Debating technology in golf


Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Geoff Shackelford

Golf 's current technology debate is generally approached from one of three viewpoints.

There are those who shrug the whole thing off to progress. They share a remarkable tendency to have secured lucrative contracts from equipment manufacturers. Or they simply haven't given much thought to the ramifications of lengthening and narrowing courses to offset the recent 'optimisation of launch conditions,' a phenomenon that has made the 300-yard drive common for highly skilled players.

Then there are those who agree with the progress argument, but add that we must draw the line now. This group includes the R&A, who, along with the USGA, fell asleep at the wheel and only woke up when the Old Course and other gems ran out of additional yardage. (Just imagine how the R&A will feel when the ninth and tenth holes at St Andrews play as long par threes during the Open Championship).

And then there are the "ranting killjoys" as one Golf World (US) writer called us, foaming-at-the-mouth traditionalists who insist that something should have been done a while ago and that technology is not improving the game.

What is it about us that makes us so certain that faulty equipment regulation has been a huge mistake for golf? We share an interest in golf architecture. In fact, anyone who has even the slightest concern about the effects of longer flying golf balls has seen the reaction of technology at courses around the globe: shrunken fairway widths, goofy tree plantings, relocated bunkers and over-the-top setups are employed to take away the option to overpower a course.

Architects and course operators have seen even more perverse effects. Courses are dealing with safety issues where they never previously existed. As a result, liability insurance is on the rise. And pace of play has been affected, with logjams occurring because more players are waiting to drive greens or reach par fives in two.

Those who are outraged by this state of affairs came to the realisation that it is outrageous to ask our courses to adjust to changes in the game that were caused by rulemaking cowardice.

One of the excuses frequently used to shield the progressive view preaches that this same debate took place a century ago, and thus, it's just part of golf.

True. But consider golf writer emeritus Bernard Darwin's epiphany on this issue. In a 1911 Times commentary, he wrote: "Improvements (or whatever we may care to call the alterations) will continue to be made in the ball, and the drives will grow longer and longer. How long they will be a hundred years hence is a subject which provokes imagination sufficient to make the brain reel. Still we can leave the golfers of a century hence to take care of themselves."

By 1923, Darwin seemed to realise that his previous take was somewhat selfish. "The question of the limitation of the golf ball's power seems once more to be coming into the realm of realities," Darwin wrote. "I do not greatly care about helping either the man who hits the ball up or keeps it down. I do want to help the man who objects to walking 7,000 yards in the course of a game of golf.

"At the beginning of the 19th century, there were on the Links of Leith but five holes and each of the five was between 400 and 500 yards long.Men played then with feather balls. Corresponding holes with the modern ball would be between 600 and 700 yards long. I suppose three rounds of the five holes constituted a match. Just think of fifteen holes all over 600 yards! Doubtless the men of Leith were heroes. Nevertheless I do not desire to relapse into their state of heroic barbarism."

By 1936, he'd seen enough. "The architects have done nobly; they have fought the good fight, but it ought not to be a fight. The fact that it threatens to become so is the fault of the ball."

Golf faces a dilemma even greater than in Darwin's day. Thankfully, more and more people have become aware of the problem, just as Darwin did. They realise that we can't continue to ask our courses to grow in length and narrow in width to offset advances in distance. And they are beginning to realise that we must put an end to this mad pursuit for ten more yards so that we return width, options, character and balance to this great sport.

Geoff Shakelford is the author of The Future of Golf: How Golf Lost Its Way and How To Get It Back (Sasquatch Books) and Lines of Charm: Brilliant and Irreverent Notes, Quotes and Anecdotes From Golf's Golden Age Architects (Sports Media Group). For more information, please visit Geoff's website.

This article first appeared in issue 1 of Golf Course Architecture, published in July 2005.