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The ghost of Allan Robertson: A few thoughts on the distance debate

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It’s that time of year in certain parts of the world. Ghosts, ghouls, and ghoblins roam the lawns. Departed ancestors return to these fields to visit with living descendants. It’s also a time (is it ever not?) when curmudgeons and ancients decry the advances of technology in the world of golf equipment.

Pretty big narrative leap, I’ll admit, but I have your attention, aye? An October 16th tweet from noted teacher Jim McClean suggested that it would be fun to see PGA Tour players tee it up for one week with wooden heads and a balata ball.

Others beg for a rolling-back of technological potency, raising property acreage as a critical determinant. Fact is, 90 percent of golfers have no experience with hitting the ball too far, nor with outgrowing a golf course. And yet, the cries persist.

Recently, I was awakened from a satisfying slumber by the ghost of Allan Robertson. The long-dead Scot was in a lather, equal parts pissed at Old Tom Morris for playing a guttie, and at three social-media channels, all of which had put him on temporary suspension for engaging violently with unsupportive followers. He also mentioned the inaccuracies of his Wikipedia page, which credits him for a 100-year old business, despite having only spent the better part of 44 years on this terrestrial sphere. Who knew that the afterlife offered such drip internet access?

I’m not certain if Old Tom cared (or was even alive) that his beloved gutta percha ball was replaced by the Haskell. I believe him to have been preoccupied with the warming of the North Sea (where he took his morning constitutional swims) and the impending arrival of metal shafts and laminated-wood heads. Should that also long-dead Scot pay me a nighttime visit, I’ll be certain to ask him. I do know that Ben Hogan gave no sheets about technology’s advances; he was in the business of making clubs by then, and took advantage of those advances. Sam Snead was still kicking the tops of doors, and Byron Nelson was pondering the technological onslaught of farriers, in the shoeing of horses on his ranch.

And how about the women? Well, the ladies of golfing greatness have better things to do than piss and moan about technology. They concern themselves with what really matters in golf and in life. Sorry, fellas, it’s an us-problem. Records are broken thanks to all means of advancement. Want to have some fun? Watch this video or this video or this video. If you need much more, have a reassessment of what matters.

Solutions

Either forget the classic courses or hide the holes. Classic golf courses cannot stand up in length alone to today’s professional golfers. Bringing in the rough takes driver out of their hands, and isn’t a course supposed to provide a viable challenge to every club in the bag? Instead, identify four nearly-impossible locations on every putting surface, and cut the hole in one of them, each day. Let the fellows take swings at every par-4 green with driver, at every par-five green with driver and plus-one. Two things will happen: the frustration from waiting waiting waiting will eliminate the mentally-weak contestants, and the nigh-impossible putting will eliminate even more of them. What will happen with scoring? I don’t know. Neither did Old Tom Morris, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., Lady Heathcoat Amory, or Mildred Didrickson, when new technology arrived on the scene. They shrugged their shoulders, stayed away from Twitter and the Tok, and went about their business.

Add the tournament courses. Build courses that can reach 8,500 yards in length, and hold events on those layouts. Two examples from other sports: the NFL made extra points longer. Has it impacted game results? Maybe. The NBA kept the rim at ten feet. Has it impacted game results? Maybe. We don’t play MLB or MLS on ancient diamonds and pitches. We play their matches and games on technologically-advanced surfaces. Build/Retrofit a series of nondescript courses as tournament venues. Take the par-5 holes to 700 yards, then advance the par-4 fairways to 550 yards. Drive and pitch holes check-in at 400 yards, at least until Bryson DeChambeau and Kyle Berkshire figure a few more things out.

Note to the young guys and the old guys from this 55-year old guy: live your era, then let it go. I know things.

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Deacon Blues

    Oct 21, 2021 at 8:28 pm

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with the pros continuing to play the classic courses. Just change the pars as necessary to reflect what the pros are likely to average. The USGA has been doing this for years. Some courses we know as par 72 should be par 68 (or even fewer) for the pros. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Nov 20, 2021 at 8:51 am

      I agree with you, Deacon. The problem is, we are not members of those clubs (assumption on my part.) The members don’t want to do that, don’t want their courses shamed by low scores, so the trickery problem rears its head.

