Modern Marvels

One of golf’s greatest writers hits a common nerve, and Thrash Talk talks back!

Thrash TalkIn 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.

14 thoughts on “Modern Marvels”

  1. I find it incredibly interesting that the better Tiger Woods gets, the more he stands out as a player who manages his way around the golf course by hitting shots rather than trying to hit everything high, far, and straight.

    Perhaps some of the younger pros who want to be more like Tiger should actually watch how he plays golf. They should watch how frequently he adjusts the trajectory and shot shape of his golf ball. They should watch the simple diversity of shots he plays.

    Then, they should rethink their own “bomb and gouge” strategy. Tiger’s got 20+ points to Phil’s second-place 9 in the OWGR. He’s obviously doing something right. No doubt his dedication, physical strength, and mental powers matter. But so too does the very way he plays golf.

    Funny how many people seem to overlook that when trying to figure out what makes Tiger, well, Tiger.

    P.S. I agree courses could be set up to take driver out of the hands of some players without doing much significant work. As we saw at Hoylake and again last year at Oakmont and Southern Hills, doglegs and fairway conditions and contours can do a lot to persuade Tiger to hit 3W or 2I from the tee. It’s still golf, and I think the “dogmatic” people forget how frequently Jack went without the driver.

  2. I wish they had a tournament every year where it was mandatory to use persimmons and balata balls. That would be a lot of fun to watch.

  3. I wish they had a tournament every year where it was mandatory to use persimmons and balata balls. That would be a lot of fun to watch.

    The problem is you’ll have no luck getting enough players or equipment companies to support it.

    Note: a comment or two may have been lost due to a glitch with a server move we made last night. If you posted a comment on this entry and it’s not here, please re-post.

  4. Too many wordy words.
    Presages. Traditionalist dogma. extrapolate.

    I am canadian and have met lorne rubenstein so I began reading this post with interest……..I have a good vocabulary too…… but I kinda lost interest half way through…………

    in the strike of the feathery ball the tintinnabulation could be heard…….

    …………me thinks sesquipedalian sums it up……….

  5. I want to see a tournament with an 8-club limit, but I don’t suppose equipment companies would support that either.

    I’d like to see the pros play a tournament (even if its a single round) with 8 clubs they carry themselves, no caddy, no yardage book (just markers at 200, 150 and 100), and to make it really interesting have a maximum loft allowable of 50°.

    This would let them bomb away with their drivers (if they want), but there would be plenty of decisions to be made from the fairway. And it would make it interesting closer to the green with only 50° of loft available.

    But I don’t fancy it will happen this year.

  6. I too think that too much emphasis is paced on the massive hitting of modern golfers. Take a simle look at JB Holmes, if it hadn’t been for his FBR win a while back, last year he wouldn;t have got his card, very similar for bubba watson!

    Although it is easier to hit the ball further and straighter, modern technology also means that greens are more than tweice as fast as when Nicklaus et all played, surely that is much harder!!

    I honestly believe this whole debate has come about by older persons feeling a little inadequate due to the caliber and all round high quality of the modern top golfers!

  7. Mark and Matt:

    Kudos to you both! Matt’s comments speak for themselves; as for your idea about restricting the number of clubs (and other things), I too think this is a very simple way to address the issue of the game becoming perhaps a bit too “easy” for top level golfers. That last sentence was a loaded one, and I don’t necessarily think golf is too easy at the highest levels.

    But if one believes strongly that something should be done with the rules to tax the skills of professionals a bit more, then putting a more restrictive club limit on professional events (Frank Thomas’s idea) is very sensible.

    There would be no need to modify anything–the ball, lofts, grooves, any of it. Equipment makers carry on, weekend players carry on. Pros on the tour simply must remove a few clubs from their bag.

    I wouldn’t be quite as restrictive as you–I wouldn’t prevent caddies or yardage books, for reasons that would require too lengthy an explanation. But on the number of clubs…reduce it to something like 10 for professional events, and then see what they do.

  8. The great “distance” debate is one that definitley sparks emotions with golfers of all levels… and you can’t please everybody.

    If the guys out on the PGA tour weren’t able to do the exceptional things that they do… and that includes hit it prodigious distances compared with the average golfer… then it would not get the attention it does.

    Golf purists may not like the way these guys can demolish a golf course, but for the majority, it is entertaining.

    Entertainment wise… the majority like to watch people do what they can’t.

    Like it or not, big drives will always be something the majority of fans want to see.

    Personally, I’d love to see them place more “real” hazards with potential for severe penalty if they don’t drive the ball in play (driver was originally called the play club)… this would bring in more of a risk/reward scenario.

    I’m all for big drives… I’d love for there to be greater reward for those who drive it straight and greater potential penalty for those who don’t.

    Sean Cassidy “Real Men Swing Fast”

  9. JP

    I wouldn’t necessarily want the loft limit of 50*, no caddies, no yardage books to be a permanent thing. But I do think it would be great to see it happen at least once!

    Maybe we could ask Peter Thompson to organise it. That’s how he plays St Andrews for the three months per year he livers there.

  10. Nice article!

    . . . going back to Tiger Woods, because it is a wonderful thing to be watching the greatest player while he is in his prime . . .

    Tiger Woods ironically nullifies the distance argument. When he came on the scene (for me, that was ’97) I was intoxicated by his 160yd PW shot, and his long bombs off the tee. But the smart observer does not forget that it has been, and always will be, his short game that makes him the greatest. Can I say that again? THE GREATEST.

