The history of golf, much like history in general, repeats itself. We like to think that the issues we experience today are unique to the now, when in fact they have been repeated over and over through time.
One of these cyclical arguments has been over how far the golf ball goes. While that argument goes back to the age of the gutta percha golf ball (1850-1900), that spark met gasoline when Coburn Haskell invented the ball that changed the game of golf in 1899 – the Haskell ball. The invention of the Haskell ball either destroyed the game of golf, or it transformed it, depending on which side of the argument you believed in. This invention represented the single biggest jump in technology in the history of golf, and perhaps in all of sports. Within the space of six years every golfer who played the game picked up between 30-50 yards off the tee and every golf course in the world quickly became obsolete. The Haskell ball disrupted the sport, which was both destructive, but also helped give birth to the Golden Age of golf course architecture. It was in many ways, the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to the game – and it was allowed to happen with only a quiet and brief debate on whether it was right.
This argument over the distance good players can hit the ball has echoed through the halls of the game since 1899, but not since 1930 have those echoes been so profound. We now live in the age of science – in the age where the people who design the golf clubs and balls are no longer golf professionals, but rather the men and women whose jobs were to put astronauts into space. Couple aerospace engineering with a technology that was designed to be a ‘death ray’ in WWII (radar), and we have the technology that supports Trackman that allows the best golfers in the world to get even better and, in the case of this argument, even longer. The debate we have today is slightly different from the debate of years past, because 99 per cent of the golfers in the world play one game and the other one per cent play another. The technology of today’s game disproportionally benefits the elite golfer over the duffer.
The first question we in the golf community need to answer is ‘do we care?’ According to Golf Monthly the average golfer hits the ball 220 yards and the average five handicap or better hits their drive 250 yards. I don’t think anyone would argue that those numbers will overwhelm the strategic elements of your golf course. But at the highest level of the game those numbers swing in a different direction. According to data collected by the PGA Tour, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour increases about one yard per year. Doesn’t sound too extreme but let’s think of those gains in the career timeline of our generation’s greatest golfer, Tiger Woods. Since Tiger Woods turned professional, the average driving distance on tour went from 267 yards to 295 yards, a change of 28 yards. In that last 40 years the average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased 50 yards! What Coburn Haskell accomplished in six years we have taken 40 years to match – a gain of 50 yards – and just like 1905, our game (at least at the professional level) has come to a crossroads. So, what do we do?
Fortunately, we have been down this path before and according to history we have two paths – do nothing, or roll back technology.
Path one – the ruling bodies of golf do nothing. They allow technology to change the game like they did in 1899 and we all forge forward into the great unknown. Unlike 1899 and the invention of the Haskell ball, the average golfer (the 99 per cent) has yet to reap the beneficial gifts that have been designed for the elite golfer. We play the game, we play our courses and we push back the catcalls to add distance to our courses because the tour level golfers don’t play here. Path one does however pose serious problems for the professional golf tours and perhaps their long-term viability. When does professional golf become too monotonous to watch? Will viewers and spectators ever get bored with the driver-wedge approaches into every hole (including par fives)? Golf at the professional level in this uninhibited form will have to adapt, and some of these adaptations have already occurred under our very noses.
Today, much like the early years of the Haskell, par is changing. In the United States for instance, when Oakmont Country Club was founded in 1903, the ‘par’ for the course was considered 80. Today it sits nine strokes less. Would the golfing public be willing to accept an Open Championship at the Old course with a par of 63? If the answer is no, then perhaps we take the suggestion of three-time major winner Chick Evans who in the 1920s proposed that there should only be two major championship venues for the US Open – two courses that were built long enough and hard enough to fend off the greatest golfers in the world. If we took Chick’s approach, the elite golfers of the world would abandon our classic courses – our immortal venues like the Old course, Carnoustie, Oakmont and Winged Foot would be relics of golf professionals past – and build 9,000-yard behemoths on both sides of the pond that could give the best golfers in the world a true par 72 to play on. Or we stay on this current path – we remove the strategic elements of our classic designs, we add trees or grow up the rough and make our fairways the width of bowling alleys and pray that next year the best golfers can’t drive the green.
Path two – the ruling bodies in golf roll back the technology. The last time the ruling bodies took action on the distance debate was in 1930. In 1930, the USGA decided that it would break away from the R&A and roll back the golf ball on its own. When many of us think back on the hickory era of golf (1900-1930) we conjure up images of men in plus fours (‘knickers’, in the US) barely hitting the ball out of their shadow. This is a false narrative; Bobby Jones was known for hitting 300-yard drives in his prime. In his book, Down the Fairway, Jones recounts: “I remember that at the eleventh hole, Charlie Hall – the famous Birmingham slugger – with whom I was paired, got away with a 360-yard drive and I nearly matched it with one of 340 yards; the two pokes aggregated just 700 yards. And I got a longer one, potentially at the fourteenth hole of the same round, where the drive goes straight against a sharply ascending hillside leading up to the green, 340 yards away. With no help whatever in roll, my shot there was just off the corner of the green.”
Or you can compare two famous drives from the 1930 US Amateur vs the 1950 US Open at Merion. We all know that Ben Hogan hit that famous one iron into the 72nd green at the 1950 US Open. Did you know that 20 years prior, Bobby Jones played from that exact tee box and only needed a wedge into the 72nd green? Such was the condition of the game in the late 1920s – the ball was going too far in the eyes of many. ‘How?’ you may ask – the golf ball.
In 1931 the USGA took action, and in the eyes of the author took a path that our ruling bodies are considering today – the USGA increased the size (diameter of the ball) and reduced the weight. In 1931 the USGA effectively banned the small/heavy ball (1.62 inches and 1.62 ounces) of the 1920s and regulated that the size and weight had to be 1.68 inches in diameter and 1.55 ounces in weight. In the words of the USGA, “Primarily the idea of the new ball is to reduce the incessant clamour for distance, which has resulted in lengthening some courses to 7,000 yards.”
The ball was quickly demonised by some professional golfers as well as the press as the ‘balloon ball’ despite the support of Bobby Jones (who coincidentally retired the year prior). Articles with very little evidence suggested the new ball “adds ten strokes to the average man’s score.” In short time the USGA’s first rollback of the golf ball was doomed and in fact it didn’t make it a full year – by November of 1931 the USGA modified the size and weight regulations of the golf ball to our modern standard of 1.68 inches in diameter and 1.62 ounces in weight.
No matter the direction our ruling bodies take, we are bound to repeat history – we will either do nothing like we did with the Haskell ball or we will roll back technology like we did in 1931, or even bifurcate the rules of golf like we did permitting the use of laser range finders for amateur golfers. No matter the direction, history tells us that some of us will be happy and some of us will be mad, but regardless all of us will continue to play this marvellous game.
Connor Lewis is the founder of the Society of Golf Historians, presents the TalkinGolf History podcast and is a board member of the Golf Heritage Society
This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.