Thoughtful Thursday: Are 350 yard drives really the way forward for golf?

With the 2020 USPGA Championship at Harding Park only a few days away, the great debate relating to that question appears to be incredibly divisive. Some think it is the future of the game while others think it signifies the beginning of the end.

Those who believe that modern equipment – ridiculously strong lofted irons, oversize titanium head drivers and hot, low spinning golf balls – tend be be a younger generation who have perhaps never known golf equipment and the game itself to be any different.
I honestly feel sorry for them.

Not because of the way they think about the game but because they have never experienced the sheer pleasure of what it feels like to hit balata balls with blade irons and persimmon woods. That for me is truly a tragedy.

The fans of the hit it for miles variety of golf, seem to think we should just accept that things have moved on in the last 20 or 30 years. Yes, golf has become a more scientific, athletic game but it has to a large degree become to quote 2006 US Open Champion Geoff Ogilvy, a “dumbed down” version of the game I personally oved and learned as a kid.

Hitting the ball a long way is a skill and one which I have had the good fortune to witness close up on a regular basis over the years. However, it should not be the only or most important skill.

The ability to create a wide ranging variety of shots, high, low, draws and fades, knuckle balls into the wind etc… is becoming far less important at the very highest level. Not only is that creativity becoming less important, personally I find it less interesting to play and to watch.

If Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods (the most creative and exciting players of their respective generations) were on one channel and Dustin Johnson, Bryson de Chambaux and Brooks Keopka’s were on another, I would have very little desire to watch channel 2. I get that some people love to watch “bombs” but it does not hold my attention for long.

I haven’t included Rory McIlroy in either of these groups because I think he sits somewhere in the middle. Yes he hits it miles but as I heard him say in a recent episode of the MacKellar Golf podacst, “the artist will always win in the long term”. Rory has a deep understanding and respect for the game, both past and present and reading between the lines, believes that the great debate needs to be addressed by the powers that be, sooner rather than later.

R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers is well aware of the fact that something needs to be done and has said as much publicly. With the risk of some of the great old golf courses of the world becoming all but obsolete in terms of hosting tournament golf, that is a real concern.

Having been fortunate enough to recently play Muirfield, which is internationally regarded as one of the best in the world, I believe it would be a crying shame to see that reduced to a “drive and flick” course by today’s big hitters, which on a calm day, it would be. It is a truly magnificent golf course that demands and encourages imagination and creativity and as a result, delivers on enjoyment in abundance.

There are too many great courses to mention who will never see the tournament golf they deserve. All too often, professional golf is played on relatively modern, soft golf courses of the extra long variety. The courses these men and women play on have pretty much dictated that the only way to be competitive in today’s world is to hit the ball the proverbial country mile. Their hands have been forced, the option of playing creative golf has all but been removed.

I know I am not the first and will definitely not be the last to talk about bifurcation but at no point in the history of the game has amateur and professional golf been so far apart in terms of how it is played. Bifurcation already exists in reality just not officially.

I am all for progress, which is inevitable in today’s world, however the powers that be have a responsibility to protect the integrity of some of the world’s finest golf courses and the game itself.

Golf has become very much a power game as a result of science and technology but I sincerely hope that artistry and creativity aren’t compromised any more than they currently are.

In my humble opinion, golf is more interesting to play and to watch when golfers have to create a variety of shots that test their skills in every department.

If you honestly think that 350 plus yard drives is the way forward, that might just influence golf courses architects and developers and have them building 8,000 yard golf courses to “bomber proof” them.

Is that really the kind of golf course you want to play? Would that be fun or enjoyable? Be careful what you wish for.
Essentially, golf is in danger of becoming too scientific at the expense of creative artistry which would be a real travesty.

Gary Nicol