    Additionally it is when he is shotmaking well AND putting well that he wins by large margins. Wanna see some shotmaking? Look at the highlights from the 2005 PGA champs and the 2000 US open. Now notice the large margins by which Tiger won.

    JB and Bubba are great players (it was JB’s putts that got him the birdies to win over Phil two weeks ago, by the way) and they hit it long, sure. But if you want to improve on your best, if you want to compete, or dominate a course, it is going to come down to what happens with the approach shots and short game.

    Bend the fairways, sure. Grow the rough, sure. Or cut em wide and flat, whatever. “Bombing” style play and distance technology only get you a little closer to the place where you show if you really have GAME!

  11. What about a simple solution of not changing how far a ball goes, but how much spin a ball has? Bring back the spin of a balata ball, and you won’t see quite as many bombs anymore because they won’t be able to get away with quite the bombing they can today. Today, they can bomb away almost with abandon because they know that small mistakes won’t be penalized like they used to be. The distances today could be reached in the old days once in a great while when the player felt they had to go all out — but most of them never did because they knew that at 110% effort swings, the chances of them making a small mistake and being punished for it where too great to be worth it. They would swing at somewhere between 80 and 90% of their maximum effort.

    So I say bring back the spin of the old ball. The precision of squaring the clubface will be re-emphasized again, and the power hitters still have their advantage if they can square the clubface.

  12. Great article JP, and very interesting and great points made both in the article and comments.

    I’d have to read all of Rubenstein’s article, but my take on just the bit quoted wasn’t so much that he was stating that the hole SHOULD be played that way, but rather it was a great opportunity for commentators to talk about it, if anything for a mere point of interest and reference to the differences between the way golf was played in the past, and the way golf is played now.

    Let’s face it, if you’re not a golfer, you don’t watch golf. And if you’re a golfer who watches golf, especially tournaments that Tiger isn’t playing in like I do, then you’re a true lover of the game, and dare I say it…nerd for the game.

    I personally would love to see more commentary relating to architecture and the type of grass on the course from the announcers just to learn more about it. They do talk a bit more than they used to about the grass, but I find it interesting to learn about the differences in the way the ball rolls on various green varieties, and the difficulties faced when hitting from a thick rough of Bermuda or Kikuya.

    And I always love to know about the tendencies a designer sway toward when designing a course; his signature features present on every course created; and perhaps a little history of how the course came to be, and why it was made the way it was based on the original terrain.

    It’s not always easy to find out the characteristics various designers are known for in their courses. Some of the major ones like Nicklaus’ love for hills and valleys in his greens, or Pete Dyes love of railroad ties, but some of the lesser known or older designers, not so much. I’d love to hear about a designers reasoning and ideas for the course he created, and even how “it was meant to be played”, because I just find it interesting to compare how many different approaches exist now when playing these PGA courses due to modern technology.

    And it doesn’t mean players today play them better. Erik, you made some great points when talking about Tiger. The big bomb and gouge guys definitely do not play according to the original “plan” of the designer, but are they scoring much better? The big bombers aren’t winning all the tourneys, so they don’t necessarily have a huge advantage. Who cares how someone plays a course. Technology, along with focus on diet, strength-training, stretching and psychologists, merely allow golfers today some additional choices as to how they are able to play a golf course. But at the end of the day, whether you’re at 175 yds out or in the greenside rough in two, you still have to putt the ball in the cup in fewer strokes than everyone else… end of story.

    You put Jack and Arnie up against the bombers of today, and I’m betting their skills, finesse and mental game would still tear apart, overall, the guys bombing 365 yd drives every time. And there are examples of shorter, finesse players challenging the long ball guys all the time. Look at the Masters last year. Tiger and Zach…a classic David vs Goliath with the guy who didn’t go for ONE par 5 in two all week coming out on top.

    But big picture, Tiger wins because he’s mastered the golf ball and his golf swing, and he knows how to make the golf ball do what he wants no matter where he is on a course. He can scrap and score low. He can play with grace and beauty and score low. He’s proven that he can slaughter the field by bombing the ball, missing most fairways, but chipping and putting like a stud. He’s also proven he can put his driver away, tee off with a 2 iron most of the day, hit every fairway, and methodically disect a course “as it should be” and again, slaughter the field. He can adjust in whatever way he needs to, because he can. Not only is he the best player in the world, but he’s the most skilled, mentally strong, focused, creative and adaptable player.

    Creative and adaptable are two areas of a golfer’s game that don’t get as much credit as they deserve today, but in my opinion, they are the difference between Jack, Tiger… and the rest of the field.

  13. I think it is really worth discussing the points put forth in that particular article. I definitely agree with Geoff Shackleford’s view that things have been improving over the past few years. Not just the analysts, I believe course architecture is one thing that must be high on the priority list of most people involved with the game. One thing you can do for sure with shrewd architecture is throw the equipment advantage that players get out of the window. Not just that, it just makes the golf course a whole lot more entertaining. You can have the 8000 yard courses and keep increasing the length of the course but there is no thrill in watching the pros tackle such courses. More than length, what a course needs to deliver is enough dilemma for the player to try and think his way around the hole. One very good idea I came across online was for a short par 3, with the green that slopes away from the tee and a bunker just placed before the hole.

    Just standing at the tee a player would have to think twice about the kind of shot he wants to play. We don’t want them to be bombing away from the tee. Let’s introduce a great deal of cerebral activity into this game.

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