  2. Walter

    Oct 21, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    Did Allan Robertson knew about Broom Force.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Nov 20, 2021 at 8:55 am

      I cannot speak for Sir Allan, but I suspect that he might have suspected something about its properties. He did not post about it on Twitter, so we’ll never know for certain.

  3. Mr. Smash

    Oct 21, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    Race car drivers never complain that the car is going too fast. If you are looking for Hogan and Snead and Nelson (or Rory, DJ and Bryson) to tell you that the ball is going too far you won’t ever find it. But if you ask the guys responsible for being able to keep the car planted on the track (game on the course) you my find they wouldn’t mind a rollback or at minimum a halt in the distance race.

    You can’t stop a guy from getting bigger or stronger and faster. But you can stop his ability to use the equipment to capitalize on that strength. (You can’t swing it 140mph with a broom stick stiff shaft or a driver face made to handle it.)

    Jack was long with persimmon and steel shafts. Bryson will be long with persimmon and steel shafts. It isn’t about limiting stronger players from using distance or balancing their advantage, it, for me, is about keeping the game sustainable and right sized to the playing grounds.

    • Ronald Montesano

      Nov 20, 2021 at 8:57 am

      I do understand your point. I have a question: How many of us normal amateurs are capable of making the game unsustainable? I suspect the answer is zero. It is the minute percentage of golf professionals who are able to unlock the magic of technology to this degree. That’s why I say, give them their own courses.

  4. Karsten's Ghost

    Oct 20, 2021 at 5:16 pm

    Why is this all so bloody difficult?

    Golf ball max compression = 60.

    That’s it. That’s all you gotta do.

  5. Chuck

    Oct 20, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    I might have some more criticisms if I knew exactly what Ron was proposing; I honestly don’t.

    As for Ben Hogan being unconcerned with equipment technology, let’s all face the fact that during his time as an active tour player and then as an equipment manufacturer, there was NEVER any development like the solid core urethane ball. Ben, like Arnold Palmer (another equipment company owner, and a proponent of a ball rollback) lived a life in golf where steel shafts, balata balls and modest-sized driver heads (largely wooden) were the standard.

    I have ZERO doubt but that if Ben Hogan were alive today and Chairman of the Board of his golf club manufacturing company, he’d be in favor of a ball rollback. Like Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Woods, Els and too many others to list fully, all are.

    It is a simple proposition; do we want to preserve the ability to host golf’s greatest championships on golf’s historic venues, or do we want to throw that away in the interest of not offending a small number of golf ball manufacturers and their contracted Tour stars?

    As Geoff Shackelford has very rightly observed; in no other sport are the venues upon which the game is played, as critical or as fragile as in golf.

    I do not have adequate words, for how much more I care about The Old Course than Titleist’s urethane ball patents.

  6. Greg McNeill

    Oct 20, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Another factor: decrease fairway roll. I’ve played in 2 pro-ams, both at Bay Hill, a course I’ve played many times in casual rounds so I know how far driver tends to go there. At both pro-ams, the fairways were extremely firm with grass mowed tight. On almost every drive where I managed to keep it in the fairway, my tee shot ended up 25-30 yards past my normal distance. It wasn’t because I was striking the ball exceptionally well- it was because the ball rolled out forever. I realize that today’s players tend to carry their drivers further and rely less on roll but it does make a difference.

  7. Majduffer

    Oct 20, 2021 at 10:27 am

    The fools in the USGA ivory tower have not a clue about the advancement of physical kinetics. Bryson and others hit the baller further not because of equipment, but because they have engineered their physical capabilities to peak performance due to science and dedication to practice. No matter what you do to courses or equipment, if I have a 140mph swing speed versus your 125, then I will always be hitting a lot shorter distance into the green than you. My proximity to the flag will usually be a lot closer to the flag than yours. If you narrow fairways or increase the rough, then I’ll hit my fairway wood and still hit the fairway. I’ll be hitting 9i in versus your 7i and be closer. I’ll dominate the field on long par3s as I’ll be hitting short irons versus you hitting long irons. Long hitters will dominate the game just as the fastest sprinters dominate track. Making courses with trick greens etc. will only make a mockery of the game. Jack and Tiger dominated the game because of their physical capabilities and training. Now the fools on the USGA hill want to deny this to today’s golf athletes.

