Have advances in equipment spiralled out of control?

The Scoop

NCG columnist Colin Callander argues that the golfing authorities need to take action before our venerable courses become obsolete

Every year the R&A organises a press conference on the eve of the Open to give journalists the opportunity to ask questions about the championship or the other big issues of a day.

This year it was the turn of chief executive Martin Slumbers, chairman of the Championship Committee Clive Brown and executive director Johnnie Cole-Hamilton to be in the hot seat.

It is a press conference which invariably creates at least one decent headline and this year was no different thanks to Slumbers’ wholehearted support for the R&A’s previous decision to switch TV coverage of the Open from the BBC to Sky.

“I think when we moved last year we took what was frankly a fairly tired and outdated broadcast and turned it into absolutely world class and raised the whole level of the way it was shown,” he said.

Words like that are manna from heaven for a press pack endeavouring to unearth an early story so it was no surprise they completely overshadowed the answer the chief executive gave to the annual question on whether the time had come to restrict the distance the modern golf ball travels.

“I spend a lot of time and the R&A’s time looking at distance and at the balance between skill and technology,” he said. “Are they in balance? Is it good for the recreational game? Is it the same for the elite game?

“This is what we are looking at at the moment. And if you look at the data over the last 18 months, we are seeing this year movements, only halfway through the year. We will take a full look at the end of the year, and then come back and make sure we analyse and think about it.”

That is hardly irrefutable proof that the game’s governing body is about to make swingeing changes to its rules appertaining to clubs and balls but at the time it did seem an admission that things may have got a bit out of kilter and it was a statement I recalled some three months later when Ross Fisher set a new Old Course record of 61 during the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.

Not surprisingly, I was not alone in making the connection between improvements in equipment technology and the lowest round ever scored over the Old Course. Barely had Fisher’s last putt dropped when Gary Player tweeted: “It’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St Andrews brought to its knees by today’s ball and equipment.”

It should be said that is very harsh on Fisher but it is a valid point nonetheless. The fact is that the officials at the R&A will not have to look too hard to find the sort of movements I assume Mr Slumbers was alluding to.

ShotLink statistics show that during the 2016-17 season the average drive on the PGA Tour was 292.5 yards. That is 2.5 yards more than the previous year and 13 yards further than in 2002 when the R&A and the USGA issued its most recent Joint Statement of Principles on golf equipment.

During 2016-17 no less than 43 players had a driving distance average of over 300 yards compared to 11 in 2010 and one (John Daly) in 2000 and such increases are not confined to the PGA Tour because on the Champions Tour Bernhard Langer averaged 280.4 yards, 20 yards more than he achieved on the European Tour 30 years ago.

There are several reasons why Tour players and elite amateurs of both sexes now routinely hit the ball much further than ever before but surely there can be no argument that the primary causes of that are advances in ball and club technology.   

So, what should the authorities do? Act now? Or wait until all our venerable courses are obsolete and it takes about six hours to play the 8,500-yard courses needed to replace them? I know what I think.

The solution may not be simple, but something must be done to rein things in before the situation spirals even more out of control.

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