Don’t get me wrong, Shane Lowry’s win in the Open Championship was one of the best things to happen for a long time and the extraordinarily successful staging of the Irish Open at Lahinch was not a mirage. Nevertheless, the euphoria around golf in this country is misleading.
80% of the golf courses in Ireland struggle to keep the grass cut while the other 20% are very wealthy and have no money worries. It’s an alarming tale of the haves and the have nots.
With relatively-speaking unlimited funds to reinvest in their own, already world class facilities, the wealthy minority are becoming even richer, year-on-year, by being able to increase their green fees (because of demand from overseas golfers making a trip of a lifetime) but, the cost of playing them is far beyond the reach of the ordinary Irish golfer.
It’s a similar situation in England and Scotland where there is a pattern of the rich courses becoming richer while, at the same time, one golf course per month is closing down. I’m surprised there aren’t more course closures in Ireland too. There are too many courses and not enough players in golf’s traditional locations everywhere.
Once upon a time, new course openings were ‘ten a penny’ but, one never hears of a new course opening these days. The weekly open singles competition in country clubs here was a lifesaving, revenue spinner for many but they are increasingly becoming a thing of the past.
The handicap rule that only 10 X .1s are now allowed in a year has not helped. The majority of golf clubs needed that revenue to help keep them afloat. I have little sympathy for anyone who sets out to pad his handicap by accumulating .1s but, I do sympathise with the cash-strapped golf clubs. It has to be said that nomad golfers (and societies) are part of the problem too. They are parasites who don’t pay their way.
However, the biggest problem is the game itself. It’s unsustainable. The R&A or USGA have not done their ‘jobs’. They lost control circa 1990 and they may never get it back. We are now in an era of expensive courses and fancy clubhouses. Time-deficient and cash-strapped golfers are no longer a priority in spite of declining club memberships. A round of golf today costs too much and takes too long. I put the blame fairly and squarely on advances in technology that are driven by the professional game. To combat ‘hot’ balls and trampoline-effect driver faces, courses have been getting longer and longer. An increasing demand for higher standards of maintenance also makes golf more expensive, reflecting an age when everything is pushed beyond reasonable limits.
Golf’s most expensive ‘mistake’ is continually adjusting and lengthening courses to challenge elite players while, at the same time, the game becomes too difficult for the overwhelming majority. Treating golfers as consumers with deep pockets instead of enthusiasts in search of fresh air, fun, companionship and exercise has gone too far. Turning golf into a science capable of being analysed to the nth degree will, in the end, be counterproductive.
Too many beginners have only seen golf on TV. They think it is easy. When they find out how hard it is, they don’t last very long. They also see golf courses in pristine condition and expect the same regardless of the budget available. Modern golf is at the mercy of the misjudgements of commercial giants more focused on bottom lines and stock prices than practicalities.
Golf is easy if you can hit 350-yard drives and reach greens 600+yards away in two shots like the pros were doing in the BMW Championship at Medinah and Tour Championship won by Rory McIlroy at East Lake. For ordinary folk, Medinah and East Lake play like monsters, as I found out to my embarrassment when I played them some years ago and when my game was a lot stronger than it is today.
I found Medinah particularly difficult. I couldn’t get past the corner of the doglegs to get ‘sight’ of the greens and in the fiery conditions, straight hits kept running into trouble. To be fair, it’s not that long ago that Medinah played like a monster for the pros too. Hale Irwin won the US Open at Medinah in 1990 with a score above par. Justin Thomas shot -25 in 2019!
Give the pros soft conditions with no run on the ball and they’ll eat any course alive, it doesn’t matter how long it is. Course length means absolutely nothing anymore, if you are a top pro. The pros are not only hitting their drives 350-yards, but they are hitting 5-irons 225; 7-irons 190; a gap wedge goes 150-160. The players are in prime athletic physical shape, their clubs are all tuned to the nth degree and match their individual swings. The ball goes ‘miles’ without spinning, which means it doesn’t go that far offline when a poor swing is made. Combine that with perfect fairways, perfectly maintained bunkers, greens like carpets, it becomes a ‘perfect storm’.
