered iron club they use for their approach to your favorite golf hole. I find this sort of dismissal worse than making some exclusive country club's golf course "obsolete" as a championship venue. But this is what you get by adhering to the Traditionalist Dogma.
I know that for many, "creativity" consists of feathering a high draw with a one-iron close to the hole, a skill (classical shotmaking) that is now far less-used, or at least much different, than it was 30 years ago. But I am talking about a different sort of creativity. I am talking about a living, breathing game where all participants - players, architects, clubmakers - are free, within sensible limits, to figure out the best way to play the game and to win. I am vehemently opposed to legislating the sort of "creativity" many yearn for in specialized issues such as shotmaking… like telling modern musicians they are no longer allowed to write music for the electric guitar.
There must be some sort of limits set, yes, and I'm not asking for clubs that swing themselves, not that we're even in that league. If you want a game frozen in time, fine. I'd much rather have the wonder of what great course is just around the corner, what sort of golf shot we're going to see that we've never seen before.
So to Lorne Rubenstein, my favorite golf writer and one of the greatest ever, I agree that I'd love to learn a bit more on architecture in our golf telecasts. But I hope you will agree with me that, if and when it happens, it shouldn't be used as a platform for editorializing on the golf ball "problem." Let's have the vision to see the beauty of what's before our eyes, rather than a misplaced lament for a paradise lost.