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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When will Augusta throw down the distance hitting gauntlet?

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At the risk of wishing my life away, I have an odd view of the upcoming 2021 Masters Tournament. Could we skip right past it and onto when, I hope, it becomes the first major in history played under local Augusta National G.C. rules, with a mandatory tournament ball and (possibly) size-reduced driver heads in use?   

My motivation for wanting hitting distances curbed is to see the traditional difficulty, variety and integrity of the game and its golf courses revitalised. It’s understandable that tournament pros would want their livelihoods to be as comfortable, predictable and controllable as possible but, that does not best serve the overall good of the game.  

An equipment local rule is no longer a far-fetched notion since the R&A and USGA threw down the distance hitting gauntlet. As a former USGA President, you can bet your bottom dollar that the current Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, Fred Ridley, will be on the ruling authorities side of the argument. That’s why it’s now a matter of when, not if. How interesting and exciting it will be to see if the improvement in hitting distance in the last decade is really down to superior athleticism, or if it is largely due to science? My bet is on science.  

Tournament pros are short-sighted. They don’t realise that watching them playing golf on TV is as boring as Hell (apart from the majors – none of which are organised by the pro tour/pro-owned organisations). When you can watch top pros playing in the flesh, it is more engaging. But, how often does that happen? Pro golf is a travelling circus that may never come to a golf course near you!   

One thing is for sure, whenever bifurcation comes to pass, golf at every level will remain a meaningful contest. Somebody will win and it is likely to be an already leading player who is well-established and who knows how to negotiate the golf course. The best golfers will always be the best golfers regardless of the equipment they use.  

The argument that part of the thrill of watching professional golf is seeing pros doing things us amateurs cannot do with the same equipment is spurious, at best. My fervent wish is to see golf courses played the way they were designed to be played: requiring a full array of skills that only the very best players have. Whatever about being unable to relate to 350-yards drives; the 205-yard 6-iron is not connected to the reality in which 99% of golfers operate.    

Golf’s great appeal is its capacity to allow everyone to give it a try, and for the game to somewhat resemble the game the pros play but on 7000+yards courses, it’s impossible. The argument that rolling the ball back will stop the best players being entertaining is silly. Putting limits on hitting distance will not diminish skill, it will enhance the opportunities to appreciate them because more questions will be asked of the players to demonstrate them more often.   

In reality, whats driving the distance debate is not penalising the top pros but protecting golf courses; making sure they are a ‘proper test’ of skill. Pros playing with a tournament ball that spins more and smaller driver headswhile the club golfer continues to be offered ‘all the technology in the world’ will be ‘good for the game’ at every level – including the manufacturers.     

When competition is at its fiercest, equipment isn’t important – the player’s mindset counts more. By the time the final nine holes are underway at Augusta on April 11, the contenders will be fighting their inner turmoil and will not be in the slightest concerned about what ball or clubs they are using but, concentrating on completing the 72nd hole in a speculative winning number.   

Being 30-40 yards shorter off the tee and playing 7 or 8-irons instead of wedges, and four irons instead of 7-irons will mean playing the Augusta National golf course somewhat as it was originally intended while presenting a better all-round test of shot-making. Playing with a ball with “higher spin characteristics” means it won’t be wise to swing too hard. Higher swing speeds magnify sidespin. Sidespin creates crooked ball flights. More creativity, ball control and recovery shots will come back into vogue. Who would not want to see that?       

A tournament ball will improve the chances of the shorter-hitting, demon chipper and putter (shouldn’t everyone have that chance to win, not just the big bombers?) Augusta National was not set up to favour anyone – the fairways are too wide to give precision driving an edge; the pin placements are always on mounds or ledges in small sections that make hitting GIRs alone unhelpful because putting from the ‘wrong’ part of a green is at least as difficult as chipping from off it.   

Pitching at Augusta is a different technical challenge to normal PGA Tour courses. Short approaches must be played over large bunkers with high lips to greens with enormous slopes and movement on them. Miss your spot by a couple inches and the ball could finish anywhere that gravity will decide. Reading the lie and the grain of the Augusta grass is complicated and players have to contend with two grainsone on the green and another off it.  

Nobody has won at Augusta without pitching and chipping well. Dustin Johnson and not Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler or Tiger Woods, and certainly not Rory McIlroy, is the world’s best player from 120-yards in at the current moment (Hideki Matsuyama and Tyrell Hatton may be the next best). At a US Open, PGA Championship and even The Open, the number of GIRS can be critical in deciding the winner but not so at Augusta.  

How can I dare to speculate about such things but all the indications lately are that Rory’s ‘cold-blooded assassin’s nerve’ is not as lethal as it once was. Marriage and becoming a father change priorities. Values inevitably change. How Rory reacted to the ball dropping controversy at Torrey Pines when Patrick Reed (unfairly) used Rory as a cover and justification for his suspicious behaviour was revealing. Rory’s drop was above reproach but he has admitted since that he slept uneasily afterwards due to the worry that anybody might think he had tried ‘to get away with something’ – unlike Reed who seems to take his wins anyway he can. Rory carries too much unhelpful baggage between the ears to be a Masters contender. The place has him spooked.  

Oh yes – I nearly forgot: who will win the 2021 Masters? No. 1, Dustin Johnson most probably – check out the world golf rankings and stand back and admire his ball control when he has a wedge in his hand. Superlative wedge play will remain the key to winning a Green Jacket until they decide to roll back hitting distance.        

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