The Effect of New Equipment

The following was adapted from writing in Routing the Golf Course, by Forrest Richardson (©John Wiley & Sons, 2002)

It is true that some golfers are hitting the ball farther these days. I suspect that the term these days will apply no matter the year in which this paragraph is read. As equipment improves, it increases the likelihood of a golf ball traveling farther down a fairway. What has not necessarily improved is the golfer. I know this because the last group I was paired with had a healthy investment in golf clubs but no investment in improvement. They hit the ball with zest. It went far. And mostly, when it went far, it also went far off line.

The down side of balls traveling farther, whether from better club engineering or better ball design, is that golf courses are difficult to change — especially in terms of length. If we route courses with safety considerations in mind and we strive to be efficient in land use, where do we find extra length? Do we buy someone's backyard and plop a tee where the swimming pool used to be? Do we extend a green right up to the fence and forget the rule that says there should be about 100 feet from that line to the edge of the green? What do we do about the width of golf corridors?

If we figured that a ball travels 267 yards (800 feet) from the back tee to the angle point of a par-4 or par-5 hole, what do we do when the angle point changes due to length? How do we plan for some future event over which we have no control?

Might all this affect the safety cone and the safety envelope? Sure it will. And I'll tell you what else: It will affect the width, too. If a golf course architect establishes that the width of a corridor should be 350 feet based on a drive of a certain length, this width should be extended as the drive becomes longer.

These are the primary reasons that this issue is so relevant to designing courses. We may be able to shift hazards and tighten fairways later on, but we do not always have the luxury of adding length or the width to accommodate a new length. This is even more true on the many classic layouts where lengthening has occurred over the years and we are simply out of space. It is also costly to change golf courses. This is an important point, and one that ultimately drives the cost of a round or a membership to heights that prevent many from partaking.

The Clubmakers

I spent time discussing the subject of club improvement with John Solheim, president of Karsten Manufacturing of Ping golf club fame. I have known John for many years. He is among the mere handful of golf equipment manufacturing executives who are passionate about the engineering and science of golf. That is refreshing. While I have a good handle on what golf course architects, planners, and developers of golf courses can — or cannot — do with respect to changes in equipment, I felt it appropriate to go to the source. John runs one of the companies that is helping golfers hit longer shots. With great anticipation, I asked John what he felt should be done in the face of longer shots. I wasn't sure what to expect of his answer.

"I feel that we need to find ways to bring back the premium of accuracy. There's no reason to encourage a driver at every par 4 or par 5. There are other tee shots in golf, and they need to be encouraged," he said. "Somehow we need to get people to think it's not macho to simply hit the ball a long way — golf shots need to be accurate. That's a great part of the game."

In some ways, John's comment surprised me. After all, he sells clubs. If consumers want to hit the ball farther at every par 4 or 5, the capitalistic equation says you give them what they want. But, like his father, Karsten Solheim, who founded Ping, John does not think like everyone else. It is his family's cleverness that built Ping into the major force it is today. He remains a voice for innovation and for thinking outside the box. It also occurred to me that Ping's brand is built on the element of accuracy; this is where engineering comes into play. In the early ads for Ping irons — the ugly ones with yellow backgrounds — it was the promise of accuracy that drove the golfer to check them out at the pro shop.

Solheim does point out that one of the attractions of bringing new players into the game is the equipment. "I don't feel we can take that away from young people any more than we would have wanted it taken away from us when we were learning the game and trying out new clubs and balls," he said. "Equipment is a big reason people get excited about golf."

I instantly recalled that many of my fondest memories as a young golfer are of buying a new club with money saved from delivering newspapers, and of trying out a new ball with a different feel. Many of my purchases were — admittedly — for extra length.

In our discussion about length, Solheim and I worked out the mathematics of an 18-hole, par-72 course. On such a layout (that is, one with four par 3s, four par 5s, and ten par 4s), it is expected that the scratch golfer will typically hit 14 full shots off the tee, these are the drives. These shots are expected at each par 4 and each par 5. We then expect that at least 18 shots will be taken from the fairway; these are the second shots on par 5s and all of the approach shots. To round out the full shots — we know that four shots to the par-3 greens will occur. This list of expected shots totals 36. The rest of the strokes are putts — 36 if the scratch golfer shoots par. For a bogey golfer, we can safely say that the extra 18 shots (if this golfer is to shoot a 90 on the par-72 course) will be taken in the fairway or around the green. Assuming that about half of these extra shots will be full shots, it is interesting to conclude that, in a typical round of golf, the big tee shot accounts for about one-third of the total full shots, just one in five of the total strokes.

Primarily, the bulk of concern lies with the big tee shot. How wonderful it would be if we could put a premium on accuracy on at least some of those shots. Wouldn't it be better for clubmakers if there were two or more choices in driving clubs — one for outright length and one for accuracy? If we could divide up those big tee shots, we might be onto something. Solheim is genuine in his commitment to focusing on accuracy. To him, the approach to controlling length needs to be balanced.

The Golf Ball

Most people I spoke with favor some limitation on the golf ball. A usga representative pointed out, quite matter-of-factly, that his organization already does so by publishing and enforcing rules on ball performance. The tone of his voice implied that they would continue to do so. The ball has always been somewhat of a constant. Once the manufacturing of balls went from a cottage industry to factory production, the romance of the ball-making craft was gone; now golf balls are just sold. Golf course routings - both those that have stood the test of time and ones not yet built - will each benefit from a limitation on the performance of golf balls. By the very nature of it being just one thing, instead of 14 like our club selection, it is a far easier target for standardization. Given the choice a golfer would certainly not part with his clubs for they are a personal weapon of sorts. But the ball, so long as it is sturdy and fairly good, can be made a commodity.

The Golfers

Statistics show that the average handicap has not changed substantially in the past 30 years. People vary the challenge of the game depending on the tees they play. A golf architect can design a course that offers great tests and is great fun from all sets of tees, with exciting placement of features and hazards. The problem, of course, is to convince golfers to play from the right tees - that is the set of tees that will suit their game and make the experience enjoyable.

Peter Oosterhuis notes that there will always be Tigers out there. Tour professionals will always make strides to combat a course. That is their job.

The question is, is it entirely bad for the tour professional to be hitting long shots and reaching par 5s in two, or hitting irons from the tee to just in front of par-4 greens? Perhaps it just proves that par as a concept is destined to become meaningless; remember, once there was no concept of an ideal score. What would it be like if the long-hitting professional played into more greens from the tee than on the typical four par-3 holes during a round? Maybe we should actually be shortening courses for tournaments instead of lengthening them. This could actually be exciting and interesting. I would certainly rather have Tiger Woods than Joe Blow hitting these long shots into 350-yard par 4s. Tiger will be more accurate, I'll bet, than Joe.

Conclusion

Golf will always be a game of trying to do better. That is the soul of the game. We need to preserve our classic courses, but we must understand that trying to beat them will always be part of the game. I do believe we need to limit equipment — perhaps more than is currently being done — but we still need to allow for the excitement of newness and innovation. A difficult balancing act.

Solheim left me with this thoughtful observation: "Golf is a unique combination of something that's very old mixed with new technologies. It will always be this way, and it's what makes it such an appealing and interesting game."

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