Thursday 8 November 2012

The Fetish of Length

The objective in golf has always been the same, to get the ball into the hole in the fewest strokes possible.  However, the equipment by which we achieve this aim has changed dramatically over the sport's history.  The benefits of technological improvements in golf are not realized equally amongst all players.  With each successive wave of technological "progress", the gap between the professional game and the average golfer widens.  This has also made the job of golf course architects more difficult, as it becomes increasingly tough to present both an adequate challenge for top amateur or professional play and remain an enjoyable experience for the novice player and the many classes of golfer in between.  Golf faces three major obstacles to growth; cost, time and difficulty.  Longer golf courses only exasperate these obstacles and help to hinder the growth of golf.

Take a look at the annual driving average statistics on the PGA Tour and we see a dramatic change between 1980-2012.  Dan Pohl, who led the tour in length of the tee in 1980, would rank 186th this year, 41 yards behind Bubba Watson.  This 15% increase translates into a 6,700 yard design of yesteryear being stretched to 7,700 yards to accommodate today's game.  Over the same period of time, average handicaps of amateur golfers have remained constant, meaning the improved technology is disproportionately benefitting the professional and top amateur ranks.  Many modern tour professionals have adopted a "bomb-and-gouge" mentality because they can hit drives to within wedge yardages on most par 4's.  Accuracy is no longer as important as it used to be when the range in driving distance wasn't so large.  This makes it more difficult for shorter players to compete and out-play their longer competitors with better accuracy and course management.  The game of golf is very difficult, and that can be intimidating to beginners.  Improved technology isn't making the game easier for these players, nor for the mid-to-high handicappers, and therefore, isn't helping to grow the game.

Golf has always been an expensive game, and modern equipment technology is doing nothing to improve the situation.  The cost of equipment alone ($600 drivers and $5 golf balls) is enough to deter many people from taking up the sport.  Another consequence of the additional length the golf ball is travelling can be found in golf course construction and renovation costs.  It seemed for ages that new golf courses could comfortably fit on a 150 acre parcel of land, but now 200 acres seems to be a more desirable size.  Many owners want back tees in excess of 7,000 yards with some courses exceeding 8,000 yards in the most extreme instances (Erin Hills).  This addition yardage translates into added cost of land, and material and labour outlays for tree clearing, topsoil stripping and spreading, shaping, irrigation, cart paths and seeding.  Grow-in and annual maintenance budgets also need to be increased.  Considering the tiny percentage of players who will use these back tees, it does not make financial sense to keep up with modern technology.  Unfortunately, the additional costs of excessive length are paid by all golfers and contribute to higher green fees and annual dues.  With cost a major issue confronting the growth of golf, modern technology is again not helping to improve the situation.  Further, another problem caused by pursuing added length on existing golf courses in the potential loss of great architectural work.  The perfect situation, financially and architecturally, is to find suitable locations for new back tees thereby eliminating the need to relocate fairway bunkers and green complexes.  Sadly, many of the great golf courses of the world have tinkered with their masterpieces to accommodate a professional tournament that visits the facility for one week per year or appease the handful of scratch members who want to keep up with neighbouring golf facilities.

Finally, it is obvious that a longer golf course will add to the length of time it takes to complete a round of golf, especially if middle tees aren't located in close proximity to the preceeding green and require a substantial walk forward after each hole.  Even if the most commonly used tees are located so as to limit the length of walk, you can only play as fast as the group ahead of you, and if they decide to play the back tees, you are in for a longer day at the golf course.  Once again, modern technology is not helping people play the game quicker, and are in fact contributing to a slower pace of play.

The golf equipment manufacturers have been producing golf balls, shafts and drivers that are posing serious threats to the health of golf.  Golf's governing bodies have not been aggressive enough at regulating technology and golf courses have not been resistant enough to the pressures of the professional and elite amateur game.  We are way past imposing limits on equipment technology and need some form of roll-back to ensure the game has a vibrant future.  We need to make certain that shot-making and finesse are required elements of the game, and distance is not overly rewarded.  Some form of balance is needed to restore the spirit of the game.