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Golf faces many challenges

Is golf declining? Are more courses closing each year? Is the game too slow? How long does it take to play golf? Is golf adapting to the modern world?

There is no question that golf courses have gotten longer and tougher, with narrower fairways and faster greens. Virtually every course that has been renovated in the past 20 years has been lengthened. The reason: distance. It’s true that equipment and training are better, fairways are faster and clubfitting has improved, but the ball is key. 

If the ball were to be slowed down, would it result in faster rounds? For sure it would be a huge factor. Why do we care about pace of play? Slow play kills golf as much as anything. The other main factor is cost. Does a longer course cost more?

A large footprint for golf costs a lot of money. Lengthening existing courses has placed tee boxes far back of original design and usually means walking back to tees and slowing down the game. Think about other sports. Basketball, football, hockey and tennis take about 2½ hours. Those games also play on the same dimensions. Not golf. We have extended our playing fields, and the game takes considerably longer than it did 30 years ago. Those other major sports also have taken action to keep up the pace, while PGA Tour events take five-plus hours. 

What would slowing down the ball mean for the average golfer? Would the average golfer hit the ball shorter than now? Actually, the average golfer, according to recent data, hits the ball a little more than 200 yards. Driver speed is about 82 mph. Could a ball be made with the proper spin and the parameters to allow the 82-mph golfer to lose zero yardage and still cut up to 20 percent off the millennial swinging at 120 mph? What if the answer to that were yes?

If that could happen – and I think the answer is yes – then golf easily could be played on shorter golf courses. Practice ranges would not take up huge areas. Understand that there are thousands of young golfers hitting the golf ball 300-plus yards. Any healthy male golfer with a little coordination can smack the occasional drive 300 yards. A scary thing is the golfer with high swing speed and no control. 

The Titleist Pro V1 changed the game since the ball’s debut in 2000. It was an amazing step by Titleist’s engineers. Long hitters gained 20 yards overnight. But that was not true for Mr. 82 MPH. I don’t think the slow-swinging golfer got more than 20 inches longer. That’s because the modern ball flies exponentially farther as a golfer climbs the swing-speed chart. The real explosion occurs at 105 mph and higher, creating the “trampoline” effect with the modern driver. 

Lighter shafts, improved clubheads and stronger athletes can propel the club faster, but it’s the modern ball that spins and curves less that encourages golfers – especially younger golfers – to swing harder. 

You could say the golf ball was designed the opposite way for the good of the game because it helped the better player much more than the average golfer. It led to golf courses being outdated. 

Just remember that the older ball still could be driven long distances by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods and many others. But the average PGA Tour player wasn’t exceptionally long, and because the ball spun more, keeping that ball on the fairway was paramount. 

Practice ranges have become too short. Some par 4s on Tour top 500 yards. The average golfer is playing a more difficult game. The rich clubs in America actually are thriving in this modern era because they can afford the land costs and the additional costs of keeping greens at 11 on the Stimpmeter. A recent report found that 1 in 4 golf clubs is losing money. Few golf courses are being built in the U.S. Every year since 2006, more courses have closed than opened in the U.S. Land costs keep going up. Most people understand that conservation and water usage are critical. How much land can golf courses take up, and how much does it all cost?

The technology in the ball is incredible. Architects know that the ball going too far could ruin the strategy of their designs. It’s not just Jack Nicklaus. From the days of Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, Pete Dye and others, designers warned about the ball going too far. We have known about this issue for decades. 

Golf is a great game, but we face huge challenges. Think time, money, conservation. This is why the USGA is concerned, but some say it may be too little, too late.

Jim McLean
Coral Gables, Fla.

(McLean operates the Jim McLean Golf School in Coral Gables.)


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