News & Opinion

As golf evolves, it’s best to get with times

Lee Trevino famously said, “God didn’t give one guy everything.” Ben Hogan had his issues with the putter. Jack Nicklaus wasn’t a genius around the greens. Tiger Woods wasn’t the best driver. But each was the greatest player of his generation.

Brooks Koepka didn’t get everything, either, although for 54 holes it sure looked like it as he rolled effortlessly through the field and Bethpage Black for three rounds at last week's PGA Championship. He ran into the elements in the final round and managed to win the PGA for the second year in a row. Koepka has won four majors in the past 23 months, using every tool in the game.

Brooks Koepka
At a sturdy 6 feet and a powerful 205 pounds, Brooks Koepka is the shape of things to come in golf.

He drives it so far that he reduced the 524-yard, par-5 fourth hole at Bethpage Black to a driver and 8-iron on Sunday. Until the wind got up to 20-25 mph late on Sunday, he regularly hit pitching wedge to par 4s of 480 yards or more. He putted well enough to shoot 63-65 in the first two rounds. He chipped out of high rough to get it up and down eight of nine times through 36 holes.

At 6 feet and 205 chiseled pounds, according to PGATour.com, Koepka is the embodiment of modern golf. He can hit it 330 off the tee and doesn’t care whether his ball finds the fairway. He claims that fairways are overrated. He’d rather hit a wedge from the rough than a 7-iron from the fairway.

And therein lies the argument that the game’s apocalypse is upon us.

Does the golf ball go too far? Nicklaus has been screaming until he’s hoarse that it does. Are big-headed drivers too hot and too forgiving? Maybe. Are the two together ruining the game? Absolutely not.

Traditionalists disagree. They believe that the modern game of bash-and-wedge is dismantling the structure of what makes golf demanding and thus, appealing. Today’s player at the highest level doesn’t know what it’s like to hit driver and 3-iron to a par 4.

But is that really necessary for golf to remain the hardest game there is? These are the best players in the world. Shouldn’t they, as a generation, be allowed to get better?

Golf has changed for all of us. We who started the game with persimmon and balata find that we are hitting the ball farther today than we ever have. Yet, no one complains about that. Like it or not, we’re all beneficiaries of the modern game.

In truth, it’s not the ball. And it’s not the drivers that are shrinking the game’s great courses. It’s a combination of factors. Players are bigger, stronger and faster. Doesn’t that happen in other sports? We should not be surprised that most players on the PGA Tour are superior athletes to the generation before them and the one before that.

Strength-and-speed training specific to golf has been developed, and players can tailor workouts to emphasize golf muscles and swing techniques. All of the best players are in the gym, working to make their bodies the most efficient for golf.

Teaching the game has advanced well past video and into launch monitors, with their wide array of analytics. Instructors of the best players use TrackMan and FlightScope as sophisticated teaching tools as well as for club fitting. Some teachers, particularly the older ones, eschew numbers for experienced eyeballs. But most younger teachers are firm believers in technology.

The truth of the matter is that the game’s strongest hitters aren’t the best wedge players. Koepka isn’t the best, and Rory McIlroy is downright terrible. The best wedge players – Jordan Spieth, Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar come to mind – aren’t the longest off the tee. Dustin Johnson uses TrackMan to become a better wedge player. He takes the numbers and has determined three different distances – half swing, three-quarter swing and full swing – for each of his wedges. Though he has improved, the bar was set mighty low.

Trevino wouldn’t have cast so much as a sideways glance at a TrackMan while practicing his wedges. He was one of the best ever with the short clubs, controlling his distance by feel and altering the trajectory, not raw numbers.

The game has changed – not for the better and not for the worse. It’s just different, and it’s the natural evolution of things. If you can’t embrace it, you’re better off if you can just accept it. Golf is not going back in time. Equipment is not going to be rolled back. The top players are going to try to outwork one another in the gym, as well as on the range.

Was golf better when Hogan played or when Nicklaus played or when Woods played? Or is it better now? No matter your answer and no matter your age, the game of your childhood is in the history books. Today’s game won’t change history, but it just might alter the record books. Get used to it.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf