Finally golf will get interesting again – but amateurs need more distance, not less

Rory McIlroy - for and against the golf ball debate
Rory McIlroy has been among the most vocal supporters of a rolled-back golf ball - Reuters/LUCY NICHOLSON

Finally golf will get interesting again

Do not fall for the nonsense that the equipment-makers say. Or what the pros who are sponsored by the equipment makers say. Or even what the Tours who are owned by the pros who are sponsored by the equipment-makers say.

The decision to roll back the ball was a great day for golf. Not as great as it would have been had the governing bodies actually been able to govern this century without having to satisfy an industry so obsessed by finance that it is almost as if they get paid by the yard of Bryson DeChambeau’s biggest drives. But historic nonetheless.

After more than two decades of mounting and incontrovertible evidence that the ball has been travelling too far, the R&A and US Golf Association actually did something about it. Granted, the horse had not only bolted but was three fairways down when the brakes were at last put on the turbo-charged ball. And when the rules are implemented in 2028, Dobbin could be galloping around the next dogleg in the unashamed race to render classic courses obsolete.

Who knows, by then the Old Course might feature even more tee-boxes residing in far-flung areas of Fife once regarded as out-of-bounds on the game’s most cherished layout. It will be screamingly obvious by that time, that the supposedly harsh measures announced by the two governing bodies on Dec 6, 2023 were not draconian at all. They barely revealed their teeth. They were the very minimum that was required.

Championship layouts are too long for the environment and not long enough for excitement. Bomb-and-gouge is now the only game plan that works in a sport that is becoming so one-dimensional it is nigh on one-sided. “Grow the rough,” the cry goes. “Narrow the fairways. That’ll show ’em.” Fine, that would and in some cases is keeping the scores down. But at the cost of this wonderfully diverse game itself.

Is there anything more boring than watching players chipping out sideways from thick cabbage? What about the great recovery shots from Seve Ballesteros and the like? Those magicians whose wands would nowadays get stuck in the dense weeds.

The skillset of a pro golfer in 2023 comprises huge drives and fine wedges, with the occasional six-iron as a second shot on the par fives. They play from the same place, they play at the same pace (slowly) and, to be honest, it is becoming more tedious by the season.

As Rory McIlroy says, the rolled-back ball will make it a more varied challenge and start identifying the most talented golfers with greater regularity and, more importantly, at the same time provide more enjoyment and fascination. The spectacle will improve and the characters will be enhanced as pros will not all resemble clones, but become individuals again, each with their own idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses.

This multi-faceted adventure, on courses that were originally designed to extend options other than blast-it-as-far-as-possible, will persuade more people to participate.

That will apply doubly if the R&A and USGA go through with their pledge to ensure that the sweet spots on drivers are reduced. There is nothing better than “nutting” a tee-shot. It should be a rarity not an occurrence on every other tee box.

And there is the most ludicrous argument in what should be a no-brainer: that weekend golfers will suffer – by a few yards. My mate in the pub on Tuesday night summed it up tremendously when I told him about the potential changes. “So, I’ll hit it five yards less into the s--- than I do now?” he said. Exactly, if the course becomes too difficult for the members they can move up the tees. Job done.

But no, the equipment-makers and their PR teams will spend a few years warning us about all the money that will be wasted in the changeover. Whose money? Theirs? Yeah, right. They have half a decade until the pros have to use the new ball and two years after that until the recreational golfer has to conform.

They will flood the shelves with new balls and having lost their Pro V1s – which were of little benefit to the hackers anyway – they will see their products fly and their profits soar once more. And they will be backed by the pros (whom they pay, do not forget) to declare how an 18-handicapper who would fare just as well with a 1995 Pinnacle cannot possibly do without this latest miracle on his or her tee.

Meanwhile, the pro game will excel and those of us who remember when golf was a multi-faceted pursuit for the greats and, in Seve’s case, the geniuses will keep banging the drum. To take the game further, you must roll back the ball.

