It’s only small — 1.68 inches in diameter — but it has always been a big issue in golf. Almost from the day that the first Scottish shepherd picked up a stick and whacked a wee stone across a field, there have been disputes about golf balls.
As far back as the 1840s, the legendary figure that was Old Tom Morris lost his job working for the man reputed to be the game’s first professional, Allan Robertson. A devotee of the then traditional feathery, Robertson was less than pleased to see his then still youngish assistant bashing a new-fangled gutta-percha ball around the Old Course at St Andrews.
“I had been playing with a Mr Campbell of Saddell,” Old Tom said to HSC Everard in 1905. “And I had the misfortune to lose all my supply of balls. Mr Campbell kindly gave me a gutta to try. I took to it at once and, as we were playing in, it so happened that we met Allan Robertson coming out, and someone told him I was playing a very good game with one of the new gutta balls. I could see from the expression on his face that he did not like it at all.
“When we met afterwards, we had some high words about the matter and there and then we parted company, I leaving his employment.”
Today, rather than the type of ball being used, it is the lengths leading professionals can hit drives that is provoking the most heated debate in the game. The subject of distance has dominated much of the off-course chatter during the US Open at Erin Hills, a course measuring close to 8,000-yards.
By way of example, defending champion Dustin Johnson rounded off his disappointing week on Friday evening by hitting his second shot over the green at the 676-yard par-5 18th. That is not a misprint.
To many, that sort of power-hitting shows that golf — perhaps the only sport where the integrity of the venues has been compromised in order to “protect” the equipment — has lost its way.
“It used to be, 30 years ago, I could play with the club champion at a course and he had a good chance of beating me,” contends four-time US Open champion Jack Nicklaus.
“Playing basically the same game. Playing a ball that didn’t go very far. We were playing tees that were maybe 10 yards apart and I might out-drive him by another 15. But it wasn’t a big deal. He knew the course and might beat me.
“Today, can you imagine a club champion going out and playing a 7,500-yard course with Dustin and beating him? Not a chance in this world. The game has changed. The game has gone beyond being able to relate back to the people relating to the professionals. And that’s a shame.”
Such strong views are shared by many of the game’s luminaries. But not by the game’s rules-making authorities — publicly at least. Citing their so-called “Joint Statement of Principles,” the United States Golf Association and the R&A claim driving distances are not increasing significantly.
The numbers, however, do not lie. Halfway through this 117th US Open, as many as 116 players were averaging more than 300-yards off the tee.
“It can be argued that the pros don’t play the same game we do,” acknowledges Mike Davis, chief executive of the USGA.
“And the difference between them and us has certainly never been bigger. So that’s a good argument. And we certainly understand those points of view in favour of bifurcating some of the rules of golf, particularly the ones that regulate equipment.
“On the other hand, there would be several problems associated with bifurcating, with ‘where do you draw the line?’ being one of the most basic.
“Bifurcation would also likely cause a breakdown in the traditions of the game and not allow golfers to compare themselves with other golfers. We already have handicap systems and different teeing grounds to help golfers of varying abilities compete and compare.”
Still, as Nicklaus underlined, the difference between amateur and professional has never been more marked. So hasn’t bifurcation already occurred, largely because of the inactivity of the rules-making bodies?
“The amateurs and the pros play totally different games,” agrees leading swing coach Pete Cowen. “And the gap is massive and getting bigger all the time. Amateurs play golf because it is supposed to be fun. If it’s not, they won’t play. It’s not supposed to be purgatory.
“Look at some of the bunkers we have nowadays. Amateurs are generally poor from sand, but bunkers are getting deeper and bigger. They can’t get out. It’s madness. And that’s why people are leaving the game. Amateurs should be allowed to use pretty much anything that makes the game more fun. The rules are too often too penal for those who simply want to enjoy the game.”
The growing gap between short and long has also created huge problems for course architects faced with where to place hazards that will challenge all types of player.
“The solution is simple: roll back the ball,” says former European Tour player Mike Clayton, now a respected course designer in partnership with former US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
“I ask myself why that has not been done and my conclusion is that the administrators are idiots. That’s unfair, I know. But they have cowered before the threat of lawsuits from equipment manufacturers, who have no right to dictate how the game is played. Their aim is to create a ball that Adam Scott can fly onto the first green at St Andrews. That’s why they exist.
“That’s what they want to do — create a ball that flies 400-yards through the air. At some point though, the game has to create boundaries for these people. No one has yet.”
And, sadly, it remains doubtful if anyone ever will. Allan Robertson would be appalled.
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