The most recognized athlete in the world is a golfer rewriting record books. Television ratings, the new status barometer in sports, are higher than ever for the PGA Tour. High-tech equipment has made hitting a golf ball easier and more fun for 26 million golfers. And with about 41 million more wanting to take up golf, the future seems bright.
Modern golf seems so much better than the pre-Tiger Woods version, in fact, that maybe it should be called X-Golf. Maybe New Golf?
New Golf, though, is not without its problems and there is a faction unexcited about New Golf's prospects.
These "Old Golf" folks insist that playing by one set of rules maintains the game's integrity and allows golfers to remain the only self-policing athletes in the world.
Long before Woods arrived, Old Golfers warned that the golf ball would one day travel too far, stripping everyday golf of intriguing shotmaking while leaving some classic tournament venues without room to grow.
Old Golfers argue that a longer ball combines with high-tech shafts and club heads to change how everyday courses are built. Longer courses require more grass to maintain, take more time to play and provide less interesting challenges. This is why Old
Golf does not understand the allure of the many new 7,300-yard "signature" designs that charge $150 for six hours of searching for lost balls.
New Golf reminds Old Golf of tennis in the late 1970s and early '80s. They had charismatic stars, plenty of media coverage and xciting major championship showdowns. Corporate America paid handsomely to be part of it.
Tennis responded with as many events as it could squeeze into a schedule. High-tech equipment arrived in the form of oversized graphite rackets, supposedly making recreational tennis more popular. Meanwhile, the professional game changed from a blend of strategy, control and shotmaking, to a power sport.
New Golf bears a striking resemblance. It has widespread appeal, thanks to Woods. New technology supposedly makes golf easier for the average player. Strategy and thought have given way to power in the professional game. "Country-club-for-a-day" courses are popping up, making the game more accessible.
But is New Golf growing? Is it as progressive and interesting as we've been told? Is technology stimulating millions of new participants while improving the professional game? Or is New Golf beginning to repeat the mistakes made by tennis?
Old Golf grew steadily from 3.5 million players in 1950 to 26.4 million in 1998. Golfers had help on rules and handicaps from the U.S. Golf Assn., while technology advanced reasonably and, mostly, affordably.
According to the National Golf Foundation, however, New Golf has dropped to 26 million. About 3 million people a year are taking up the game, but another 3 million are giving it up. About 41 million more--many of them former players--think about playing but choose not to, citing the time commitment, the struggle to learn the game and the cost.
Many Old Golfers learned the the sport and the rules as caddies, or by tagging along when their parents played. High school and college golfers had playing privileges at private courses.
In New Golf, caddie programs cut into cart revenues. And it is a liability for courses to allow "spectators," so kids can rarely tag along. High school and college teams are not welcome at most private courses unless the schools want to buy transferable memberships.
Old Golf was never fast, but . . .
New Golf didn't blink when the 2000 PGA Championship was interrupted in the first round because of darkness. Major championship rounds can take nearly six hours, even when the golfers are averaging around par in benign conditions.
Old Golf registered adequate television ratings but survived with its devoted "demographic." The Senior PGA Tour caught on during the late 1980s and proved that over-50 stars could still play great golf. The LPGA Tour always struggled for acceptance but still produced its legends and inspired female golfers.
New Golf registers big ratings--when Tiger is in contention. But ratings are plummeting for the mostly tape-delayed Senior Tour, with at least seven events in danger of folding. The LPGA tour has future Hall of Famers Karie Webb and Annika Sorenstam in their prime. Yet, when Sorenstam was en route to her historic 59 earlier this year, ESPN switched to a men's quarterfinal tennis match.
What will happen to the Senior and LPGA Tours when Commissioner Tim Finchem's expensive new television and sponsorship deals influence sponsors to devote all of their resources to the PGA Tour?
Bold, even eccentric course architecture was fun to discuss in Old Golf. Multiple options for playing a hole were considered interesting, as long as the riskier avenue rewarded the intelligent, precise player. The occasional hazard in the middle of a fairway presented an intriguing challenge.
New Golf expects architects to keep reinventing their designs to meet the scratch golfer's all-important need for fairness. A hazard such as the infamous "David Duval boulder" on Sherwood Country Club's seventh hole is now considered grossly unfair, even though the trouble is in plain view and twenty yards of lush fairway await on all sides.
Old Golf allowed short-driving but creative players such as Curtis Strange, Corey Pavin and Tom Kite opportunities to win the same major tournaments as power players like Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Davis Love. The long iron was used for second shots, not tee shots. Players used bump-and-run shots when conditions allowed. The average golfer could relate to the professional's occasional triumphs and troubles.
New Golf is about power. The longest, highest, straightest ball is the only way to play, just as the big serve is in tennis.
Two weeks ago, Jack Nicklaus labeled tournament golf "boring for the public, with guys like Tiger and [Phil] Mickelson playing one-, two-, three-, four-, five-irons out there off the tee. You never see a wood club in their hand. To keep the excitement of the game, just bring the [old style] golf ball back and they'll play the course. It's a very simple scenario."
In Old Golf, companies made innovative equipment within the rules. Technological advances helped players, but no company ever considered defying the USGA's "Rules of Golf."
New Golf insists that manufacturers be allowed to satisfy Wall Street analysts, regardless of the rules. Some equipment companies dangle litigation in front of the governing bodies whenever there is a hint of regulation, at the same time urging the USGA to spend its $200-million legal fund to grow the sport (thereby creating new equipment buyers).
Old Golf could count on the governing bodies to collaborate for the good of the game. The USGA, Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America were never chummy, but they always were cooperative during various rules predicaments.
