Justin Thomas plays a shot the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament.(USA TODAY Sports)
Justin Thomas plays a shot the WGC - Mexico Championship golf tournament.(USA TODAY Sports)

Taking the sting out of the swing

INTO ORBIT Super-fit golfers with space-age equipment launching drives over 300 yards routinely puts a strain on the game like never before
Hindustan Times, Delhi | By Joy Chakravarty
UPDATED ON FEB 23, 2020 03:04 PM IST

Breaking the barriers of physical possibilities is the essence of sport. Athletes strive all their lives to set new benchmarks of excellence. It’s a constant battle to become faster, go higher and be stronger at the elite level.

The first official marathon world record was 2 hours 55 minutes and 18 seconds, set by American Johnny Hayes at the 1908 London Olympics. Today, even though unofficial, Eliud Kipchoge has smashed the two-hour mark, clocking 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds.

Viv Richards’ 189 not out in a 55-over match against England in 1984 seemed insurmountable in ODI cricket for a long time. There were 10 double centuries hit just in the past decade starting with Sachin Tendulkar’s 200 against South Africa in February 2010. Rohit Sharma now tops that list with 264 in a 50-over match.

It’s happening in golf too; the sport faces a unique dilemma—pros are hitting the ball so long that courses can’t keep up with it.

It’s been a constant debate for several years now and was brought to the forefront again when the sport’s world governing bodies—the R&A and the United States Golf Association (USGA)—published their ‘Distance Insights Project’ report early this month.

Relying on exhaustive data from various Tours and the industry, the two-year findings ran into a 100-page summary, a 15-page statement of conclusions and 57 individual.

No length too far

Here is the major issue: Golf faces the very real threat of seeing its courses become obsolete. Present-day courses average 7,000-7,500 yards. Most par-4 holes range from 400 to 500 yards, and most par-5s are 500-600 yards. These holes were a different beast when the driving distance averaged 270-odd yards. The hazards (bunkers/water bodies) were strategically placed to cater to that distance. A player needed to use longer irons for approach shots, which are more difficult to control, especially if you happen to be in the rough.

If the average driving distance increases to 300 yards—and it’s almost there—players can not only avoid all the hazards easily, they are also left with wedges and shorter irons for their second shots, which are much easier to use, even when you are coming out of thick rough.

The world governing bodies realised the problem in 2002 and had issued a joint statement that said: “Any further significant increases in hitting distances at the highest level are undesirable. Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game.

“The consequential lengthening or toughening of courses would be costly or impossible and would have a negative effect on increasingly important environmental and ecological issues. Pace of play would be slowed and playing costs would increase.”

The year this statement was made, in 2002, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 279.5 yards. By 2010, it had increased to 287.3 yards, and at the end of 2019, it was 293.9 yards. 

The length of the courses being built now is in the range of 6,700-7,000 yards, with several in excess of 7,400 yards. The average length of 18-hole courses between 1900 and the 1930s grew from between 5,400-5,500 yards to 6,200-6,300 yards (a period when golf faced a similar issue with the solid core rubber balls replacing the gutta-percha).

Tiger Woods, a 15-time Major champion who also wears the hat of a golf course architect, said on the eve of this month’s Genesis Invitational: “To see the technology advance as fast as it has, the average distance was, from when I first came out on here, if you carry it 270 (yards), it took a lot of trouble out of play. Now guys are hitting their hybrids and 5-woods 270 in the air.

“The game has evolved, and it’s changed. We’re running out of property to try and design golf courses that are 7,800 to 8,000 yards from the back tees. It’s difficult.”

Sky is the tech limit

If there is one sport that benefited the most from the ‘Race for Space’ in the 1950s and 60s, it is golf. Several breakthroughs in material technology and design from the space industry were applied to golf equipment—graphite for shafts, titanium for driver head, tungsten alloy for irons, wind tunnels to test ball flights. And then there is that dimpled marvel, the golf ball, one of the most aerodynamically efficient projectiles in sports.

The first real ‘scare’ for golf courses came at the beginning of the 20th century, when Coburn Haskell created a ball with a solid rubber core, coated in a gutta-percha cover. That instantly added almost 20 yards to the drive of elite golfers and raised controversy.

The modern golf ball, a product that has seen millions of dollars injected into R&D, has a three-layer design: a solid, bouncy rubber core; a plastic-like layer that is strong and stiff, and a thin, dimpled, outer layer.

Clubs and equipment are already controlled to a large extent by the governing bodies. There is a limit to how much the golf ball is allowed to travel under test conditions and how big the club head can be, or how much energy it can transfer to the ball. But these measures are clearly being overtaken.

