Technology makes golf a brand new ball game

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. Hootie Johnson walked out to Amen Corner during the 2001 Masters in time to see Phil Mickelson play his second shot into the 455-yard 11th hole, one of the toughest at Augusta National.

Mickelson had 94 yards to the green a flip wedge.

That was all Johnson needed to realize it was right to lengthen the golf course by 300 yards, the biggest overhaul in club history.

Two years later, some players question whether Augusta went far enough.

I told Hootie, 'You guys were ahead of the curve when you did this golf course last year,'' six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said. Now, they're behind the curve.''

The Masters isn't alone.

Torrey Pines revamped its South Course to measure 7,600 yards for the 2008 U.S. Open. Last year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black had the two longest par 4s in its history No. 12 (499 yards) and No. 10 (492 yards).

Why go to such lengths?

To protect against the most rapid advances ever in golf technology.

It has reached a point where golf's top executives are debating whether to introduce separate equipment standards for elite and recreational players.

I really would not like to see that, but it may be inevitable,'' Arnold Palmer said.

Whether that would change anything is unclear. But it's not as simple as blaming the golf ball and oversized titanium drivers. Look inside the fitness trailer on tour, or in weight rooms at Kapalua and La Costa, and it's obvious that golf is starting to resemble a real sport.

Players are bigger, stronger, more cut.

They lift, they run, they watch what they eat.

Some are trained by renowned teachers before they graduate from elementary school. By the time they mature, players can generate enormous power by swinging the club at speeds approaching 120 mph upon impact.

I've got a 9-year-old and he plays with all the kids at home, and they're all teeing it as high as a tee will allow and swinging as hard as they can,'' Davis Love III said. There was only one person doing that on the range when I was growing up, and that was me.''

Equipment companies are responding with drivers made of space-age metals that weigh less and have a large hitting area, allowing more room for error.

They make balls that combine distance and feel, with aerodynamics that optimize lift and reduce drag. Some balls are customized for launch conditions of various players.

Golf is no longer just a game. It's a science.

Nick Price learned to play when it was an art. Like most players 30 and older, he grew up using wooden drivers with a sweet spot the size of a pea.

Now the sweet spot is the size of a peach,'' Price laments.

Swinging for the fences often meant the ball went into the trees. Price figured out he could swing at 85 percent of his total strength before he lost control of his tee shots. Nicklaus was said to have an extra 20 yards when he needed it.

Now, it seems as though every player gives it all they have on every drive.

As soon as you give a person a lighter, more forgiving club, guys are going to learn to swing harder,'' Price said. Guys are pushing the envelope, and that's increased their ability to swing by 8 to 10 percent. That's where they pick up clubhead speed.''

He doesn't think rolling back the golf ball by 10 percent would solve anything.

The game is about the ability to swing a 44-inch object 25 feet, to return it back and hit it on a sweet spot,'' he said. The smaller the sweet spot, the more you test that skill.''

Price, however, is in the minority.

Most attribute distance gains to the variable that moves the golf ball. Nicklaus has been lobbying against golf ball improvements for 25 years, and what happened to him last month at Doral only proved his point.

When he won the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, the defining shot was his 1-iron from 219 yards into a stiff breeze that knocked down the flag at No. 17.

Nicklaus had 219 yards into a stiff breeze to the par-5 eighth hole at Doral. At age 63, he hit 2-iron into 15 feet.

What else could it be?'' Nicklaus said.

He proposes a tournament ball that would restore shotmaking and reward talent. He also fears the power game is making championship courses obsolete, and the only way to test elite players is to pinch fairways, grow rough and make the greens as firm as concrete.

Just as Ernie Els uses better equipment than Nicklaus had in his prime, Nicklaus used better equipment than Ben Hogan, who had better equipment than Bobby Jones.

Every generation says the game changes, and the game has changed,'' Nicklaus said. The only thing that hasn't had to change is the golf course until now. How much more can people afford to keep buying land and changing the golf course because of the ego of a ball manufacturer?''

Meantime, anecdotal evidence keeps piling up:

Els hit a drive that went nearly 400 yards to the bottom of the hill on the 15th hole at Kapalua. A week later at Waialae Country Club, he reached the 501-yard ninth hole with a driver and a wedge.

Mickelson nearly drove the green on the 403-yard 10th hole at the Phoenix Open.

Charles Howell III hit sand wedge for his second shot on the 451-yard 18th at Riviera, the same hole where a plaque in the fairway pays tribute to Dave Stockton for his 3-wood that helped him win the 1974 Los Angeles Open.

Still, length isn't everything. Tiger Woods is the world's best player, and he relies more on his short game and course management than hitting the ball as far as he can.

I don't take advantage of technology fully,'' Woods said. I play with a short driver (43 inches) and a steel shaft and a shallow face, so I've limited myself to what I can do. But I'd much rather control the ball and get the ball in play.''

Is distance ruining golf?

The fear is that technology will turn even the toughest golf course into a pitch-and-putt. Johnson didn't order changes to Augusta National because the scores were too low, he simply got tired of seeing players hit wedge into almost all of the par 4s.

Some worry that golf will become tennis at the highest level no longer a game of exquisite shotmaking, but sheer power.

Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, opposes two sets of rules. Still, he is not oblivious to a rapidly changing game.

What's happening now is the gap between the elite player and the average club player has widened,'' Dawson said. I don't think there's any issue at the club level with technology. But because these guys get so good out here, maybe there is an issue for them.''



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