Amateur golf needs more distance, not less

The fetishising of extra distance has been ingrained in golf for decades. At his early-Nineties zenith, John Daly released a video entitled “Grip It and Rip It”, demolishing every protocol as he persuaded hapless hackers that they could emulate his 350-yard Exocets at will. Forget not crossing parallel at the top of the backswing. Big John modelled a motion in which the shaft of the driver was practically wrapped around his neck. It was as seductive as it was outrageous, this notion that you could unlock a priceless power through the most primitive of short-cuts.

To rein in how far the ball flies, as the game’s governing bodies will mandate from 2028, is to flip this form of advertising on its head. Cast your eye across the trade magazine covers and you see variations on a theme: “Rifle it like Rory”, “Hit bazookas like Bryson”, “Smash that drive into the next postcode”. The acquisition of length off the tee is crudely marketed as a virility symbol. Just study the names of the manufacturers’ best-selling brands: Callaway’s Big Bertha, Srixon’s Impact Power Body Hot Driver, TaylorMade’s RocketBallz.

Except now the rocket is being retrofitted as a Reliant Robin. Where most sports cleave to the Olympic credo of “faster, higher, stronger”, golf is embarking on a curious experiment to leave its biggest hitters shorter and weaker. You can understand the immediate rationale, the fear that the game’s most glorious canvases are being rendered obsolete. Old Tom Morris did not plan for the Road Hole on the Old Course to be approached with a nine-iron. Alister MacKenzie did not imagine that the 13th at Augusta would be reduced to a drive and a wedge. And the US Open’s custodians never foresaw their tournament being conquered, in 2020, with a philosophy that champion Bryson DeChambeau dubbed “bomb and gouge”.

There is a crucial difference, though, between what the purists intended and what the public wants today. On the rare occasion of a 400-yard drive, it is a tiny fraction of the television audience who tut gravely that something must be done. On the contrary, the spectacle goes viral. When, in 2021, DeChambeau took a ludicrous route over the lake at Bay Hill’s par-five sixth, almost reaching the green, the crowd whooped as if he had just hit a walk-off home run. Whenever McIlroy activates what Graeme McDowell calls his inner “BMW” (“the ultimate driving machine”), commentators gasp in appreciation.

Golf is not over-furnished with these moments of pure explosiveness. As such, it tampers with them at its peril. The object of the roll-back is to ensure that more subtle elements of play, such as chipping, are not neglected. But there are times when this natural balance is restored without anyone meddling. Take the 2020 Masters, where a bulked-up DeChambeau boasted that he could treat Augusta as a “par-67”. He duly made a fool of himself, consigned to a missed cut by the deficiencies of his short game. Power alone wins long-drive competitions, not majors.

These are the players who stand to be troubled by the impending ball revolution. The average weekend warrior is forecast to see a distance reduction of five yards or less. It sounds negligible, but will people truly relish seeing their slappy, 180-yard fade only travel 175 in five years’ time? As a vision of the future, it seems retrograde. It also suggests potential complications: a five-yard difference could persuade a club player to reach, say, for a four-iron rather than a five-iron. More long irons into greens threatens to lead to more up-and-downs, which theoretically could be a recipe for higher scores and slower play.

Flaws are everywhere you look. Are these changes truly happening, as authorities claim, for the sake of “the environment”? Golf is not an eco-conscious enterprise, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise. There are courses in Dubai soaked daily with enough water to fill the Staines Reservoirs. And how will the post-2028 rules be policed at recreational level? Will members of a fourball be glancing at each other suspiciously in case someone has sneaked a rogue Titleist Pro V1x into the bag?

The fact is that the vast majority of golfers require more distance, not less. The USGA concluded this year that even the forward tee yardages at most American courses were “too long for most players, based on their hitting distance and preferred hole lengths”. These players are the blameless party in these fundamental reforms. They are being burdened with an inelegant solution to a problem that, for them at least, did not even exist in the first place.

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