Always changing the pitch

I’ve been watching a lot of the Indian Premier League. Not getting a lot of choice as Mrs A loves it; I prefer the longer forms of the game. But it’s got my attention because of a parallel with our game of golf.

The truly impressive thing about the IPL is the batting skills (the bowling stinks!). So many new shots; scoops over the keeper and slips for 6, Yorker length deliveries being smashed square of the wicket on either side and, of course, the power hitting over Extra Cover and through the leg side. These guys are better than ever.

What strikes me is that the authorities have recognised these developments in skill and power, but also developments in bat technology, and have moved to control that technology by regulating. So the Chinniswamy in Bengaluru, Eden Gardens in Kolkata remain the iconic venues they have always been, and smaller venues like Jaipur and Pune still play a part in the competition. Strangely, the pavilion at Lords has not yet had to move back into St John’s Wood Road.

I suspect you see where I’m going with this, but for some there really is a need to belabour the point. So……….

The Centre Courts at Wimbledon, Melbourne Park and Roland Garros are all still the same size. Because, and again, tennis recognised that the power game was damaging to their long term development and sought to regulate, by slowing the ball down.

Baseball parks are also all the same size still, because the best players in the world, the Pros, aren’t allowed to use anything other than wooden bats. Power still rewarded, but talent and ability can also shine. And you don’t have to rebuild several dozen ball parks.

Every sport has adapted its rules and regulation in some way to progress. Soccer has different rules covering the tackle from years ago. Rugby Union and Rugby League have both changed their approach to the ruck, maul and tackle and their safety in reaction to the greater physicality evident in both games. Though my impression of the 13-man game from the matches I’ve seen this season is they are a little more laissez-faire than Union in the policing of what constitutes a dangerous tackle.

In Formula 1 just this week the authorities have announced new rules on aerodynamics aimed at changing the world’s most expensive time trial back to more actual racing.

Which brings us to golf and our stand-out position. We seem to have taken the view that the core of our game, its traditions, its classic venues and its core challenges matter nothing in the face of the advance of technology. So we ignore the greatness evident in our best courses. We bow to the advance of technology rather than regulate as do every other sport. The desire of the equipment manufacturers to sell us this month’s new widget has become the defining force in golf.

We allow our courses to become bigger and bigger, longer and longer, all at a time when land and, especially, water are becoming scarcer and more expensive resources. Many of our greatest venues will never see the best in the world again because they do not have the land necessary to expand in reaction to increasing ball flight distances. And if they do have the money – well, Augusta have bought a road and a parcel of additional land to push 13 back. It is getting ridiculous.

We make the game a marathon, put it beyond the pocket of many ordinary people and then sit back and struggle to understand why facilities keep on closing.

The best male players in the world now hit the ball so damn far that the vast majority of great courses are no longer a match for them. Only those facilities with pots of money and pots of land can keep up, and do so by making themselves a cartoon version of what they once were, spending thousands putting in sets of tees the members and ordinary golfers NEVER play from. The idea that amateur golfers can go and play the same courses as the Professionals is a condemned-to-history nonsense. Try the Old Course for example; it’ll never happen there ever again because the Professional’s tees for the Open on the Old Course are now on the Eden and New courses. And the teaching facility.

Meanwhile week in, week out we watch the Pros knock it round another former farm or TPC course indistinguishable from the one they played last week. Oh, the water’s in a different spot? Sorry, missed that. Yet read any golf magazine and see the reviews of the many truly wonderful courses we have. And the Pros play on cabbage patches – ask them how they feel about it, especially the ones who transitioned from top level amateur golf.

Courses are increasingly set up massively long and massively hard. It takes hours for ordinary golfers to play them, and in truth many of them can’t get it round in decent numbers. Their enthusiasm for the game is lost, and pretty quickly so are they. The costs of maintaining additional tracts of prepared turf and roughs are astronomical, and who pays it? You and me of course, the very same ordinary golfers whose numbers are reducing. We pay through increased membership dues and visitor green fees. Or perhaps you could argue we don’t, since participation in golf is falling.

I just love hearing “pundits” talk about just moving that green, or that tee, or do something with your bunkering etc., etc. Apparently it really is all you need to do to deal with advancing technology. A new USGA spec green is going to cost you at least £40,000; a tee £10k and more if it’s for a par 3 and needs more playing area. Get an external contractor to build, shape and complete a bunker is going to be a few thousand; see how that sum builds up if you have a par 4 with a number of fairway bunkers which all need shifting. Yes, you can do that bunker work with your internal staff, but then they’re also trying to do the normal preparation work. So it will take longer to complete.

If you’re going to do work to a golf course then do it for the right reason. Do it to improve the experience, to enhance the challenge, for safety or to restore whatever it was made the course good/great/memorable to begin with. There are so many wonderful examples of that around the world. I’m heading to one such for the next 3 days.

It should never be necessary just because a few golfers hit the ball further. That’s just the game being blackmailed. And sadly there are just as many examples of that around the world too.

Any game where the equipment selling tail is wagging the administrator/playing dog is in trouble. Serious trouble. That is where we now live.

The overwhelming point in the foregoing is that Baseball, of all things, has shown us the way. All the things we want, control of costs, watching Pros play the best courses, restoration of challenge and fun in the game of golf, all of it, can be achieved by making formal something which already exists. Bifurcation lives, now. Introducing proper legislated equipment limitations for the Professional and Elite Amateur tournament games would impact less than 2% of the world’s golfers without touching everyone else at all.

It is time all this codswallop about playing the same courses and kit was consigned to the bin where it belongs. Doesn’t happen and hasn’t for years. If we don’t bring in a new era of control we’re sawing on the fiddle while Rome burns.

One Reply to “Always changing the pitch”

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