What did we learn from the Masters

I really did enjoy the Masters this year. There was a contest that could have gone a number of ways, and Sky Sports had the A Team on parade. Very excellent they were too. There were a number of things that struck me during the never knowingly under-sold week in Georgia

A worthy Champion

No question. Patrick Reed has some serious cojones. Grit, determination, “bounce backability” (isn’t that just an awful phrase) call it what you will. The man had everything needed to become a Major winner. He holed the putts that he had to, played the shots that he needed. It was a fantastic performance deserving of receiving the Green jacket

Rory on the verge of history

He should have done this, he should have done that; he changed his game plan on the last day, why didn’t he stay with what he was doing? As someone this week on the fringes of contention in the final round of a comparatively important regional event where my second shot on the first hole hit a ball spotter’s fold-away camping stool and rebounded into the only bush in 400 square yards let me tell you on a golf course shit happens.

That the image of Rory’s week is standing in a flower bed is unfair. He played beautifully, and if it didn’t happen Sunday so be it. His time will come. He’s trying to move into a pretty exclusive 5-member club from an equally exclusive 12-member club who have won 3 out of 4 – drive yourself crazy trying to identify the other 11; I got 8 without having to look them up to check.

There’s some true giants of the game outside that group of 17 people. Seve, Peter Thomson, Vardon, Braid. So give the kid a break, eh.

Course set-up

The tournament only became watchable after it hammered down with rain and made the greens “hittable”. We know the green contours are huge and the pin positions one step removed from the mad house, but days 1 and 2 we were treated to some real stupidity. Loved DJ’s par putt from 40 feet on 16, just not that it followed a missed 12-footer for a 2. It was all horrible to watch.

We all know it’s to try and rein in the impact of club and ball technology. The 13th is 60 yards longer than 15 years ago (and going back further) but they’re hitting short and mid irons where once it was a small wood. If we don’t do something soon we’ll either get this painful to watch struggle on concrete greens or moron golf on 20-yard wide fairways with hack out rough on either side. That’s really going to be fun to watch. Not.

Professionals take a very, very long time

Whilst I understand that the funereal pace of play is connected to the course set-up, and that they’re playing for a lot of money and a place in history fewer than 90 golfers taking over 5½ hours days 1 and 2 is extracting the Miguel a touch.  How these guys maintain flow and structure to a golf swing when they only hit 30-odd full shots in 330 minutes is a mystery to me.

Of course the answer is a lot of them don’t.

Until or unless golf starts to enforce the 40-second per shot rule that appears not only at professional level, but on the rules “Hard Card” for serious amateur golf we are going to be stuck with this nonsense. Bring on the Shot Clock Masters – at this venue.

A less than universally popular Champion

We can’t really avoid this. There was muted support for Patrick during his final round, albeit that it got to the traditionally raucous stage come the end. To the uninformed (me) it all seemed a bit odd, particularly in a Ryder Cup year, to see higher levels of support for the European than for the tub-thumping, rabble-rousing centre of OTT US patriotism that is Patrick Reed at the matches.

Then I read Alan Shipnuck’s piece, and things became a lot clearer. College conduct questions, family issues; didn’t leave a great impression behind him, our Patrick.

Mr Shipnuck came in for some hammer, which he very bravely and conscientiously took on head first but to be honest I couldn’t understand much of said criticism. Alan painted a picture that is not that uncommon in sport; a young man in pursuit of an ambition does virtually nothing but practice his sport, to the exclusion of the normal elements of growing up. He then hits college as a less rounded, less life-experienced individual than his peers and goes berserk, behaves not well to those around him so that when he makes mistakes he doesn’t get forgiven them, because he’s viewed as an SOB and a right royal pain in the butt. Add in the really sad estrangement from his own family which has led to some stuff which if even half true is ludicrous and you have an understanding. This guy is not going to cause the juices to flow in a traditional golf-orientated, very mature and family-orientated bunch of Augusta “patrons” (hate that terminology too).

Alan did the journalistic duty and revealed this side of the Reed story to those not living inside the hot house PGA Tour bubble. It really is a story of current relevance and did have to be told to explain what was going on. Took nothing away from the excellence of Patrick’s play and the worthiness of the win, but the reaction to the story from some was so extreme as to be nonsensical. A vast amount of holier than thou humbug from people who undoubtedly followed and wallowed moment by moment in the Tiger car into the hydrant moment, subsequent revelations and skin-crawlingly embarrassing press conference (was ever a sportsman less well served by his advisors?) An awful lot of hypocritical claptrap.

Augusta is trying to change its reputation

The arrival of a new Chief Executive in the person of Fred Ridley is definitely to be welcomed. An administrator in touch with the World, not simply the world within 20 square miles of the club.

The club’s record on racial diversity is, to put it mildly, mixed. The appearance of Tiger forced their hands but it isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that black tournament winners’ invites mysteriously seemed to get lost in the post. Mind you, it’s also in my lifetime the PGA Tour had a Caucasians-only membership rule.

The initiative on the women’s event is excellent, but we have to face the fact that men’s elite golf is extremely white. Can you imagine if such a haven of privilege, in the heart of the old Confederacy, were to do something specific and high profile to extend golf into the inner cities. It would be amazing. Mr Ridley could just be the man to lead that type of initiative. I hope so.

All augurs well for Paris

Whilst put forward as a triumph for the US team and an indicator of their undoubted forthcoming victory the final top 20 actually had 6 locked on US team members and 6 locked on European team members.

That suggests things will be really close at Golf National. That’s great for golf. Nothing matches a close finish to the Matches. Medinah rerun anyone?

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.

Opening Shot

So it would appear I’m retired. It’s happened rather earlier than I expected, so it may be that I am actually unemployed. In any event, after 17 years in golf club management I now find myself no longer taking the daily trek to the office.

To be honest there’s almost a sense of relief. Weird reaction, but there it is. I know that firstly doors never fully close, secondly that the worst case scenario is an opportunity to play more golf and third that I’ve been granted an unexpected chance, the time to think.

Perhaps something even more than that. After 38 years of working life I am now independent. I finally might be in a position to enunciate my own thoughts and feelings about all the crazy things that go on in our wonderful world of golf. Perhaps even in the world at large.

That is a potentially dangerous situation. I know I am a mass of contradictions.

I can equally take the time to really enjoy this marvellous part of the world in which I live. South Devon is lovely, and I can now walk by the sea every day if I wish. I can also spend more time at my home golf club, a little piece of links heaven at Dawlish Warren, the Warren Golf Club.

It’s the only true links course on the south coast between Land’s End and Hayling Island, east of Portsmouth. It’s really old fashioned golf, by modern standards maybe a bit scruffy, but that’s its charm. There genuinely is nothing similar in our part of the world. One of James Braid’s excellent pieces of work, featuring some stunning holes, 7 with the drive across the beach and 18 with the sunken green right next to the railway station. The par 3 8th would fit in on any championship links course in the country. And the rest are pretty good too.

So here I am, with a hot and cold running pc at my behest and a chance to talk about, golf, golfers, golf courses, golf equipment. Lucky boy.