JACK NICKLAUS HAS BEEN talking about it for years but, surely, now is the time to grasp the nettle. The two longest drives recorded on the USPGA Tour so far this year are 409 yards, whilst Bubba Watson was longest in 2014 with an effort of 424 yards. Nicklaus firmly maintains that it is time manufacturers did something about the golf ball.
For big name producers such as Acushnet, which makes Titleist; Callaway, Bridgestone and Nike their reluctance is understandable, as what the successful professionals are playing with today willing consumers will be playing tomorrow. The only problem is that most of us amateurs do not hit the ball anywhere near as far as the pros with, if statistics are to be believed, the average male golfer in the UK hitting his drive 214 yards, and many would question if this figure were not erring on the high side.
But assuming that 214 yards is right then all courses will present a fair test irrespective of which tees we peg up our ball. This is most certainly not the case in professional golf.
The ball, Nicklaus says, is making almost all courses obsolete for professional tournaments. Augusta National is probably the only club that can spend what is needed to continue lengthening their course and, if rumour is correct, is already looking to acquire adjoining land in order to achieve this. ‘Nobody else has that kind of money,’ Nicklaus added.
This will rule out Merion GC, which was thought to be too short to host the U.S. Open in 2013 despite delivering a wonderful tournament.
And the same goes for the UK when it comes to choosing Open Championship venues. The Old Links at St Andrews has already had to undertake the bizarre measure of putting the tee-box of the Road Hole in the next-door driving range, as the most difficult hole on the course is no longer tough enough for long-hitting professionals.
The 101st longest drive measured on the US Tour this year is 375 yards. Even though the Road Hole has been extended from 455 yards to 495 yards it is now little more more than a drive and a short iron unless the wind is howling. Many professionals competing in the Open at St Andrews this year should be able to drive four of the par fours including the last, and the only reason they do not drive the first is because of the Silken Burn in front of the green.
Nicklaus says, ‘The game has changed so much because of the golf ball. If they would switch back, all of the 17,000 courses that are obsolete would be championship courses again.’
What would make sense is to modify the professional’s tournament ball so that it did not go so far, but the manufacturers are having none of this division. Wally Uilhein, CEO of Acushnet, who refers to the possible split in production as ‘bifurcation’, says, ‘We have never supported the position of bifurcation. Playing by one set of rules, playing the same game, playing the same course and playing the same equipment is what makes golf different. It is the essence of the game.’
Odd then, that when the Titleist Pro VIX ball was released in 2009 there was a PGA tour-only ball available and another for the rest of the market. A Titleist press release advised, ‘They are not planned to be sold commercially.’
Given that when Jack Nicklaus started his professional career most drives were between 220 and 230 yards and now the longest are almost double that, ruling out so many fine courses for tournaments, it seems hard to understand how ball modification and bifurcation, even by making it fly 10% less far, can be ignored for much longer.