Rolling in the deep 

Kevin Markham

Bryson DeChambeau (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

When did you first learn the meaning of ‘bifurcation’? Back in the day I had to use a real dictionary and turn actual pages. Nowadays, you just Google it or tap your phone’s word/dictionary app. Simple, right. 

The bifurcation and rollback debate, however, is anything but simple. We are in the middle of a contentious debate about ball technology. Never mind the Pro game and the angst expressed by JT, Bryson and others, consider the effects of longer hitting over the past 30 to 40 years on the rest of the golfing population. I doubt any of us amateurs have complained about hitting the ball further but there are those for whom this has been an ever-growing problem.  

As someone who is very much focused on golf courses, I am far more interested in the impact those decades have had on the courses themselves. Because, boy, have things had to change.  


How many courses have moved their bunkers 20-30 metres down the fairway because today’s big hitters sail so far over them that they are no longer considered hazards. Blainroe has upgraded all of its bunkers (in play for later this year), as have Castle, Naas, Galgorm Castle, and Dromoland Castle. Elsewhere, courses like Athy, Bandon, Hermitage and Druids Heath have recently removed bunkers entirely as they weren’t challenging the modern golfer.

How many courses have scraped and scrabbled to move their back tees further back in a desperate quest for length? Look at Ballyliffin’s Glashedy which created a new championship tee in a farmer’s neighbouring property for the Irish Open. The par-5 4th is now 120 yards longer, measuring 594 yards. Not that long ago, 7,000 yards was a monster course and golf clubs tried everything to reach that magic number. Now that figure is 8,000 yards.  

Not all courses can extend their back tees or relocate greens, either through lack of space (e.g. city and suburban courses) or lack of money. At Druids Glen, designer Peter McEvoy said there was little opportunity to find additional length as there was nowhere left to go but they have managed to extend it to 7,300 yards thanks to a double tee (7th/10th), a new 5th tee where the old 4th green was located, the 1st where the small practice green has been incorporated, and the 16th where the tee makes the hole over 600 yards.  

Rolling back the ball cannot be a bad thing. I don’t see how anyone can argue that it is. As long as it applies to everyone then who loses? The longest hitters will still be the longest… they just won’t hit it as far. If anything, shorter hitters will probably benefit and we will see more skills on show around the green.  

And why is length so important anyway? It shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. You ‘drive for show, you putt for dough’, as Bobby Locke said… in the 1940s. That hasn’t changed and it never will. Bryson is still going to muscle up to the ball and smash it as hard as he can. Who’s going to care that it goes 360 yards, not 400… other than Bryson? 

Let’s pitch this another way: how much length can be added to older, classic courses such as Mullingar (James Braid) and Carlow (Tom Simpson), without removing or negating their core strategies… and charm? Compare 1992 to 2022: in 1992, Mullingar measured 6200 yards while it is 6,683 today; meanwhile, Carlow jumped from 5,844 to 6,055 metres in that time. Both are home to top-tier Scratch Cups but would be considered ‘short’ by today’s standards. 

Now look at the longest courses in Ireland. Killeen Castle (2008) is the longest at 7,677 yards. Adare measured 7,453 yards in 1995, Palmerstown House (2006) weighed in at 7,419, Moyvalley (2006) at 7,370, Heritage (2004) at 7,319, and Donegal at 7,287. When Donegal re-opened in the early 1990s its 7,287 yards made it the longest course in Ireland, but many more modern courses surpassed that.  

Few have gone the other way. One that has is Druids Heath (2005) which did away with its back tees in 2021. It has moved from 7,434 yards to 6,620 yards. 

Hitting the ball further and further is seen as desirable but pause for breath and ask yourself what it achieves. The answer… is not a lot. Seriously, how much further do we need to hit it? How does it enhance your enjoyment of the game? Rolling back the ball actually encourages a (slightly) more level playing field and it protects golf courses that have been struggling for decades to accommodate this endless evolution. In the end it is common sense so let’s embrace the rollback.  

As for bifurcation, well, that’s more complicated, so let’s leave it in the dictionary where it belongs. 

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