It’s a golden age of golf, so enjoy the ride
By GARY VAN SICKLE  | March 13, 2019
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – The late sportswriting great Dan Jenkins stood for something that we could use more of in modern journalism. He said, “I never wrote a line I didn’t believe in.”

It’s easy to get away from honesty in the rush to make the first clever-snarky-funny remark on Twitter or Instagram or to be outlandish enough to earn a political talking-head TV gig.

In the vein of integrity, I offer this: I believe we’re in a golden age of golf. A very long, very golden age of golf. And that’s nothing against the great players who came before. Here’s why:

The money is stupid: They’re playing for $12.5 million this week here at the Players Championship. That’s $3.5 million more than what Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson played for in The Match last fall, so this must be a big-deal event. Let’s see, $12.5 million in bitcoin works out to … never mind.

The courses are stupid: Augusta National fairways always look as if they’ve been mowed, vacuumed, combed and bikini-waxed. (Oops! There goes my press credential!) The Masters owns The Immaculate Perception. A lot of other PGA Tour sites are catching up, though. Did you see Bay Hill on Sunday when Francesco Molinari charged to victory? Those greens were Augusta-esque, as fast and smooth as a pool table made from Italian marble.

Course conditions, in general, never have been better. Plus, fixing spike marks is legal now, which is the golfing equivalent of giving Agent 007 a license to kill. Missing a putt never has been so difficult. (But not for me.)

© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Tiger Woods, who helped golf appeal to a new generation of athletes, concedes to having lost clubhead speed in recently yet gained distance.

The distance is stupid: Woods talked Tuesday morning here at TPC Sawgrass about how he has lost clubhead speed yet gained distance. Thank you, Equipment Revolution That Never Ends.

When he played his best, Woods said he used a driver shaft that weighed 121 grams. That number might mean little to you, but back then, a 95-gram shaft was seriously heavy. Now, Woods said, Tour players are using 50-, 60- and 70-gram driver shafts. Lighter weight equals greater swing speed.

You’ve got to carry it 320 yards to rank with today’s big hitters, Woods said. When he broke in during the mid-1990s, a 280-yard carry defined a long knocker. The average driving distance on the PGA Tour last year was just over 296 yards.

“We thought Dustin [Johnson] was long and Bubba [Watson] was long,” Woods said. “Now we have Cameron Champ out here.”

Champ averaged 343 yards per drive last year on the Web.com Tour, a number that is staggering … and probably won’t be a big deal in 10 years, maybe less, as driving distance keeps creeping up. The drivable par 4 used to be a fun, strategic option for a short hole. Now it’s a sign of the apocalypse because holes that aren’t supposed to be drivable are coming within range.

 

© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Cameron Champ ushers a new era of distance onto the PGA Tour.

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Since the governing bodies don’t seem close to setting limits on the golf ball, Rome will just have to burn without any accompanying fiddle music.

The exposure is stupid: Back in the early 1990s – hmm, I guess that actually was a pretty long time ago, though it seems like yesterday – not every PGA Tour event was televised. Now they all are. So are the European Tour events. So are some Web.com Tour events.

Golf long ago quit being a weekend TV show. Thursday and Friday telecasts are standard. During a week such as this one at TPC Sawgrass, you can catch practice-round action on Golf Channel, guys hitting balls on the range, starting on Monday. I saw Justin Thomas, wearing shorts, land a shot at the par-3 17th hole Tuesday and watch it bounce over the green and plop into the water. Practice-round action is here, apparently to stay.

At the biggest tournaments, cameras show players arriving in their courtesy cars and walking into the clubhouse before their weekend rounds. It’s not must-see-TV, not by a mile, yet it gives viewers a cool sense of actually being there. Somehow, I hate it and love it at the same time.

In the 1960s, a golf telecast consisted of showing the last four holes. Only a small percentage of shots hit by Jack Nicklaus were seen. Today, if you had enough manpower and enough money, you could come close to finding footage of every shot Woods has hit in professional events. It wouldn’t be 100 percent, but it would be a shockingly big number.

The talent is stupid: You can’t compare eras. The game changed too much, and the equipment changed too much.

The best players in every decade were elite. That’s all you can say. Julius Boros and Johnny Miller were winners, no different than Lanny Wadkins, Curtis Strange and Jordan Spieth.

In the big picture, golf has morphed from being a sport played by competitors who often weren’t big enough or good enough for team sports in the 1960s and ’70s to a sport whose money and allure now attracts bigger and better athletes. The athleticism of pro golfers, a trend that Woods prompted with his success and his fitness, never has been better.

Maybe the depth of competition is stronger at the top; maybe it isn’t. I don’t think you can prove it either way. It is odd that none of the current players in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking has won a Masters; four haven’t won any majors; only two have won multiple majors (Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka); and only one, Rickie Fowler, has won a Players.

Of course, that curious statistic falls apart once you get to No. 11 in the rankings. There sits Tiger Woods, with 14 major professional titles and two Players championships.

Asked what to make of a Masters-less top 10, No. 2-ranked Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champion, said, “Well, listen, I haven’t won three of the other majors. If you look at the skill sets of the guys at the top of the rankings, Augusta really should suit most of us. So, I would say there's a very good probability that one of those guys will get it done this year.”

The Masters stat reveals only one pertinent thing: It’s difficult to win a Masters, just as it’s difficult to win any major. The players who are exceptional are the ones who pile up more than two majors. How many such players are there who still are actively winning majors? (Actively leaves out Woods, Mickelson and Padraig Harrington, and at least two of those guys would be irked by this sentence because they’re sure that they’re not done winning yet.) McIlroy, Koepka and Spieth.

Do fewer multiple-major winners and more one-hit-wonders mean today’s players are less talented? Or does it mean there’s a crowd at the top? The latter, I believe. I’m not sure it’s important. All we want as viewers is a good show, such as Fowler on a birdie binge to win the 2015 Players in a playoff, or a close finish such as Woods holing a putt on the 18th to win at Bay Hill – take your pick of years.

Will we get a Players to remember this weekend? Or a Masters for the ages next month?

It wouldn’t hurt to get lucky. Stupid lucky.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle

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