News & Opinion

Taking the long view of the modern game

The recent U.S. Open at Erin Hills confirmed a generational shift in golf: the game has become a bomb-and-gouge sport.  

There is no question that the golf played by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman is not what occurs on a weekly basis these days on the PGA Tour.

What may be more amazing is that the golf played by John Daly and Tiger Woods also could be dated, as golf courses become too short for the longest players in golf.

In 1996, when Woods made his debut on the PGA Tour as a professional, not one player averaged more than 300 yards off the tee. Daly led the Tour, at 288.8 yards on measured drives.

Through the recent Travelers Championship, 25 players are averaging 300-plus yards off the tee, with Dustin Johnson leading at 312.1. Daly’s 288.8 of 21 years ago would rank T-117th.

In many ways, length has become the ultimate equalizer, no matter whether the drive is in the fairway or the rough.

According to one caddie, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the goal off the tee for many players is to drive the ball as far as possible. A wedge from less than 100 yards is better than playing farther back in the fairway, he reasoned.

It’s not a ball issue nor an equipment issue. It’s evolution. Players are bigger, stronger and know so much more about the swing. 

So, what can the game’s leaders do about it?

The U.S. Golf Association should have responded at Erin Hills and moved the tees beyond the 7,695 yards that the U.S. Open played, to 8,500 or even 9,000.

If that seems preposterous, consider that winner Brooks Koepka played a 3-wood from 300 yards into a par 5 or the fact that he used wedges or 9-irons on most approaches to the par 4s all week.

What kind of length would it take to see a true three-shot par 5 today? Again, talking with a caddie, it might require a minimum of 800 yards, perhaps as much as 900.

“These guys can hit it as far as they want to,” said the caddie, who has 20-plus years of experience on Tour.  

Take a 350-yard tee shot, 300-yard 3-wood and add a mid-iron of 200 or more yards. That would stretch the hole to 850 yards or more. 

Adding 50 yards to every hole would lengthen a course by 900 yards, stretching the current wedge approaches to 6- or 7-irons. 

The 900 yards would have changed the 7,695 for the Open at Erin Hills to 8,595.

In 2003, only four players averaged 320 yards or more off the tee 25 percent of the time: Hank Kuehne, John Daly, Sergio Garcia and Vijay Singh. That same year, 57 players averaged 302 or more off the tee 10 percent the time.

Fourteen years later, 13 players on Tour average 320-plus yards off the tee 25 percent of the time, and 70 players are at 10 percent.

With driver length showing no signs of abating, the question is: What needs to be done?

Lengthening courses is costly.

Another option would be to take players out of their comfort zones. For example: Make bunkers true hazards; slow the greens; and make the rough even rougher.

Nicklaus tried to introduce furrowed bunkers at his Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, but was slapped down by the Tour after player complaints.

Players despise slower greens. Tiger Woods, the best player of this generation, would cringe at the sight of slow greens – say, something slower than 10 feet on the Stimpmeter. (Most PGA Tour greens run at about 12.) Slow greens, with undulation, would make a tremendous difference.

Many golf observers think that Augusta National would be even better if there were no rough, like the old days, and allowing an errant ball to run into the pine straw under the trees. A shot from pine straw, through trees, requires a different type of creativity.

Fox analyst Paul Azinger says the old Blue Monster at Doral was another venue where 4-inch Bermuda rough off the fairway stemmed the bomb-and-gouge mentality, making hitting the fairway paramount.

With the immaculate conditions that Tour players enjoy each week, they rarely face an uneven golf course. That hardly was the case when Palmer and Nicklaus were in their primes. Course conditions could be decidedly less than perfect, demanding an imaginative approach. 

I don’t favor a separate set of rules for the Tour – bifurcation, as it has become known – but I would like to see adjustments in course setup and conditioning so that we see not only the best golfer but also the most imaginative player win every week.

Great shots are not from the middle of the fairway, but from precarious situations out of which players find a way to pull off the improbable. We see too little of that anymore.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli