End the tech advance

I have to make a confession, and it may sound like I’m wearing my hair shirt on the inside. Despite the fact that as an unfit, non-gym going asthmatic 57 year old I hit the ball a lot further than I did at 40 (which is a gas) this technology thing is in danger of going too far.

I have lived the change in tech. Starting golf with the small ball, then moving to the bigger one, rather like hitting a balloon. From laminate wood to persimmon, to steel and thence to composite material heads. All the time my performance improving. With a swing speed at around 105mph I’m flying it 260. Lovely, but also crazy.

I know we’ve been here before. Going from the feathery ball to the guttie and then to the Haskell. Each of those was the end of golf as we know it. Hickory shafts to steel in the 1930s likewise; the initial introduction of carbon-fibre, remarkably like hitting a ball with a fishing rod. Now the space-age constructions in all our golf bags. But now it’s time to cry “Enough!!”.

Why be such a joyless muppet, denying everyone those few extra yards? Am I willing to give up my own “advantage”? Do I not want to see DJ pummel it 400 yards? In order; to save our sport and cut all our costs; yes; and thirdly no, because I’m bored with drive and flick pro golf.

I have no wish to spend a huge amount of time on participation levels. But. It’s fascinating that as longer hitting, straighter flying, easier to hit clubs and balls have become the norm in golf shops the number of people playing has fallen. Fascinating, but no surprise. Geoff Shackleford said it in 2004; look at tennis he said, who lost 50% of their social/amateur players in the wake of going to big headed rackets and a power game. Sound familiar, chaps, because if it doesn’t it should. How many clubs have more members now?

A new Callaway driver for over £400. Taylor Made at £350. And it will be obsolete/replaced by something new in 9 months. We’re not even going PXG. Titleist driver over £325 and a single Pro V1 ball £4. No wonder Mr Uihlein doesn’t want change. He probably thinks we’re all suckers. There’s a couple of myths here, that we amateurs play the same kit as the Pros, and that we buy the kit because the Pros play it. Neither is true.

The driver in DJ’s bag might look the same as mine. It sure as hell isn’t. For a start I probably couldn’t swing the darn thing. Everything about it will be different, in the same way as my driver is different to a friend of mine with the “same” model. That’s just tip of the iceberg mind you. In a monthly medal I could play a whole bunch of equipment that a Pro wouldn’t be allowed to touch with someone else’s barge pole. If you don’t believe that check out the list of proscribed kit on the R & A and USGA websites. Bifurcation lives, people. It is alive and already thriving. The equipment companies just don’t want you to realise.

The other myth. I don’t for one minute believe that the majority of golfers walk into any retail outlet and ask for the driver Rory/Tiger/DJ/JT uses. I do believe that no self-respecting salesman would miss the opportunity to say “did you see Tiger hit this at the Valspar? Awesome.” And quite right too.

But how can I deny the amateur the extra help? I don’t honestly believe there is that much extra help for average golfers, other than maybe fewer duffed tee shots. To truly benefit from the improved tech you have to hit the ball consistently accurately. Sorry, that’s not the majority of club golfers.

I’ll leave the whole issue of club economics for another day, since the impact of equipment and the professional game is having a profound impact there too, but I wanted to move on to golf courses.

It is another part of the power tennis argument, since we are beginning to see power golf dominate. And, I’m sorry, but it is bloody boring. Smash it, gouge it out of the rough, have it spinning around the pin, or have the greens so hard and fast you make top quality golfers, the best putters in the world, look like idiots. This is not fun. To do or to watch. For proof, see TV ratings for non-Tiger tourneys.

The thing which worries me the most is folk don’t seem to understand what strategy is in golf. Too many contend the answer is to make fairways narrower and the rough deeper – that’ll make ’em think! Quite right; it’ll make them think why has the 1990s/early 2000s USGA staff taken over course set-up? That is the very course set-up we railed against for years and people want it bring it back? Or Carnoustie 1999? You’re kidding, right?

Strategy says “here are 5 ways to play this hole, find the best one”. It isn’t fairways in single file and greens the constitution of concrete. It’s what Augusta and the Old Course used to be, when the Old Course was the Old Course and not on most of the rest of the St Andrews layouts too.

I want to watch players asked questions which are a bit more complex than the yardage and the wind direction. Place the ball in the optimum spot for their strategy, chosen from several alternatives. I want hazards to matter, a bunker not to just be a better place to miss than the rough – by the way, how stupid a development is that? Small green targets, use of run-off areas, all the stuff the golden age course architects understood and did automatically.

The best way to achieve all this is to make it harder to hit the ball absolutely miles. We can’t impact the athleticism and we want great golf courses with alternative ways of playing them. So the only way is to reel the tech back in. Long hitters would still have the advantage, but also need all round skills. If 460 becomes drive, 5-iron, we don’t need 500-yard par 4s. If 280 is a big hit we can have wider fairways to allow more skilful iron play. Everyone controlling the ball like Bubba.

And that is the key point. Displays of intricate skill are what excite us. Highlights packages rarely include big drives. Seeing skills brought new players to the game for years, because a small guy could compete with big guys simply by being more skilful. Once power dominates the strongest will generally win. If you’re not big and powerful as a kid you’re not then going to play golf. That makes us all the poorer.

The growth of our global game is more important than equipment company’s wallets and 400 yard drives from big name professionals. We have to wake up and smell the roses, before it’s too late.

8 Replies to “End the tech advance”

  1. Totally disagree. A very well written article but most amateurs don’t hit the ball that much further, especially when you factor in the almost inevitable adverse weather conditions we have to contend with in the UK. The last thing we need is loss of distance.

    1. Alan, thank you for taking the time to contact me, and for your kind words. Debate is always the key! For me the answer is kind of in what you say. Agree most amateurs don’t hit it much further with the new tech though it is difficult to quantify the difference it has made (going to do some work on that soon). The right path is a different set of club and ball criteria for elite golf. The tech revolution most helps those who already strike the ball really well. There is no reason the club golfer should be impacted at all. I feel that’s already the case with the ball; not too many 15 handicappers picking up Pro V1s as first choice. Only a small step to the clubs. Bifurcation lives! Already.

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