FRAMINGHAM (10/06/2003) - Golf is an old game, more than 500 years old, in fact. During that time, it's seen a lot of changes in the balls we use and the implements we hit them with. Not all that long ago, golf was played with hickory shaft clubs and a stitched leather ball tightly packed with goose feathers, known as the featherie. Prior to, say, 20 or 30 years ago, the most important technological changes in the game were the introduction of the metal shaft and the rubber core ball. But now, thanks to technological advances in materials and design, players can arm themselves with balls and clubs that are changing the game fundamentally--in ways that are not necessarily good.
Consider the question of whether golfers on the tour today are better than golfers of the past. The numbers--like John Daly's distances off the tee or Tiger Woods' amazing string of course records--might lead one to believe that they are. But in my opinion, the individuals who set records in the past--the Sam Sneads, Ben Hogans, Byron Nelsons--would, given their mental disciplines, skills and temperaments, get them around the course even better than today's golfers. I'm sure of it.
There are a lot of people, myself included, who believe it's time to call a halt to the technological advances in the game. As a matter of fact, we may have already gone too far. Consider the modern golf ball. Today, it's not all that unusual for players to carry the ball 300 yards off the tee, an amazing distance compared with just eight years ago, when the average drive on the tour was 266 yards. This is not due to the greater strength or skill of today's players. It's simply due to advances in the technology: the improved dimple patterns on balls (which make them more aerodynamic in flight) and the trampoline effect of titanium clubs. Twenty years ago, Jack Nicklaus was warning us about the trend of increasing golf ball carry, and we thought he was crazy. But he was right, and now the distance the ball is traveling is having a profound and negative effect on course architecture and the very nature of the game.
The 1920s was the era of classic golf course design. Those courses are the standard bearers for golf, with their combinations of natural surroundings, dimension, scope, variety of hole and all of the other things that add up to fine architecture. But the old classic courses such as Pine Valley, Merion, Winged Foot, Cypress Point and Pebble Beach are in trouble now. Some of them are being lengthened, rebunkered and widened in spots to accommodate tee shots that are landing in places no shots have ever landed before. In the process, they're losing their character and charm. Those that aren't being changed run the risk of losing their importance as competitive venues. Augusta National, the home of the Masters, today bears little resemblance to what it was just a few years ago, having undergone major renovations in 2000--resiting tees, lengthening holes, adding rough--just to stay ahead of the technology.
Now, there are a good many folks who say these changes are good. They bring more people to the game, they say, because advanced designs in equipment make it possible for the average player to shoot a better score, hence, making the game more pleasurable. Certainly, like any other form of recreation or entertainment, golf wants to attract as many people as possible. But consider: I'm 51 years old now, and I hit the ball as far as I ever did. That's a pretty preposterous assertion, but it's true. It didn't use to be that way. You used to lose power as you got older, but the new equipment is compensating for that.
Technology is only providing an illusion of better play. It's the allure of power.
The news is not all bad for this sport, however. Consider the improvements in the technology used to broadcast golf tournaments. The drama, the clarity and the sense of closeness you get to the players are really amazing. On the Internet, you can now follow every shot of every player as it's happening. At St Andrews, during the British Open, they now have the "bunker cam," a camera right in the bunker on the 17th hole, which is one of the most famous bunkers in all golf. It gives the audience a real sense of the game, a sense for how good these tournament pros really are. Perhaps some time soon we'll even have a "golf ball cam." This, I think, more than anything else, has helped make the game more interesting and watchable, even engaging nongolfers.
As with almost everything else in life, when it comes to technology the important thing is to find the right balance. The challenge will be to continue to make the game better, more accessible and more enjoyable--but without compromise. We have to be selective enough about the technologies we embrace to ensure that we pass along to the next generation the same game we inherited from the previous one.
Jerry Gregoire is a retired CIO and amateur golfer who's had the good fortune to play with many great pros, including Crenshaw, at Crenshaw's new course in Austin, Texas, where Gregoire lives.
What He Thinks About: Golf, and designing and restoring golf courses with his partner, Bill Coore.
What He's Written: A Feel For the Game (2002).
Where He Is On The Web: www.bencrenshaw.com.
Bio Bit: In addition to golf, Crenshaw displayed many athletic talents during his years at Austin High School, where he played guard in basketball, quarterback in football and catcher in baseball. He captured his first major championship at the 1984 Masters Tournament, which he won again in 1995 at the age of 43.