Technology Eludes ‘Tiger-Proofing’

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    By Geoffrey Paulsen

    Twenty years ago, a good drive by a PGA Tour professional was about 250 yards. Today, a casual golfer can drive in excess of 300 yards.

    In the days of Jack Nicklaus, driver heads weren”t much larger than the golf ball. Now golf clubs dwarf golf balls, measuring more than twice the size of old clubs.

    What”s the difference? Technology.

    “Technology has definitely changed the game,” BYU men”s head golf coach Bruce Brockbank said. “Now the heads are so huge it”s hard to make a mistake.”

    Brockbank remembers playing collegiate golf in the early ”80s and using a wooden driver, but today he can hit it farther than he ever did thanks to the equipment that is available.

    “At some point they will have to do something,” he said.

    The “they” to which Brockbank was referring is the United States Golf Association, which is the governing body for most tournaments on the PGA Tour. They could make a change in their rules, further restricting equipment as early as 2007. Fred Ridley, President of the USGA from 2004-2005, addressed the situation very candidly in a letter dated June 2005.

    “The debate about distance, and in particular the distance the best players in the world are now hitting the golf ball, is not new,” Ridley said. “It has been constant for more than 100 years. The USGA believes it is important that the major constituencies in the game be well informed.”

    Golf distance has become an issue in the past couple of decades, particularly the driving distance of the pros, due to the improvement in technology. Ten years ago, the average driving distance on the tour was 288.8 yards by John Daly. So far in 2006, the average is 320.1 yards by relatively unknown golfer Bubba Watson. When Daly led the tour in driving distance, he was 30-years-old. Watson is now 28 and listed as 180 pounds, giving up 40 pounds to Daly, and still hitting the ball almost 40 yards farther. Ten years after Daly led the tour in driving distance, he himself has also increased his distance, ranking fifth in 2005 with an average of 304.9 yards per drive.

    “This increase was due to several factors,” Ridley said. “Higher spring effect in drivers; larger clubheads with larger sweet spots; more forgiving clubs that allow the accomplished players to swing harder; higher swing speeds due primarily to increased athleticism but also to longer, lighter clubs; development of balls with lower spin rates and improved aerodynamic properties; and use of advanced launch monitors to match clubs, shafts, and balls to an individual player”s swing.”

    Similarly, in longest drive statistics the length has skyrocketed in the last decade. In 1996 the longest drive of the year was by Ernie Els at a distance of 374 yards. This year, after only a few events on the PGA Tour, the longest drive is a staggering 427 yards by Jason Gore. Gore has two other drives reaching over 400 yards; all three are in the top-10.

    “The underlying philosophy is to assure that skill – not technology – remains the dominant factor in playing golf,” Ridley said in his letter.

    One of the major problems with the increasing in length for the average golfer is that courses are now becoming longer.

    Six of the 18 holes at Augusta National in Augusta, Ga., the host of the annual Masters tournament, have been lengthened. In total, they have added 155 yards this year to make the overall course 7,445 yards — more than 500 yards longer than it was when golf superstar Tiger Woods won for the first time in 1997.

    Lengthening golf courses has become commonly referred to as “Tiger-proofing” because of Woods” ability to hit the long ball. Classic courses would measure around 6,400 yards, but new courses have become much longer. For example, Thanksgiving Point”s new golf course, which opened in 1997, measures 7,714 yards, significantly more than other courses in Utah.Myatt Green, assistant professional at Thanksgiving Point, said that he didn”t think the distance of the course was based on the technology of golf equipment, but instead because of the altitude.

    Joe Watts, Utah Golf Association”s Executive Director, said that he has not noticed equipment causing a significant drop in scores for the majority of golfers in Utah.

    “Perhaps we”ve got more low handicappers now, but I don”t think we will see it help the average golfer,” Watts said.

    Watts did acknowledge that equipment possibly has helped some people perform that could not otherwise play.

    “Seniors can hit it a little farther and that may keep them in the game a little longer than they would normally,” he said. “It has a way of keeping it interesting for some people.”

    BYU junior Clay Ogden said that equipment is always changing and serious players are getting new equipment constantly.

    “I would say some people change drivers one or two times a year,” Ogden said.

    Technology is not the only factor that is making for lower scores on the tour. One big argument against restriction is that athleticism, not technology, is the most prominent change in golfers.

    “Golf is progressing more towards an athletic sport,” Woods said in a recent PGA.com interview. “Guys are in shape or trying to get in shape; they are more fit, more flexible and have more speed. That”s attributed to some of the distance numbers you”ve seen.”

    It is true that athleticism is up in the PGA. Golfers today look like they could suit up for the Raiders” defensive line. They are long past the days of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, with golfers now being able to bench press 300-pounds, and working with personal trainers, massage therapists and sports psychologists.

    The top three money winners on the PGA Tour in 2005-Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson-finished in 188th, 147th and 161st in driving accuracy, respectively; proof that power is what matters on the tour.

    The National Golf Course Owners Association is one group that has openly called for restrictions on golf club and golf ball technology, but not because of the popular opinion that it causes the game to become easier, but because it increases danger, cost, and land use.

    The American Society of Golf Course Architects has joined them in their concern for the technology golf equipment is reaching. They estimate that golf courses built today need 20 percent more land to accommodate for the balls that are not only hit farther, but also more off line.

    “The additional land acquisition, construction and maintenance costs must then be passed along to the course owner and player,” they said in a press release.

    This trend can even be seen in Utah.

    “(Thanksgiving Point) is more expensive compared to most courses around here,” Green said.

    Some courses have taken a different route to make it more difficult by narrowing the fairways and growing out the rough to force players to hit a straight shot instead of pure distance.

    Watts said that this increase in distance has not had a large effect on Utah golfers and the quality of courses in the area.

    “I think that Utah golfers are satisfied with the golf courses because of the variety,” Watts said. “Some people complain about the length and that the tees are too far from the greens to walk, but there is so much variety in the courses that they don”t have to play a course they don”t like.”

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