    • Barry

      Oct 20, 2021 at 10:50 am

      I totally agree with you – golf is a sport and physical skill should be rewarded! But you are making the case for regulation, not against it. As you say it so well, distance is relative…no matter what the conditions, someone who is more athletic and swings it faster is going to hit it past someone slower. If that’s the case, why does it matter if you dial back the equipment to save water and land? Those are not free, and they add expense to everything in golf (whether you know it or not). Pace of play is another issue that longer courses don’t help.

      Every sane sport in the world makes adjustments to the rules from time to time to keep competitive balance in check. Only in golf, with an army of clueless amateurs who think “they are playing the same game as the pros” do we let the equipment manufacturers dictate everything.

      Golf is an entertainment product. Leave the ams alone, bifurcate to challenge the male pros, and call it a day.

    • Donald Hume

      Oct 20, 2021 at 1:26 pm

      You just have to look at the scoring last weekend to see the problem. Valderrama tight, tough layout with trees/rough/ doglegs and bunkers. Winning score -6.

      Summit Club, desert drive and pitch course, some difficulty in desert lies but if the pros can get a swing it’s not an issue. Pointless having bunkers at 300 yards as these guys fly them with 3 wood and sometimes even less.

      Unfortunately TV and the masses only want to see birdies and eagles, rather than tough golf courses played in par. TV dictates to the PGA and they set up the courses appropriately. Longer hitting players should have an advantage but only if the can find tough fairways

  8. Al Cleverdon

    Oct 20, 2021 at 9:27 am

    Simple solutions. Replace all bunkers with pot bunkers…Grow the rough, not necessarily to U.S. Open standards but I’m sure they can figure out a height that is fair but still penalizing…Narrow the fairways but if the first two suggestions are implemented they shouldn’t have to be narrowed a lot…Gradually, over the years, make the greens as fast and undulating as possible without being unfair… You’re welcome!…and thanks for the chuckles… Good article.

    • No

      Oct 20, 2021 at 9:35 am

      That would render a golf course nearly unplayable for the the other 51 weeks of year. Why punish amateur golfers for a tournament played at a course one week a year?

    • Chuck

      Oct 20, 2021 at 12:19 pm

      That is the “simple” solution?!?

      • J

        Oct 20, 2021 at 4:56 pm

        Not the pot bunkers, but letting grass grow is pretty simple 😉

  9. Peter

    Oct 20, 2021 at 8:40 am

    This article is such a mess it’s hard to know where to begin…

    * the dudes bitching the loudest about equipment regulation aren’t young, they are old guys who think that hitting it further at 70 than 25 is a constitutional right.. 460 cc +ProV1 are like viagra, you’ll pry it from their cold dead hands. I mean god forbid you might have to hit the gym and actually swing faster to hit it further.

    * why only 8500 yards, make not make it a nice round 10,000? water and land are just limitless resources we can piss away!

    * screw the old course, it’s just the home of golf…far more important Acushnet makes its 4Q numbers!

    * baseball DOES have stadiums over 100 years old (Wrigley and Fenway) and they are some of the most loved places in all of sports. If the idiots that run golf ran the MLB, they would have been torn down 30 years ago so Easton could sell more carbon tungsten chromoly bats. With the the blue blazers in barge you’d have guys hitting 900 foot bombs and pitchers in full body armor.

    Ronald, maybe just two scotches before posting next time.

  10. Ronnie Mundt

    Oct 19, 2021 at 4:15 pm

    Sounds to me like 55 year old doesn’t want to give up his crutches, the 460cc driver and rock hard ball that doesn’t spin.

    • Jbone

      Oct 19, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      Sounds to me like people can’t let go of the past.

      Let’s watch the pros play their own clubs to the best of their ability.

      • Matt Aamold

        Oct 19, 2021 at 10:28 pm

        Curious, how would rolling back equipment remove their ability?

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