Last year during a press conference at August National, Jack Nicklaus said something very interesting: “Change the frigging golf ball.”
Jack’s comment was in response to the continuous increase in the average driving distance among tour players. While some people might have initially brushed it off, it’s impossible to ignore when two titans share the same sentiments.
Just last week, Tiger stated on a podcast that “something” needs to be done about the ball, that it’s going “too far,” and if this keeps up “the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away.” Someone might want to tell him to avoid the Gunsan Country Club in South Korea and its Par 7 hole that’s 1,100 yards (i.e., two-thirds of a mile) from the tips.
Tiger Woods of the USA reacts to his putt on 15th hole during the first round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on February 2, 2017 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Get premium, high resolution news photos at Getty Images
Now, this is my outsider, non-PGA playing opinion, but changing the ball isn’t magically going to fix anything. Allow me to parallel this to the USGA’s Driver COR (Coefficient of Restitution) limitation.
Effective 2003, driver’s were limited to a maximum of 0.830 COR to be deemed conforming. In essence, the COR rating means that a maximum of 83% of the energy from the driver could be transferred into the ball. While this was probably a great idea at the time, it really didn’t stop the OEMs from finding a new way to make driver’s that yielded more distance. With advancements in technology, OEMs have started toying with aerodynamics, materials, weight, and center of gravity location, which have resulted in driver’s that aren’t just more forgiving, but also help hit the ball further.
Instead, I challenge Messrs. Nicklaus and Woods that fitness is the root cause of guys like DJ, Brooks Koepka, and Rory McIlroy playing more like Happy Gilmore than your local pro. And there’s a real sense of irony to that. While Gary Player might be the original pro to stress the importance of staying in shape, Tiger was probably the guy who made fitness a “must” for tour players who wanted to remain competitive.
I mean, when Tiger won the Masters in 1997, there was 25 yards in average driving distance between him and the next closest guy. Fast forward to 2017 and 25 yards covers the distance between the leader in average driving distance–Rory McIlroy at 317.2 yards–and the 99th ranked guy–Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño at 292.1.
Not to point any fingers, but I’m gonna bet that the certain guys towards the top (DJ at 315, Brooks Koepka at 311, Justin Thomas at 309) work a lot more on their fitness then some guys at the bottom.
So here’s the reality of the situation. This isn’t boxing, so the rule makers aren’t going to institute fitness limitations or weight classes. And even if they continue to lower the maximum COR, guys will continue to work harder just so they can transfer even more energy into the ball. I mean, imagine as more guys like long drive champ Jamie Sadlowski, who has a club head speed around around 150, starts to establish themselves on the tour…
The reality of the situation is that, going forward, the playing conditions need to be more difficult. Additional bunkers, larger water hazards, funky slopes, and tricky greens will have a much more drastic impact then changing a ball’s flight characteristics (I promise, I’m a hazards expert).
In addition, golfers have a very different approach to the game then they did 15-20 years ago. While back then you needed to regularly win to maintain a professional athlete lifestyle, one big win can set you up for the year. As a result, the new generation isn’t afraid to let it fly, bomb it out there, and take their chances scrambling. So if you were to increase the risk of punishment, I would’t be surprised if guys started being more tactful and conservative with their approaches.
In sum, until the “Dad Bod” catches on with professional golfers, reduced distance clubs and balls aren’t going to stop them from finding a new way to bomb it 300 yards+. If you want guys to stop attacking greens with their driver, make them pay when they miss. Golf’s always been a game that demands strategy and planning the next shot in advance. So perhaps it’s time to turn the difficulty up from “All Star” to “Hall of Fame.”
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