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Saturday, September 3, 2016

“The More Things Change…”

“…the more they stay the same.” You’ve heard that saying before, I’m sure. Basically it means that, while circumstances may change, people’s reactions to them remain fairly predictable.

You may remember a book review I did a few weeks back for Trials and Triumphs of Golf’s Greatest Champions by Lyle Slovick. He dropped me an email to thank me for the review and, since he is, among other things, a consultant to the USGA and a historian, I told him about my classic swing studies and asked if he had any advice about where I might find more info. So much of what I’m looking for is over a century old, it’s not easy to find copies of the magazines and such.

I guess he gets that kind of question a lot. With a little direction from him, I’ve gotten access to some old magazines from the early 1900s. For now I’ve been focusing on The American Golfer, which began in 1908, and I’ve been surprised at many of the things I’ve found. I’ll share some of them in some future posts, because it’s just so fascinating.

For example, no less than the legendary O.B. Keeler – you know, the guy who chronicled the career of Bobby Jones – wrote a series of articles called Why These Fads and Fancies? that dealt with problems facing golfers of the day. They were done with some obvious humor, but the articles clearly explain why these problems were a concern. And in the
21 December 1921 issue I found one of those articles that dealt with the problem of golf balls that were too long.

Yes, you read that correctly. By 1921 there was already a feeling among some of the big names that golf balls were flying too far. So the USGA and the R&A set some standards for weight and size that year (although the exact size remained a bit of an issue until 1990, with a slight difference of .06 inches between the two groups). To quote Keeler:
It seems we were tending toward a pellet about the size of an old-fashioned quinine pill, with a soupcon of radium in it, or something to give it a range that would result in the scrapping of all our standard golf courses and making them over on the Great Plains of the Middle West or the Desert of Sahara, or somewhere where there was more room.
Sound familiar? And lest you think that’s just a coincidence, listen to the numbers he gives as he continues:
So the golf courses are saved, it seems; and we moderate players won't have to battle our way with a drive and five screaming brassies to get in range of the eight hundred and nine hundred and thousand-yard holes, predicted not so long ago by the more excitable pessimists as the logical outgrowth of the smaller and heavier and higher-powered projectiles turned out year by year.
That was 95 years ago, in the days of hickory shafts and hard-cored rubber balls – equipment that we now consider ‘primitive’ – and there were already predictions that holes would reach 800+ yards using THAT technology. Amazing, isn’t it?

The new 1921 standards set a minimum size and maximum weight because, as Keeler notes, smaller and heavier balls traveled farther than larger and lighter ones. (He also talks about the wake caused by dimples that stabilizes a ball in flight. Yes, modern reader, golf ball aerodynamics WERE known back then!) He then goes on to give a brief history of golf ball evolution and why distance increased along the way. At the time, players could still buy larger and lighter balls (Keeler calls them floaters), which he said several of the top players still recommended as being better for weekend golfers.

Keeler laments that the weekend golfers of his day continued to choose the balls that their favorite pros used, even though, as he says:
To extract the long flight tightly wound up in a high-powered golf ball, it must be hit firmly and truly and with a distinct and decisive kick; in a word, correctly and hard.
And while the psychology of today’s players hasn’t changed – they want to play what the big boys play, and expect to get the same results – it appears the approach of today’s manufacturers hasn’t changed either:
The fascination of the new ballistics was by no means restricted to players of golf. The manufacturers, after catching their breath, started out on an orgy of experimental production. They put nearly everything inside the rubber strands to serve as a core—everything from soft-soap and plain cooking water to some kind of acid that ruined the eyes of inquisitive children who cut into the missiles or bit them open. They made the balls smaller and wound the strands tighter, and Ted Ray and Abe Mitchell and others hit them farther and farther, until finally the legislative powers took hold of the situation to save the golf courses from further stretching, and for other purposes, as the conventional legislative bills recite.
Of course, a century later, we have some different choices available to us. While we can’t buy balls that are different sizes or weights, manufacturers have figured out how to “tune” golf balls to various types of swings and they try to get players to use the correct ball for their game. We have all sorts of regulations that those manufacturers have to meet, and those regs control aspects of the golf ball (and the clubs themselves, for the same distance control reasons) that many of us didn’t even know existed.

Nevertheless, many of the big names in the game continue to worry about the same things they did a century ago. I was amazed by that. You would think that such thinking would have evolved along with the golf ball, as courses didn’t become obsolete despite the ball’s ever-lengthening nature. And even in our time, the problem may not be so much that courses are too short as that we expect them to be too short. Who said that par HAS to be 71 or 72 strokes, and that 14 of those strokes MUST be made with the driver?

I do think that limiting the golf ball might be valuable because then we could reduce the size of golf courses, making them more economically and environmentally desirable in a number of ways. Shorter courses would require less land, less water, less upkeep, perhaps fewer clubs and hopefully less time to play. All of that could make golf more pocketbook-friendly – a necessity if we really want to “grow the game.” But I digress…

Keeler ended his article this way:
A few more yards on the drive, maybe even fifteen or twenty, is what the expert gets out of the heavy, highpowered ball now known as the standard. The duffer and I believe the average player get little except aggravation of the spirit and an occasional long wallop, when he happens accidentally to catch it just right.

It may be out of the province of ballistics to say so, but I believe that a vast majority of golfers would play better golf with a larger, lighter, and more durable ball than the new standard.
That last paragraph, taken in context of the entire article, could be seen as a plea to weekend golfers not to be (if you’ll pardon the pun) so driven to hit the ball longer. Perhaps if Keeler were writing today, his article would have focused on our ever-present obsession with distance, the length of the golf ball merely being a result of that obsession.

But if he had, we probably wouldn’t listen. After all, it’s been 95 years. And the more things change…

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