They’re going to change the golf ball. I don’t know why, but they are. And they’re going to do it wrong.
By “they,” I mean the USGA, the R&A, and the PGA Tour, in concert, perhaps, with the manufacturers. By “change” we mean not allow it to go so far. And by “wrong” – read on, please.
The tipping point in this business may have been Dustin Johnson’s 443-yard wallop at Kapalua in January. Maybe the last straw was the monumental average distance achieved by Brooks Koepka whilst winning the 2017 U.S. Open: 323.5. A ho-hum drive for Tony Finau, the Tour leader as this is written, is 326.95. True, Dustin, Brooks, and Tony are three of the biggest, strongest athletes the game has ever seen but that does not change the basic point.
A 300-yard drive used to be a homerun, even for a pro, but today it’s meh. Sixty-five PGA tour players currently average over three bills; another 20 bunters limp along at 298 and a fraction. It’s by far the longest on record average driving distance.
It’s as if the left field wall at Fenway has been moved in 50 feet.
“We need to do something about the golf ball,” Tiger Woods said recently, a startling new convert to the roll-it-back movement. “I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away.”
“We have crossed the line,” said Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A. “A serious discussion is now needed.”
“Affecting all golfers in a bad way,” said Mike Davis of the USGA.
At his presser at the Masters in 2017, Jack Nicklaus noted that the game has become slower and more expensive in recent years, that ever-longer courses cost more in every way (land, water, weed killer), and that, for a decade at least, there have been more annual golf course closings than course openings.
“The simplest solution,” Jack said, as he’s been saying for years, “is to change the frigging golf ball.” Yes, he said “frigging.”
Now comes word that the USGA is experimenting with balls that go 80 or 90 percent as far as the modern pelota. The premise is that there will be different balls for different levels of the game.
No and no, I say. I’ve tried to picture a Titleist ad in AVIDGOLFER, urging us to try “the new, shorter ProV1” but I can’t do it, no matter how much ’69 Chateau Lafite I drink.
And different equipment for pros and amateurs? Oh Lord no. That we all play the exact game on the same grounds with the same equipment is bedrock in our sport and should not be tampered with.
My big idea is to spin the problem in a new direction. By bringing back spin.
You used to be able to curve the little orb with the ease that you curve a Frisbee, and OMFG that was fun. Bending your pill around trouble or carving a draw or a fade to a tight pin gave us a triumphant feeling when the shot worked out. The crazy, curvy things that Seve and Trevino and others could do elevated the game to an art form. But since manufacturers believe all we consumers want is long and straight, they gave us long and straight and stupid by taking spin off the driver and the ball. Unless you have the club head speed of Bubba Watson, good luck hitting a useful hook or slice between the trees.
Today’s ball is a buzz kill. It’s flat champagne. It’s two condoms.
The fun ball addresses the distance problem obliquely. The more sensitive sphere will find the hidden flaw in any swing. All out attacks will still work if the swing is perfect, but can you imagine how far out of bounds Johnson will hit it when he’s off? Better dial it back a little, DJ, like golfers have always done ¬– at least they did from 1500 to 1990. I asked a few guys in the golf industry about this concept, and got a universal thumbs up.
“I love that idea. Let’s make it curve again! Nowadays, players have no fear that it’s going off line,” said Donnie Darr, assistant men’s golf coach, University of Oklahoma.
“I think you’re on the right track … I’ve agreed with Jack for a long time. It’s gotten to be ridiculous. I can remember winning a tournament at Birkdale when I hit a three wood off most of the tees – with a 25-yard hook,” said Bruce Devlin, winner of 28 professional tournaments, including eight on the PGA Tour.
“Absolutely. I agree 100 percent. Returning to a spinning ball would be beneficial to the game. The kids I coach are getting pretty one-dimensional – just hit it hard, like they do on the Tour,” said Jim Ragan, men’s golf coach, UC San Diego.
“I would love to see that. The ball that spun required more skill. The wind affected it more, and figuring out how much was fun,” said Gilbert Freeman, Director of Golf, Lakewood CC.
On the other hand:
“There’s no evidence that golf is being negatively impacted by players hitting the ball farther,” said Wally Uihlein, ex-CEO of Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist.
But that’s just spin.
Curt Sampson is the author of 15 books, including the bestsellers “Hogan” and “The Masters.” His current book is “Furious George,” written with NBA coach George Karl.