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April 02, 2006



April 6, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
Golf's Power Failure
Orlando, Fla.

THE standard drive of a year or two hence will be approximately 300 yards — so the more conservative are claiming there is a need for calling a halt, else the necessity for remodeling all the present courses will be imperative." While that quotation is from a United States Golf Association bulletin of 1907, the sentiment is one we will hear often this week during the Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club: the prodigious distances that professional golfers hit the ball today are ruining the game.

Panic over the distances the best players can hit a golf ball has been with us nearly as long as envy over the same thing. At its best, golf calls for a balance of skills: power, precision, finesse and touch. With recent gains in technology, however, many feel that power has taken undue precedence. Thus in recent years Augusta National officials have repeatedly lengthened the course in an effort to keep the players from turning Bobby Jones's pride and joy into a pitch-and-putt tournament. Yet, as Tiger Woods himself has pointed out, lengthening the course only increases the advantage to the long hitter.

Now officers and elders of the golf association — which, along with the Royal and Ancient Golf Association of St. Andrews, Scotland, writes the game's rules — have asked manufacturers to study the feasibility of a ball that would travel on average 25 yards less than those used now.

This idea is wrongheaded in several ways. To begin with, mandating such a ball would affect all players, and the vast majority of golfers don't hit the ball too far. (Nor do we hit the ball nearly as far as we think we do; well-supported data indicates that the average golfer hits a driver 192 yards — while thinking that he hits it approximately 230.) It's safe to say that for most of us the great layouts created a century ago still provide plenty of challenge.

Even before addressing the ball, the rule-making bodies took several foolish steps. They instituted limits that allowed some spring-like effect from the club faces of high-tech titanium drivers (a phenomenon that let the club itself enhance the ball speed at impact for the first time), while restricting both the length of a driver (which will affect few players) and the permissible height of a tee (which is downright silly). They have also explored limits on how much a club can resist twisting at impact; such a change, like the reduced-distance ball, would have a much greater effect on the average golfer than on those who play for prize money.

The goal should be to keep professionals from mindlessly bombing away while not unnecessarily hurting the average player. I have two suggestions. First, tournament courses should be set up to punish long but wayward hitters by narrowing fairways and growing higher rough (the longer grass along the margins of the hole).

The other major change would address the imbalance that today seems to favor power so strongly over touch and finesse. To place greater emphasis on the old skills required to work the ball and to hit less-than-full shots, professional players should be restricted to 10 clubs in their bags instead of the current 14.

The 14-club limit was adopted in 1938 in reaction to players who were carrying as many as 30 clubs to cover every possible occasion. The limit has remained at 14 through the eras of Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

Reducing that number would again force players to make tough decisions several times in each round about what kind of in-between shot they must hit. (It would also make it almost impossible for Phil Mickelson to carry two drivers — including one that allows him to hit a power draw that moves from left to right — as he did in cruising to victory at the BellSouth Classic last weekend and said he will again at Augusta) In sum, it would put a new emphasis on the touch and finesse that we should want from our champions.

This change will work only if the players' organization, the Professional Golf Association Tour, goes along with it. But since the goal is to broaden the range of skills needed to succeed on tour, it should make the game even more attractive to the viewing public, which is the P.G.A. Tour's main concern. And manufacturers will have nothing to fear from this proposal, because no special standards are being created for the equipment used by the pros.

Most of all, this proposal won't take a thing away from the average golfer, who might otherwise respond to further limits on technology by ignoring them altogether. By tightening courses before tournaments and limiting the number of clubs the pros use, the United States Golf Association can deal with concerns about the game played by the top echelon of golfers without ruining it for the rest of us.

Frank Thomas, the United States Golf Association's technical director from 1974 to 2000, is the chief technical adviser for Golf Digest and the Golf Channel.

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