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golf ball roll back

Golfers will ‘soon get over’ not being able to hit the ball as far: A century on, Alister MacKenzie’s words are as relevant as ever

Complaints about rolling the ball back are nothing new. The brains behind Augusta National was writing about it in the 1930s

 

“We have already got to the stage where there is too much walking and too little golf.”

“It would restore much of the old finesse and skill of the game.”

“Golfers are losing the joy of playing the variety of approach shots that were so necessary in the old days.”

They are phrases that could come straight out of the mouths of those supporting the R&A and USGA’s proposed new Local Rule which would bring in a competition ball at the very elite levels of the game.

But they are not. Instead, they were written the best part of 100 years ago – by a man whose pride and joy takes global centre stage this week.

You are reading the thoughts of Dr Alister MacKenzie, the architect who designed Augusta National, and which are set down in his once long-lost manuscript The Spirit of St Andrews.

As technology has changed and featheries moved to gutties, gutties to Haskells, through to the relentless modern quest for better aerodynamics and ball flight, commentators have always argued that golf was being ruined by ever increasing distance.

MacKenzie, writing in the final years before his death in 1934 in a work that lay unpublished for more than 60 years, obviously knew a bit about what made the game great. As well as the home of the Masters, he is the creator of Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne, and, a bit closer to home, Alwoodley, Moortown and Lahinch.

And a lot of his views on distance hitting in golf still hold up for many today. He also seemed to be very much ahead of his time.

“Would it not be possible,” he wrote, “to legislate so that every known make of ball has to conform to tests of a ball testing machine? Or in other words, every ball which flew further than the prescribed length would be automatically rejected.”

Golf ball roll back: ‘They would soon get over it’

golf ball roll back

Very Nostradamus. And for TaylorMade, and anyone else worried that shorter hitting is not what either players, or the punters watching, want to see, MacKenzie again had a soothing tone.

“The only objection I can see to limiting the flight of the ball is a purely temporary one. Players at first sight would dislike driving an appreciably shorter distance than they had been accustomed to,” he believed. “They would, however, soon get over this when they found their usual opponents were similarly limited, and particularly when they found they got more golf with less golfing.”

Back in the good doctor’s time, there were two balls. The American, and the slightly smaller, but longer and straighter, British version.

In The Spirit of St Andrews, MacKenzie advocated a ‘floater’ that would be bigger, would sit up on the fairway, be “pleasanter” to hit, would be more easily struck with a wooden club, and would save us from the “tiring backward walks from green to tees in the effort to obtain more length, destroying the interest and strategy of the holes”.

Quite what he’d make of Augusta National’s latest efforts to protect his course by buying up tracts of land to extend the 13th hole, or how the 11th now plays, can be readily imagined.

So if you were in any doubt, he was a “strong believer in limiting the flight of the ball”. He was not against long driving per se – describing it as a virtue that should be rewarded rather than a crime.

But as we reconvene at his masterpiece, a course that more than most has had to adapt to the relentless pace of technology, MacKenzie’s views are a sign that some things really never do change.

Now have your say

What do you think of the golf ball roll back? Is it futile to try and halt the march of technology or do you think soothsayers like Dr Alister MacKenzie have a point? Let me know with a tweet.

Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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