The truth is, it costs a fortune to prepare a golf course for the pros and the unsustainable cost trickles down to ordinary golf. The only way to put a stop to an ‘out of control’ pro game it is to drastically narrow the fairways, insert bottlenecks and doglegs and don’t water the course for weeks in advance, which is most unfair on the average club member. The low scores the pros shoot on once revered ‘monster’ courses are not the problem as much as the one-dimensional style of game they play with no subtlety, minimum strategy and very little thought.
The Scottish commentator, John Huggan, calls it: “A dumb-downed version of a once great game”. I call it, boring.
A lighter tournament ball (for the pros) that spins more, and drastically reduced driver head sizes so bad mishits will go out of bounds or into ‘big trouble’ would ‘make golf great again’ – to coin a phrase. Hitting a ball ‘off the planet’ was a regular occurrence if you swung too hard and mishit the high-spinning balls of yore, but it is a rarity today. The game, as it is played by the pros today, has become unsustainable.
No ball game should be as technology driven as golf is today. The emphasis on distance and the reduction in the value of ball control, accuracy and skill has changed golf for the worse in a short period of time considering how old the game is. Where will it end? The game is out of balance. The purpose of the rules used to be to protect golf’s best traditions. Almost anything new was banned once upon a time. Metal headed ‘woods’ and centre-shafted putters were banned in the 1920s. The question is: How to manage the technological assault on the game’s great courses and manage a game so out of balance from top to bottom?
The driver is the most forgiving club in the bag now. You can swing it as hard as you like, and the low-spin ball will correct itself in flight. There is no skill in driving the ball from the tee anymore, which is unfair on the players who are genuinely good drivers of the ball and whose unique talent is not rewarded. 30 years of ‘laissez faire authority’ has allowed the game to change beyond recognition. Long driving was always important. But so, too, were long and middle irons and the longest players also had to master them. Bob Jones and Jack Nicklaus (two noted long hitters in their day) were also brilliant long iron players.
For the top pros and equipment manufacturers, golf is seen as a gift that never stops giving. The disparity between top pros and the ‘average’ golfer is widening all the time to the disadvantage of the wellbeing of the overall game. However, the reality is golf cannot exist without it being a business. It was a business in Old Tom Morris’s time and it still is today, so those involved in the business side of golf count. Driver head sizes of 470cc arrived under the shadow of potential legal action over square grooves. Ping won that argument and the USGA and R&A have been running scared since.
Bifurcating the game, with different balls and equipment used by pros and amateurs is one solution but, it has its drawbacks. It would be extremely costly to the pro side of the game, and arguably unmarketable in the amateur context. It is a reasonable argument that having all pro players using the same equipment (not quite, of course) and the same ball would impede, if not destroy, variety and competition between manufacturers but, would it? There was a much larger choice in what ball or equipment golfers used 50-years ago.
To finish with a bit of good news and how it affects the average golfer, which was gleaned from studying the statistical data on the PGA Tour website. Accuracy, not distance, remains the key to better scoring. From the rough in the range of 125-150 yards – a wedge for most of the pros on tour – only a minority average approaching to inside 25 feet.
From 175-200 yards, the best pros hit it closer from the fairway than the best from the rough who are 50 yards closer. No matter who you are, hitting from the fairway is dramatically more effective than playing from the rough. Instead of trying to force a few extra yards out of our drivers, throttling back a bit to make sure of being on the fairway will be of more help to us in shooting lower scores. If you don’t believe me, try this exercise when playing a casual round:
Every time you miss a fairway, go back 20 yards and drop another ball on the fairway. Play both balls from where they lie towards the green and see which ball wins. The shorter ball from the fairway will come out on top more often than not.
It’s obvious that one’s age, fitness and athleticism determines if you are a long hitter or not, and there isn’t much you can do about it past a certain point but everyone can become more accurate if they apply themselves to the task. It is also true that the further you hit the ball, the harder it is to be accurate. A 1% dispersion on a 150-yards shot finishes dramatically closer to the target than a 1% deviation over 350-yards. Now, there’s an overlooked fact to cheer up the shorter hitters.