Lengthy rounds more of a menace than long putters

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

Attention must be paid to tradition when the US Golf Association and the Royal and Ancient come to the table. But the ruling bodies of golf are like a blended family at Thanksgiving, paying homage to the old ways even as everybody tucks into the turkey and steamed artichokes.

The proposed rule change to bar golfers from anchoring clubs appeased purists, but what about other developments that are wrenching the game from its roots?

Players using drivers with metal club heads the size of grapefruits to hit balls designed for long-distance travel are turning some of the world’s most venerable layouts into exquisitely maintained miniature golf courses.

Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, acknowledged on Wednesday that the sport’s governing bodies were tracking the distance that shots were traveling. “We want to quantify if one day there was a need to reduce distance,” he said in a conference call, adding: “We want to understand what reduced distance might mean.”

Course maintenance

How about less course maintenance, less time to complete a round, less strain on a course’s capacity?

Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the RA, said his organisation and the USGA issued a joint statement a decade ago saying they were prepared to take action if distances increased any more. “Distances have actually plateaued since then,” he said at the same conference call.

The PGA Tour statistics tell another story. In 1997, the 50th-ranked player averaged 272.3 yards. By 2002, the distance had risen to 285.0. In 2012, it was 294.7.

Mark Cokewell, an amateur who founded a company that makes long putters, said that he hit the ball farther using today’s high-tech clubs but that he also took longer to play because his drives, while prodigious, were seldom straight.

Guardians

If the mandate of the game’s guardians is to act today with an eye toward the future, as Davis said, why aren’t they worried about the viability of courses that eclipse airfields in acreage to accommodate the new generation of golfers and golf technology?

“The holes haven’t been made smaller or the greens changed because of people putting,” Adam Scott told reporters recently at the Australian Masters.

“Yet tees are moving a long way back and courses are made obsolete because of other technologies.”

Scott suggested that lengthy rounds were more of a menace to the game’s health than long putters like the one he used. Scott had a clear bias, but he made a good point. This year, the top pros completed the first two legs of a 140.6-mile Ironman triathlon in less time than the best golfers took to make one loop of the 7,170-yard US Open course.

Steve Stricker, who was in favor of banning anchored clubs, said he did not believe long putters posed the biggest threat to the game.

“I think one of the hugest things, the changes that have affected the game the most, has been the utility club,” he said, referring to hybrids that are a cross between a long iron and a fairway wood and are considered easier to play.

Stricker added: “When you had to sit back there and hit a two-iron or a three-iron over 200 yards and try to get it to stop on a green, before those utilities came out, that was a tough challenge. So that’s improved and lowered the scoring, I think, a lot.”

Traditional style

Dawson and Davis made it plain on Wednesday that the proposed ban on anchored clubs was not a ruling on equipment. They have no problem with long putters. It is the stroke being used with the clubs that they are moving to ban because it is too great a deviation from what constitutes the traditional style.

While standing on the green of Sherwood Country Club, site of this week’s World Challenge, hosted by Tiger Woods, Cokewell told the story of a 2010 equipment rules conference he attended with his Krutch II putter in tow.

An RA official, he said, eyed the 52-inch club and said: “It’s not very traditional, is it?” That prompted Cokewell to joke: “I can make one with a hickory shaft if it will make you feel better.”

While Dawson spoke Wednesday about preserving the game’s tradition by clarifying what constitutes a stroke, the Old Course at St Andrews was in the midst of a renovation. The course, considered the cradle of golf, was lengthened in 2005, but that was nothing compared with the changes now under way, which encompass nine holes and are the most significant in more than half a century. Dawson dismissed criticism of the changes, which he described as “quite a bit of hysteria”.

That’s the problem with mixing technology and tradition: It can be hard to tell where progress ends and protest should begin. Long putters have made some players better on the greens, but they haven’t rendered whole courses obsolete like moon-headed drivers and space-age golf balls.

To borrow a phrase used by Graeme McDowell in supporting the proposed anchored club ban, that would seem to be “kind of moving in a wrong direction sort of for the future, really”.

New York Times

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