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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Golf Ball Debates Resume

Dustin Johnson's 432-yard "almost a hole-in-one on a par-4" drive at Kapalua's 12th hole Sunday has started the new round of debates over the modern golf ball and how far it flies. GC posted this piece by Randall Mell on Monday that sums up some of the issues.

I must admit that at times I find this all a bit humorous. The history of golf is filled with players who seemed to be ungodly long with a driver, regardless of the ball they used.

Jack Nicklaus in 1966

For example, in an article in The American Golfer (dated 7 May 1921) O.B. Keeler wrote:
BOB JONES is an extremely long hitter. He has been a long hitter since he was thirteen years old. At Merion, in the national championship of 1916, Bob being then fourteen, he drove some of the longest tee-shots in that tournament, and, incidentally, traveled thirty holes against Frank Dyer in a matter of four strokes under 4's, if my memory is not at fault—the best stretch of golf shot in that tournament. He hit one or two tee-shots of better than three hundred yards. [p7]
Hmmm... a 14-year-old Bobby Jones could hit one of those old Haskell rubber balls -- essentially a balata ball -- over 300 yards with a persimmon-headed, hickory-shafted driver that would have been about two inches or so shorter than the current standard. And Jones was only around 5'10", about Rory McIlroy's height. Interesting.

Even more interesting is an article Keeler wrote in the same magazine later that year, in the 17 December 1921 issue, the tenth in a series called Why These Fads and Fancies? titled simply Ballistics. Here is a short section of that article, which began on page 13 and continued on page 30:
Recently we have got the golf ball in our power in at least one direction—we have the wretched thing standardized. That is, it must not weigh more than a certain weight (1.62 ounce); and it must not be smaller than a certain diameter, which I think is that same amount in inches; while it can be as much lighter or as much larger as desired—which doesn't appear to be much.

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.

The Royal and Ancients and other golf arbiters decided something ought to be done about it—steps should be taken, resolutions adopted; measures taken, or something. It turned out to be measures; weights and measures, you might say. And now we have the standardized golf ball, with no especial sacrifice of power, velocity or range, if the advertisements may be credited.

As a matter of fact, they stopped the revision of the ball downward right about where it was; I think that a few brands were a shade smaller and a shade heavier than the present standard; but I do not recall a season with more punishment administered to long-hitting records than the past one.

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.

Six hundred yards will, for the nonce, remain the approximate limit — that is to say, a drive and two screaming brassies for the gentler players to get in pitching distance; for it generally is agreed that a brassie shot should not be expected to scream unless it travels more than one hundred and fifty yards.
Bear in mind, this was written in 1921. It laments the (at that time) extreme distances which the ball traveled -- note that a 600-yard hole was considered "the approximate limit" at that time, although there weren't many of them. Note that Keeler says that others before him have lamented that the situation would be even worse!

And in the modern day? A 2013 Golf Magazine article said there were 20 holes over 600 yards on the PGA Tour and included pictures of the ten longest, the longest being the 667-yard first hole at Firestone.

So, despite all the advances in golf ball design, club design, course architecture, agronomy and player size -- that last is rarely mentioned as a significant change, although I would expect 6'4" DJ to hit the ball a bit longer than most players who weren't that tall! -- despite all that, the longest hole on Tour was still only 60-some yards longer than in 1921. (Please note that, while there are longer holes in the world, they aren't par-5s.)

And other players besides Jones have been long hitters despite using "inferior" equipment. Jack Nicklaus -- the above photo comes from 1966 -- won the 1963 PGA Championship at the Dallas Athletic Club by two shots. In the long drive competition held on Wednesday that week, Jack won with a 341-yard drive. Like Jones, Jack used a balata ball and persimmon-headed driver, albeit with a steel shaft. (I found that info in both this USA Today article -- where I got the photo above -- and Wikipedia's article on the 1963 PGA.)

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not arguing either for or against how far the ball travels. Personally I'd like to see something done to keep the older courses in play. Longtime readers of this blog may remember a 2009 post called Why Not a Par 67 Course? where I suggested the (apparently) blasphemous idea that par is a relatively meaningless concept and we could set it at any number we chose. These days I don't think that would make any difference, simply because Tour events have become so large that those courses don't have enough room for all the tents and parking and such.

I'll leave those debates to the analysts and officials who get paid to debate such things.

I suspect the powers-that-be will have to put a lid on development eventually -- longer courses are simply becoming economically and ecologically unfeasible these days. But it seems to me that, when you consider just the basic issue of distance, the golf ball debate hasn't changed much in at least a century. The pros have always been cited as "proof" that the ball flies too far, while the average amateur can't even drive the ball 200 yards consistently.

Perhaps this says less about the equipment and more about our inability to make a simple swinging motion with a club.

But whatever else it means, I guess we can look forward to an increased battle over golf ball standards this year. And that's about par for the course.

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