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Where's the Harm?

There is no evidence that professional golf is experiencing irreparable harm as a result of golf ball technology.

In the August GolfStyles David DeSmith's essay "Roll Back the Ball" claims that the game's biggest problem is the golf ball. Not participation, time, or the game's difficulty. He simply points to the ball and makes the argument that due to the driving distance of some tour players, you and I are paying the price for expensive renovations at courses where these events are contested. When was the last time you got to play Augusta National?

There is no evidence that professional golf is experiencing irreparable harm as a result of golf ball technology. Average driving distance on the PGA Tour has increased 24 yards over the last decade, or an average of less than 1 percent per year, and just over one yard since 2003. In spite of longer drives, scoring remains virtually the same as in 1995. Of the top 30 players in Driving Distance on the 2005 PGA Tour through August, 12 ranked lower than 125th on the money list and are in danger of losing their exempt status. The correlation between driving distance and a player's position on the money list means less today than it did 20 years ago.

For those who deem a distance "problem" exists, to identify the golf ball as the sole contributor to and the solution for is an over-simplification. While the professional game has experienced a paradigm shift toward the "Power Game" in the past two decades, it has been the result of six contributing variables, five of which are continually overlooked by the media and antitechnology pundits. In addition to lower spinning, high performance golf balls, other factors include larger, thinner-faced titanium drivers with graphite shafts; improved golf course conditioning and agronomy; bigger, stronger and better conditioned athletes; improved technique and instruction; and launch monitors and customization of equipment.

Not only is the golf ball the most stringently regulated equipment in the history of the game, an Overall Distance Standard (ODS) already exists, limiting the distance the ball is allowed to fly. The rules in place regulating golf balls and clubs are more than adequate to contain any significant increases in distance caused by technological influence. The line in the sand has been drawn.

There are those who propose a two-ball system, or bifurcation, but playing by one set of rules, the same course and the same equipment is what makes golf different. It is the essence of the game. Past experiences with two sets of rules have proven to be disastrous. Two sets of rules would also result in, a) the longer players on tour only getting longer in comparison to those who are less long, and b) opening a Pandora's Box regarding the regulation and administration of equipment at the local, state, sectional and national levels. Golf is not so clearly a professional game and a non-professional game.

There are nearly 17,000 golf courses in the United States, only 51 on which PGA Tour events are played and to which Mr. DeSmith suggests the USGA alter the direction of the game. As for new course development, requiring more real estate to build a seven figure designer fee "signature" course (many designed by former champions who advocate the golf ball as a problem) is flawed logic given the unlikelihood of ever hosting a PGA Tour event.

If the cost of participation has risen and rounds played have declined, is it because the golf ball is going too far or could the cost to play these designer courses simply be too expensive to play with any frequency? In 2004, the total number of golf facilities in the U.S. broke the 16,000 mark for the first time, with 160 new courses opened and only 63 closed. If participation is flat, does the game really need two more tour-caliber championship courses for every one that closes? If all these "classic" courses are becoming obsolete due to the distance the golf ball flies, why have only two venues designed post-1960 been selected to host a U.S. Open Championship within the past 45 years?

The balance between technology and tradition is as old as the game itself. One could advance the argument that yesterday's technologies are today's traditions. During every era, there are those who resist evolution and change (usually determined by the date on their birth certificate) and those who embrace technology as part of the game's heritage. The ruling bodies have been fair and practical about preserving the delicate balance between technology and tradition, and we expect them to be no different this time around.


This essay appeared in the October issue of GolfStyles Magazine and was reprinted with permission.

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