Another factor that aids longer distance is the turf conditions on the course. Modern machines can mow the fairways to a much shorter height, leading to more roll. Today’s computer-programmed irrigation systems lead to less water on the fairways, which again adds to the firmness and more roll.

Flexing their driving muscles

And then there are things outside the control of the governing bodies—modern golfers are a lot more athletic and have access to the most advanced forms of coaching.

American Akshay Bhatia is just 18 and already the talk of the golf world, though he hasn’t made a cut since turning pro last year. He has wafer-thin physique, almost in danger of being blown away by a moderate gust of wind, but Bhatia currently holds the fourth longest average driving distance on the PGA Tour at 316.1 yards.

How does he do it? It’s purely technique, the coaching he gets from George Gankas, a new-age instructor who is said to have at least 20 players in his stable with swing speeds in the region of 130mph (209 kph). Most PGA Tour players are around the 115-118mph (185-190kph) mark.

Then there is the case of Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson.

DeChambeau averaged 302.5 yards last year and is now up to a whopping 314.1, an increase that is the result of careful planning. ‘The Scientist’ put on nearly 10 kg over the winter and increased ball speed to 187mph (301 kph) by becoming stronger and more flexible.

Mickelson, at the ripe age of 49, lost more than seven kilos and added a six-pack through rigorous workout and diet control. He was hitting it to 306.3 yards last year and has added another 3-4 yards this year.

Greg Norman and Woods set a precedent in the early ‘90s, bringing athleticism into golf—it has now become the par.

No course control, please

While there are many experts calling for swift action to address the length problem, there is a school of thought which feels the issue is overblown.

With approximately 70 million people playing the game across the globe, this school of thought goes, is there a need to make policy decisions based on just the performance of professionals, who form a miniscule percentage of the golfing population? And then, why should golf courses increase their lengths to cater to a professional golf championship that it hosts for one week in the year? The extra yardage is of no use for the clubs for the remaining 51 weeks.

Also, driving long is just one part of golf. Has it really made a significant difference in scoring, which remains the real benchmark of excellence in golf?

In 1980, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour was 256.5 yards and the scoring average was 72.59. In 2019, the average driving distance increased by 14.58 per cent to 293.9 yards but the scoring average improved by a mere 2.6 per cent to 70.69.

Longer courses do not necessarily mean higher scores. In 2017, the USGA hosted the US Open at Erin Hills, the longest course in the history of major championship at 7,741 yards. That did not stop Brooks Koepka—the American was world No. 1 until an injury—from posting a four-day total of 16-under par, which matched the lowest-ever winning total in US Open history.

Fixing course layout, equipment

In the report, the governing bodies have not proposed any changes but have said they are in the process of setting up more research into what can be done.

Among the possibilities is allowing clubs to use their ‘local rules’ to specify the use of clubs and balls on their course and putting new limitations on equipment and ball.

Shiv Kapur, Asian Games gold medalist and four-time champion on the Asian Tour, said more than anything else, distance (and therefore, scoring) can be controlled by the Tours with how they set up their courses, or how some of the new courses are designed.

“The problem is in the way we are designing modern courses. They play into the hands of bigger hitters. Courses like Hong Kong Golf Club and Royal Melbourne can’t be overpowered. They require course management and placement,” said Kapur. “The set-up at Dubai Desert Classic this year is a good example. It’s a relatively short course and the winning score last year was 24-under par. They grew the rough and tightened a few fairways and put a premium on accuracy this year. The winning score came down to nine-under.”

Woods felt bifurcation of the equipment used by professionals and amateurs seems the most sensible answer to the distance problem.

“I’ve always said that the game of golf is fluid, it’s moving,” Woods said. “Part of the discussion going forward is do we bifurcate or not. I know it’s on the table whether we bifurcate or not.

“We want to keep the game enjoyable; we want to keep having more kids come play it. Having the larger heads, more forgiving clubs, it all adds to the enjoyment of the game. So, there’s a very delicate balancing act.”

Woods is right. Amateurs yearn for distance and appreciate someone who can do that. Driving the ball a long way gives as much pleasure as a rare birdie during the round. In the early 1990s, John Daly would get some of the biggest galleries because of his ‘grip-it-and-rip-it’ philosophy and consistent drives of 300 yards. Increase in distance also happens to be the biggest selling point for the Original Equipment Manufacturers. Everything suggests that the recreational golfers will have to be kept away from any effort to rein in distance. For the pros, it may be a different matter.

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