Regardless of who wins what in the coming months, the new year of professional golf is certain to include one element of the past year: debate over the distance that shots travel when struck by elite players. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this discussion is either vital and stimulating or pointless and tiresome. These poles of opinion are rigid, although with each 360-yard drive followed by a 170-yard 9-iron – a combination that used to stun but now barely registers – the former camp seems to have recently picked up members.
It’s the ball. It’s the oversize clubheads. It’s the lightweight shafts. It’s how those products are married into a blissful union and utilized by physically fit golfers on courses manicured to amplify the primary factors in the modern-equipment equation. (The run-out on 400-yard-plus tee shots during the Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua’s Plantation Course offered a large-print version of what is happening on the PGA Tour.)
Those who contend there is a distance problem aren’t neophobes or killjoys. That, in the main, they favor the way the game was played for a large swath of the 20thcentury – say, 1930-1990 – doesn’t make us daft nostalgists either.
Someone dear to me recently was treated successfully at one of the best hospitals in New England, and I was grateful for every bit of medical technology that was available. Around the same time, after 13 years and putting 180,000 miles on a car that finally gave up the ghost, I am enjoying the advances on a new vehicle.
Golf, however, isn’t medicine, transportation or another essential of life, no matter how much someone loves it. The guiding philosophy and ruling parameters of a game don’t have to bend to the maximum just because it’s possible.
Being concerned about how far the ball is going isn’t merely about bloated driving distances but the journey to them, arguably a one-hand-on-the-wheel, distracted trip that occurred because it was permitted by golf’s governing bodies.
I don’t know a critic of the current situation who has contempt for the golf-equipment R&D folks smart enough to design multi-layer, solid-core balls, big, thin-faced metal drivers or machines that allow players to optimize their gear – ingredients that have fueled where we are. But appreciating their ingenuity isn’t the same as believing that it has improved the essence or aesthetics of golf, particularly as played by the best in the world.
If Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth were hitting the same clubs into greens as Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, or Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, they would be no less appealing. If Justin Thomas were using the same iteration of club and ball as Greg Norman three decades ago, there is no reason to think his skills wouldn’t stand out as they did in his 2017 Player of the Year season. If, eventually, there occurs a sane throttling of what our eyes are seeing and the stats are documenting, the best still will be the best – and that will be so for those who manufacture the equipment as well as play it. Think of it as returning to the moon instead of trying to reach Mars. In a game, this game, the moon is enough.
Sure, golf remains a matter of good putts and bad bounces, of handling pressure and rising to the occasion, regardless of the tools used and courses played. Yet, in a game that can’t be mastered, technology undeniably has displaced some of the mystery and rearranged some of the skills. Amid the justifiable unease about distance is a broader sense that too far and too sure is too much.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BillFields1