BELEK, Turkey – It’s a familiar cry that took on new life when Tiger Woods discussed it in a recent podcast.
“We need to do something about the golf ball,” Woods said. “I think it goes too far.”
The modern ball and its distance gains have been debated ad nauseam by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and the late Arnold Palmer, to name just a few of the prominent critics who contend that the ball needs to be rolled back.
Woods has not been as vocal, but he mentioned it in his most recent book, “The 1997 Masters: My Story,” and again last week on “Holding Court with Geno Auriemma,” a podcast hosted by the legendary Connecticut women’s basketball coach.
But Woods, who intends to return to competition next month after undergoing a fourth back surgery in April, hasn’t been inside the ropes since early February. His criticism runs counter to the thoughts of many of the players who still make their living with the modern solid-core, multi-layered ball.
“I think it's a terrible idea,” Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, a European Tour Policy Board member, said at the recent Turkish Airlines Open. “Why would we limit us with where technology has brought us? The game has evolved; so has the golf ball.”
If the ball were to go any farther, Wiesberger said, then courses would adapt and add length, which is exactly what has happened in the past two decades.
And that is the crux of the argument for the back-to-the-future crowd: 8,000-yard courses and the corresponding rising cost of maintenance.
In 1997, Woods’ first full year on the PGA Tour, only John Daly averaged more than 300 yards on measured drives, at 302.0. Woods rated a distant second, at 294.8, with the next-closest player at 287.5.
Ten years later, 18 players eclipsed 300 yards, with Bubba Watson leading the way at 315.2.
During the 2017 season, Rory McIlroy led at 317.2, but 43 players – nearly a fourth of the Tour – averaged 300-plus yards.
Gains in recent years on the European Tour, which often competes in cooler weather, have been similar although not quite as robust.
“I guess there's a lot of other stuff involved with equipment … drivers, shafts, golf ball,” Sweden’s Henrik Stenson said. “A lot of players are stronger and more explosive now than they were maybe 15, 20 years ago. I'm sure if you would go back on the old equipment, guys would hit it farther now, given how Dustin [Johnson] and Rory and Jason Day and a few of the other really long hitters, how they go after it. I'm sure they would have been longer than the generation before them, even with the same equipment.”
That’s a fair point, but most observers think the ball is the main culprit. Reducing flight by 10 percent or more would virtually eliminate the need to lengthen so many courses to keep them relevant in the modern game.
Woods and other sources indicate that the U.S. Golf Association, which with the R&A oversees the game’s rules and competition standards, finally is willing to acknowledge that the expanding length in the game is an issue, whether the source be the ball or other equipment.
Although acknowledgement of the issue is a necessary step, the solution could be much more difficult to reach.
“I don't believe there needs to be a tournament golf ball,” said Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion. “The rules should make the golf ball lighter, or same weight and larger, and/or same weight and larger or lighter. Either of those two things will allow the golf-ball manufacturers to have another arms race, a race to make the best golf ball.”
Harrington acknowledges that any discussion about reining in the ball needs to have the equipment manufacturers at the table.
Such an open negotiation would run counter to recent history. Many rules revisions have been decided unilaterally by the USGA and R&A, followed by litigation.
Other players recognize the need to have the manufacturers involved.
“The manufacturers of golf equipment put a lot of money back into the game worldwide – probably some of the biggest contributors into the game,” said Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, Europe’s 2018 Ryder Cup captain and a European Tour Policy Board member. “If you keep them from pushing their product and being competitive, I think you're going to find that their way of making money is going to fall, and then I think you'll have less money coming back into the game from what they do. That's a very dangerous route to go.”
Woods indicated that Jay Monahan, the first-year PGA Tour commissioner, and the Tour’s Policy Board are looking at the issue but that the line of demarcation would be tricky.
For example, would a tournament ball be only for the PGA Tour or for the developmental Web.com Tour, as well? And what about the mini-tours?
Germany’s Martin Kaymer, a two-time major champion, thinks that a 20-percent reduction would be too severe. (Imagine those 300-yard drives traveling only 240 with a shorter ball.) He thinks that 10 percent would be better.
One of the biggest issues with the distance discussion is not that, in many people’s eyes, the ball goes too far but how to adequately address the concern without substantially diminishing the appeal of the game.
“People like watching birdies,” Bjorn said. “I know they also sometimes like to see you struggle, but in general, people like watching birdies.”
Think about how Augusta National Golf Club was lengthened – “Tiger-proofing” was the term – after Woods reduced many of the holes to a pitch-and-putt spectacle during his stunning 12-stroke victory in the 1997 Masters, when the course played 6,925 yards. Augusta National was lengthened in a series of alterations in recent years to its current 7,435 yards. A few years ago, when the roars on the back nine were hushed, one of golf’s most popular events lost some of its mojo. Club officials understood the fan appeal of eagles and birdies and restored some of the playability.
Would rolling the golf ball back change that atmosphere? It’s hard to know for sure, but in a professional game that continues to flourish even without its biggest headliner of the past two decades, it would seem foolish to mess with a good thing.
In the end of the discussion with Auriemma, Woods acknowledged that he doesn’t foresee change any time soon. That’s something on which just about everyone can agree.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @AlexMiceli