I vividly remember being a teenager watching the 1987 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club on television with my dad. The ever-stoic Scott Simpson made a slew of late birdies to dash the title hopes of my boyhood heroes Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. Simpson hit a feathery 9-iron from 125 yards into the 16th and I said to my dad, “I can do that.” My dad just laughed and shook his head.
“Son, this is not the Rich Acres Par-3,” he said. “This is the U.S. Open.” I went right back at him. “I know,” I said, “but I can do that. My 9 iron goes 125 yards.”
Fast forward to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Rickie Fowler is hitting 5-iron into a 250 yard hole. Brooks Koepka melts a 325-yard 3-wood. My 6-year-old daughter is watching with me as Koepka overpowers Erin Hills and she asks, “Daddy, can you do that?” I answered with no delay, “No chance.” But what struck me as odd was that I was starting to grow numb to the video game-like control and power we see week in, week out on the PGA Tour. Four-hundred-yard drives just happen now and that’s how it is. Sounds like fun, but I’m not sure it’s good thing.
Somewhere between my father’s 1987 dismissal of the crucible that was the Rich Acres Par-3 and Koepka’s brutish dismantling of Erin Hills, golf has become a wildly different game. But is it a better game? Is it more entertaining to watch? Does the technology that facilitates the game for the masses belittle the game’s rich history? Most importantly, is today’s game more fun to play? I set off on a crusade to find out.
Short of buying a silver DeLorean and traveling back in time to 1987, my best bet was to try and piece together the clubs I played as a teenager and pit them against my current set to see how they would match up. A Match of The Ages if you will; Teenage Me vs. Middle-Aged Me. The artistry of the late 20th century versus the power of the early 21st century. This was going to be fun.
Building My Teenage Arsenal
East Bloomington, Minnesota in 1988 was The Land of 10,000 Blades. My buddy Aaron played his dad’s old X-31s. The Hogan brothers (sons of PGA legend Terry Hogan) worshiped all things Apex. I played a set of Wilson Staff Fluid Feel irons handed down from my father. Persimmons were still King and my all-time favorites were Cleveland Classics that I bought off a guy at my barber shop for an incredibly low price. How he got them wasn’t important. What was important was that I knew at a young and tender age that there are certain questions you just don’t ask folks who are selling goods out of their trunks at barber shops.
I went online and was able to find a similar set of Fluid Feel 2-SW with Dynamic Gold shafts, a Cleveland persimmon driver and 4 wood, and a putter that was close to an old TPA that I occasionally had in play. I didn’t think playing a 30-year-old balata made much sense, so I splurged and bought some Titleist Professionals for $10 (I know the Professionals weren’t released until the mid-nineties, but I figured they’d have a puncher’s chance of still being round). All in all it cost me about $150 to recreate my teenage arsenal. Not quite barber shop prices, but a bargain nonetheless.
Middle-Aged Me: An Embarrassment of Riches
I buy way too many clubs. Like, it’s-a-problem-in-my-marriage amount of clubs. I’ve had to pay off the doorman at my building to stash any deliveries so my wife doesn’t find them and throw them away. Currently my storage unit has more clubs than some pro shops, but here’s what’s in my bag as of right now. The Epic driver is incredible and the RBZ 14.5 and Tour Exotic 19 hybrid have kept their place in the lineup for months — not an easy task considering a few snap hooks with a utility club normally means an early retirement. This is my second set of AP2s (DGS300) and I’ve been a fan of the Callaway wedges since I got them. The 2-Ball putter might strike you as odd, but I side-saddle putted not that long ago, so the term odd is lost on me. I play the Vice Pro Plus and it’s a terrific ball. Middle-Aged Me is well-armed and ready for battle.
The Tale of the Tape
I took 16 shots with each driver and 8-iron using Bridgestone E6 balls. I took out the best and worst 4. Averages in gray.
The 8-iron data had me puzzled. Sure enough, the modern 8-iron was bent fairly strong. Thanks to Brendan Kelly and Tim Ellis at Roger Dunn’s Golf Shop in Seal Beach, California. Here are the specs for all the irons in play.
The Match Begins
Rancho Park Golf Course is the epicenter of golf on the Westside of Los Angeles. Its 6,630-yard, par-71 layout from the tips makes it the perfect host for the Match of The Ages. The format is 18 holes of Match Play. Middle-Aged Me has honors and so my match begins.
The opening hole is a 381-yard par-4 and my first drive with the Big Bertha Epic might as well be a commercial for whatever Jail Break Technology is. I don’t come close to hitting it squarely, but the ball somehow stays in the air for a lifetime and carries the fairway bunker some 240 yards away with ease. I don’t exactly hit the Cleveland persimmon on the screws, either. Instead, I smack an embarrassing line drive that rolls out some 220 yards into the middle of the fairway. I make a pair of sloppy bogeys and move on.
The second hole is a 467-yard tree-lined beast of par-4. I hook the Epic left, which is my stock miss. Teenage Me, sensing an opening, bombs a high fade. I seldom hit fades, so this is shot is
completely slightly miraculous. I pose on the finish longer than usual to savor the moment. Teenage Me has 215 yards left and a useful 3-iron finds the green. An easy two-putt gives Teenage Me a 1-Up lead.
