For those of us who took to the game in the 1980s, golf was quite often the most exciting sport imaginable. It was all on the BBC, there wasn’t too much of it which made you pester your parents to take you to live events and, even to a novice teenager, it was obvious that there was so much skill involved.
They could hit the ball this way and that, high or low, drives would take off like jet planes and everything was topped off by bundles of backspin. Nothing like this happened at your local club so quickly these god-like figures became your heroes.
I sat down with five stars from the game in the ’80s – Peter Baker, Barry Lane, Roger Chapman, Andrew Oldcorn and Gary Wolstenholme – to hear their thoughts on what the game was like for them in the last century and how things have changed in golf technology since…
Oldcorn: When I was in my early teens and I was beginning to take golf seriously at Dalmahoy on the west side of Edinburgh. The East course was 6,800 yards long and that was huge for me. These were the days of Balata balls and wooden clubs and I couldn’t reach lots of the par 4s.
Wolstenholme: The beauty of the courses was that a 400-yard hole was a strong hole particularly into the wind. Now a 420-yard uphill par 4, even played into the wind, would be a drive and a short iron for most tour pros. It’s a shame as course designers come in and ‘Tiger proof’ these courses and quite often they ruin a good hole. It shouldn’t just be about the length but about testing the nerve, the course management, the ability to play a specific shot and too many par 3s are drifting outside an iron shot. A par 3 was always about the skill to manipulate an iron shot into a certain part of the green.
Oldcorn: The strategy of playing a course is something that appeals to me much more. I much prefer classics like a Sunningdale or a Walton Heath or, from the Open rota, Royal Birkdale where it’s not all crash-bang-wallop.
It’s just my opinion but I can’t abide the modern way of thinking of huge courses with lakes and elephants buried beneath the greens, it doesn’t do anything for me.
I grew up shaping my shots because of the equipment that I had and I get frustrated these days because the ball won’t move. I’m just a product of my era. If there was a 25-year-old sat here he would call me an old fogey but I like to watch golf in a certain way. I respect how good the modern player is but they are falling off their feet trying to hit a driver.
Baker: Players are more one-dimensional now but they are also much fitter and stronger these days and they swing it better than we did, we did it more by feel.
Today’s equipment allows you to hit it harder with the way the ball is and the bigger sweet spot, now it is hard to shape it – particularly off the tee.
I used to have 12 degrees on my driver and Ian Woosnam used to have 8 degrees, so when he got a new driver he would get me to hit it. If I was only able to get the ball about six feet in the air then he knew that was right for him.
Lane: Drivers in the ’80s would look great as the ball flight looked like an aeroplane taking off but they never went anywhere, now you want 14 degrees of launch.
When I was playing in my last Dubai Desert Classic in 2014 they asked if I had any clubs from the first year in 1989. So I took a TaylorMade driver – it is the size of a golf ball. It is ridiculous, it looks more like a putter, there is no loft on it and if you were one degree out it would go 40 yards left or right, it was such a precision tool. But you got used to it. The poor drivers of the ball were very good iron players – like Jose Maria Olazabal, he was one of the very best.
I drove the ball quite well but you had to pick a shot and most of the time it was a fade which was much easier than a consistent draw. That tended to just nose-dive out of the air, with a cut you could drive through it and get the ball moving forward.
Wolstenholme: Back in the day people would drop a ball on the ground to hit a driver into the wind and, with the spin rate that the ball had, you had to learn how to manipulate the shot with your hands. Now with the technology and fitness you hit the ball in a very different way.
Chapman: I stopped using the 1-iron 20 years ago. At Porthcawl last year, I knew it was going to be windy, so I got a 3-iron and knocked it down and that was good fun. It was difficult to get the ball in the air with so little loft but you could get run with the topspin.
Baker: Driving used to be a premium and it’s not now other than how far you can hit it. Greg Norman and Woosie were two of the best drivers I’ve ever seen and they had a real advantage as they hit it long and straight. It was no good being in the rough as you were too far back to reach the green, now they are all way up there.
As for the 3-wood if it was a bit damp or sitting down a bit and you had to carry water then you generally wouldn’t do it. Unless you hit it perfect then you wouldn’t be able to get the height, now the 3-wood goes so high.
Interview continues on the next page, where the quartet discuss how golf changed when the ProV1 was introduced…