New Golf watches the nonprofit governing bodies compete for corporate tent sales while bickering over the rules. Only the PGA of America has supported the USGA's recent attempts to regulate spring-effect drivers.
The Royal and Ancient, golf's ruling body outside of the United States and Mexico, refuses to outlaw spring-effect clubs. And R&A; Secretary Peter Lawson recently said that a competition ball might be a more effective long-term solution to the technology debate, a fix the USGA is opposed to.
The sides will be talking at this week's British Open, but USGA President Trey Holland recently said, "We are not optimistic there is going to be a short-term solution to this problem."
Bernard Darwin, Grantland Rice, O.B. Keeler, Billy Sixty, Bobby Jones, Herbert Warren Wind, Henry Longhurst, Charles Price, Jim Murray and Dan Jenkins wrote about Old Golf honestly, eloquently. The original Golf Illustrated, The American Golfer and numerous other regional publications discussed issues, while still providing the obligatory how-to-cure-your slice tip.
Two years ago, New Golf hardly looked up when an equipment company canceled its multimillion-dollar ad contract with a major magazine after the editor had suggested that professional golf consider a competition ball.
Old Golf has been grumbling about the wide-ranging impact of longer flying golf balls since the 1920s. When Bobby Jones advocated a tournament ball in 1927, it was in hopes that golf courses would never stretch longer than 6,300 yards and that rounds would rarely last longer than three hours.
In explaining Jones' position, Grantland Rice wrote, "At 7,000 yards, golf is not so much a test of skill as it is a test of endurance."
New Golf has Augusta National eliminating all remaining ties to the ingenious Jones-Alister MacKenzie design, all to accommodate new technology.
The club has the power and resources to introduce a special Masters tournament ball without being chased to court by companies whose executives love socializing at Augusta each April. A softer ball is used at Wimbledon to preserve the character of grass-court play. Major league baseball uses wooden bats. NASCAR regulates its cars. So why can't Augusta insist on a special ball?
Old Golf witnessed major championships at historic venues with designs that stimulated compelling play. Watching the best players tackle St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Merion, Riviera, Olympic Club and Cherry Hills allowed golfers to compare modern feats with those of past stars who had walked the same fairways. What other sport can return to a championship venue used during the late 19th century?
New Golf will soon consider most classic courses obsolete. Historic but short Royal Lytham and St. Annes may be hosting its final British Open this week because it lacks space to expand. More important to New Golf, these classic venues do not have enough room for parking and hospitality tents. Royal Troon was selected in May, over Turnberry, to host the 2004 British Open, even though Turnberry's Ailsa course has been used for some of the finest tournaments in modern history. According to R&A; secretary Lawson, Troon could handle 12,000 cars. Turnberry could only come up with 10,000 spaces.
Old Golf is grateful for the game's new celebrity and there is hope for the future if New Golf considers a few adjustments. A competition ball would be the simplest solution for protecting the professional and everyday games. Such a ball would probably find its way into everyday play, where the benefits would become apparent--after necessary griping about lost yardage.
"We have an opportunity to bring all the wonderful old golf courses in the world back in play if you just went back," Nicklaus said. "Why, because of the ego of the ball manufacturer, do we have to obsolete 90% of the courses in our country?"
Critics insist that he fears Woods will eclipse his records and legacy. Nicklaus, however, is well aware that the tournament ball he advocates would further distance Woods from his peers, because much of Tiger's power stems from athletic strength, sound swing and confidence.
Woods' remarkable ability to manage a course, however, will lose significance on long, strategy-deficient designs or worse, the modern championship tendency to discourage low scoring through peculiar course setups.
For everyday golf, a shorter ball could lead to a revolution in which the average length of an 18-hole course might revert to the 6,300 yards Bobby Jones advocated. This would lead to lower green fees and shorter time commitments to play 18 holes, and would encourage architects to present more interesting designs, thus attracting new players while retaining current golfers. (Old Golf translation to equipment manufacturers: This would attract new customers and retain the old ones.)
Major league baseball, over the last decade, has been infatuated with "the long ball," believing that home runs would attract young fans and make for a more exciting game. To the delight of hitters, the strike zone was shrunk. Games ran longer. Ticket prices were raised as the supply of effective pitchers dwindled. Worst of all, baseball witnessed the demise of its most compelling element--strategy.
With a return to the traditional strike zone this season, games are beginning to move a little faster. Assuming the trend continues, teams should not have to pay such ridiculous premiums for pitching, a saving that may even be passed along to the fan some day. Best of all, baseball should see a better balanced, more interesting game.
Old Golf would also suggest that New Golf analyze the program initiated by tennis equipment manufacturers in 1994 and joined by the U.S. Tennis Assn. in 1997. The $50 million spent to grow the game made it easier to learn how to play tennis, how to get valuable court time and where to find playing partners. Since, about 600,000 new players have found a comfortable way to enjoy tennis. For the first time in years recreational tennis is on the upswing, no thanks to the professional game.
Old Golf gets a bad rap for failing to be "progressive," yet it found a way to grow the sport and produce millions of supporters and legendary athletes such as Woods, Nicklaus, Nancy Lopez, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Babe Zaharias, Mickey Wright, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. In recent years, the consistency and quality of golf course maintenance have been outstanding. With new drought- and disease-tolerant grasses, courses will only become more environmentally sensitive.
Old Golf knows the future will be bright as long the game's character, history and rules are protected, not ignored by those who believe that change necessarily equals progress.
Because tradition sustains golf. Old or new.
Geoff Shackelford, the author of several golf books, played varsity golf at Pepperdine and is consulting on the design of Rustic Canyon Golf Course in Moorpark.