For the rest of the front nine, the Epic catches fire. Middle-Aged Me has wedge into all of the remaining par 4s and is greenside on the sole par-5 in two with ease. The Epic is an undeniable, inanimate Death Star of a driver. It is completely robotic in every sense and lethal when programmed properly. Middle-Aged Me rides the Epic to a 3-Up lead through nine holes.
In a cinematic sense, if the Epic is the Death Star then the persimmon is Morgan Freeman’s Sergeant Major John Rawlins from Glory: old, dark, proud, regal, and loyal no matter the odds. Unfortunately, Teenage Me is facing long odds because the persimmon is consistently 50 yards behind the Epic. My swing with the persimmon seems to be a little longer, a little more deliberate, and even when I hit it one the screws it’s just not even close.
As for the irons, the Wilson Staffs feel great, but they seem to drift left (hook) a little more than I’m used to. With exception to the 2 and 3 irons (which require Buddhist Monk-like focus), the Staffs seem just as playable as my AP2s. I would guess that any purists out there who still game a clean MB blade like the Callaway Apex, Titleist 718 or Cobra Kings would find little difference. As for workability, just about every single shot I’ve hit since age 12 has gone right-to-left, so you want to read about workability you’ve got the wrong guy.
Checking in on the golf ball battle through nine holes, the Titleist Professional is holding its own. Lots of check and surprisingly firm and durable considering the vintage (a skulled 3-iron on the 8th imparted more damage to my fragile psyche than the actual golf ball). Should the USGA ever move towards bifurcation, the Titleist Professional would be a great standard for ball construction. On the other side of the cart, if you know how the Pro V1x plays then you know how the Vice Pro Plus plays, which is to say incredibly well. When played side-by-side, the difference between the modern ball and the older ball is staggering.
Example: No. 4, par-3, 200 yards. Teenage Me rips 4-iron (24 degree loft) and I’m on the front edge. Middle-Aged Me hits a solid but not spectacular 5-iron (26 degrees) that flies to the middle of the green. I would confidently say there’s a one club difference in distance on irons (matching lofts, of course.)
Back to the Match of The Ages: the back nine starts off with some real fireworks with blood exchanged on Nos. 10, 11, 12 and two gritty up-and-down par saves on No. 13. Middle-Aged Me is 4 Up and has the honor on the intimidating 14th that plays out of a shoot. A compact swing of the Epic produces a low draw/hook off the tee that ends up in the fairway about 160 yards out. Teenage Me (focusing too much on the canopy of trees surround the tee box) hits the persimmon off the toe and the result is a Clayton Kershaw sinker that goes about 60 feet 6 inches and dives into the junk. Needing a miracle, I hack the ball back into play but Teenage Me has met his Waterloo. Middle-Aged Me makes par and wins 5 & 4.
Middle-Aged Me may have won the match 5 & 4, but Teenage Me definitely won the fun 10 & 8. A big part of that fun was getting reacquainted with a game I hadn’t played in a while. A game that was less about distance and more about shapes and trajectories. A game light on predictability and loaded with variety where a good drive didn’t mean wedges into every green. I saw the golf course as the architect had intended it to be seen, which let me appreciate more of its features. I’m not denying the element of novelty, but playing with my old teenage clubs — despite shooting 86 — was nothing short of inspiring. And to emphatically answer my original question; yes, it was a lot more fun.
Trust me on this: go out and get a nice persimmon. If for no other reason than if you practice with it you’ll improve as a ball striker, just buy one. Don’t worry about how old it might be. Jack Nicklaus won every single one of his majors — including the ’86 Masters — with a 3-wood from 1958, so I think it’s safe to say the material holds up well. Yes, you’ll find the older clubs are heavier and they’re a little harder to hit, but they are far more rewarding… and they’ll make hitting your modern clubs seem like child’s play.
As you can tell, the old clubs are growing on me. Maybe it’s a nostalgic whim, or maybe there’s something more profound at play. It could just be that people out there want something with a little more heart and soul. I think that’s why we buy hand-stitched wallets and drive old roadsters; we want to feel the humanity and the craftsmanship that goes into someone actually making things. So if you’re ever around a driving range in L.A. and you see a guy with an old Wood Brothers driver working on his gentleman’s fade, stop by and say hello. I’ll give you a few cracks at the driver and you can tell me what you feel.
Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole
In this episode of the 19th Hole, Jason Goldsmith of FocusBand talks about how the breakthrough technology has helped PGA Tour stars Jason Day and Justin Rose to major wins. Also, host Michael Williams gives his take on Tiger Woods’ return to golf.
Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club
Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own.
Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.
All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.
Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.
Trees, or no trees?
The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.
The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.
Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.
A good variety
Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16. What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14. These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set. The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.
The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.
Green complexes are…complex
Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world. They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.
The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.
Ari’s last word
All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.
Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure
My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.
Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.
Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.
I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.
First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.
Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.
Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”
Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!
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