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A Golf Ball Debate

In April, the United States Golf Association sent a letter to golf ball manufacturers encouraging them to develop two new balls: one that would reduce maximum distance by fifteen yards, another that would dial it back by twenty-five. While it's being billed as just a research project, I think it is a step in the right direction.

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.

I'm considering the issue from a macro perspective: The distance that pros hit the ball now is affecting the long-term vitality of the game. Not only are classic courses being made obsolete, but strategy and skill are also being taken out of golf. And lengthening and toughening courses is adding to the expense and time required to play the game. I'm very concerned that the number of rounds played in the United States every year continues to stagnate. It's time to take whatever steps are necessary to bring more people back into golf.

It may not be the perfect analogy, but look at baseball and the use of aluminum and wooden bats. Aluminum bats are fine until you're paid to play the game. Not only are they a durable substitute for their breakable wooden counterparts, but their weight distribution allows for those with less strength and ability to still hit the ball with authority.

So let technology stretch as far as it possibly can for the masses, for whom the average handicap in the United States still eclipses twenty (for men). Give any and all advances to the millions of golfers who truly need the extra forty yards off the tee. If it helps them break a hundred or ninety for the first time, that will get them excited about the game and will help stimulate growth in our sport.

But let's make pros travel back in time a bit, to the mid-1990s, say, when 7,200-yard golf courses were the norm and still considered a stiff challenge, because the ball didn't routinely travel 330 yards off the tee.

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.

Just give every manufacturer the ball specifications required to play the Masters and tell them to produce that ball. I think this would help those manufacturers sell even more balls, because amateurs would still buy the balls that give them more distance but they would also buy the pro ball—the same one that Tiger Woods, say, might use to win the Masters—if only to see how they fare with it at their home clubs.

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 somebody has done it, and now we feel comfortable enough to voice an opinion and take some action as well."

I understand the USGA and the R&A are against any bifurcation of the rules, and there are rumors circulating that if any change is mandated it would be that all golf balls would be rolled back. That's an option, I suppose, but not a good one in my view. Recreational golfers should still be able to hit the ball as far as they possibly can. Really, there's no reason to take the advantages of technology away from them. They need them. The pros don't.

Course architects, who have seen many great designs become obsolete, largely agree on the need to control distance. But course developers must be convinced. And the argument to them should be financial.

Starting in the 1980s and continuing to today, developers have been spending exorbitant sums of money to build courses that also cost a great deal to maintain (and, thus, to play). But fast-forward a decade and consider how much more it will take to build a course when the golf ball travels even farther. Layouts that stretch 8,000 yards or more will have to become the norm, especially if pros are going to play them. That extra yardage makes a dramatic difference in the overall cost of building and maintaining a course. And like it or not, those costs are invariably handed down to the player—who, if the course is too long and too hard and too expensive, is just not going to come back.

My question is: Why spend all that money?And why spend the equally huge sums required for expensive makeovers to stretch classic courses out farther and farther for pros who might only be there once a year?Just leave the great old courses the way they are, restrict golf ball technology for the best players only and let all players enjoy the same course. I believe everyone in the golf industry would not only save money but also make more money in this scenario.

Personally I'd 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.

Bottom line: something has to be done. Just look at the technological advances over the past five years. The ball is flying 10 percent farther—what was a 300-yard drive now travels 330. Physics are going to take over the equation soon, as the ball can only go so far, but there's probably another 5 to 10 percent left. That means today's 330-yard drive could soon go more than 360 yards.

How could you possibly alter Augusta National—or any other classic course—five or ten years down the road to accommodate 360-yard drives?If pros went back to the golf ball specs from 1996, that wouldn't be necessary. It also would allow comparisons with great shots played on classic courses in years past.

I was criticized a couple of years ago for calling Royal Melbourne obsolete. The West course is a masterful Alister MacKenzie design—one of my favorites in the world—but it was not built for today's technology. Two of its par fives are used in the Composite course, which hosts a prominent Australasian Tour event each year, and, assuming the course isn't saturated with rain, guys can reach them with a two-iron and a seven-iron. That's not what MacKenzie intended.

The only defenses Royal Melbourne has left are to narrow the fairways and grow the rough. But then you're going to kill it for the members, and that's not fair to them. It's a vicious cycle, and it's time for a change.

The long game hasn't ruined golf yet, but it needs to be addressed before it gets further out of control. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot have unique technology specifications for Tour players. The long hitters will still hit it long, the short hitters will still hit it short, and the best players will still be the best players.


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