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Time out for the old courses
Golf courses continue to be built at a tremendous rate. One estimate puts the figure at between 500 and 600 every year. It is only a matter of time before all of the so-called green belt about cities is made up of golf courses. One can foresee the day when you will be able to tee up at Calais and hole out in Vladivostok.

Clearly an increase in leisure time and general affluence has been the driving force in the construction of new courses but the game itself has always had a certain cache of privilege. Indeed, in every country other than Scotland, to play golf is to exhibit a bit of class as well as affluence. This is epitomised in the history of the American golf and country culture.

Over half a century has passed since Henry Longhurst wrote that golf was a game 'so damnably difficult that it was a wonder anyone played it.' Today, golf is astonishingly simple. There was a time when sitting on the steps down to the first tee of the Old Course (pictured) was the summer entertainment of choice in St Andrews. Spotting the player from the duffer as he teed up his ball was a wonderful game and really honed the eye when there was money on it. Today, it is remarkably easy for a beginner to hit a golf ball - and almost as easy for the beginner to hit it straight and satisfactory distances. It is simply a fact that the game has been made easier for the beginner by the forgiving nature of club and ball technology.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends upon your standpoint. Surely, if technology can bring greater enjoyment to a greater number of aspiring golfers, then this is a good thing. On the other hand the game becomes less of a self-assessing test of character than a purchasable commodity in the pro shop. But for the tournament player the technology makes for an entirely new world; a world with which the rest of us are unfamiliar, and this may not be altogether a good thing.

Technology is proving to be a threat to some of the world's great old courses by reducing them to mere pitch and put places for the pros. It is a concern that many have been expressing for some time but which has started to reach hysterical proportions of late.

The threat is there, but whether or not it is apocalyptic, as some would have you believe is another matter. If you cry wolf for 30 or so years you have to eventually start crying something more sinister, like Tiger, before you get attention.

And Tiger is an appropriate cry for the Tiger has been responsible for exploiting the greatest advances in technology and has gleaned the greatest benefits from it. But Tiger and his like in the pro golf game are extraordinary chaps. They can generate club head speeds of 125 mph, a speed that will propel a ball in the region of 180 mph. Normal mortals teeing up on a good day hit club head speeds as high as 90 mph and can thus persuade the ball to fly 220 yards. The Tigers can drive it in excess of 300 yards without stressing themselves. Like you and I, however, they cannot always do it straight - which must be perplexing for golf balls that fly that distance are not cheap and are rarely found if they fly off line on the older courses.

There are few, perhaps 1 or 2% of players capable of using modern technology to its greatest advantage. To hit the ball straight requires talent. To hit it straight and 300 yards arguably requires genius; and if not genius, then an incredible dedication to practice. Put baldly, modern day pro golfers are simply an awful lot better than those that have gone before. They may very well be advantaged by the clubs and balls available to them - as was the generation that went before them and as was the generation that went before them - and so on ad infinitum. Today's' pro golfers are athletes bringing such dedication to the game and winning that they are even prepared to risk having their brain scrambled by diminutive Belgian psychologists on 10% of their winnings.

It has always been the special province of the old to complain about the young. The young always appear to have it easier, or greater opportunities, or all their own way. It has always been thus. Whose father has not bemoaned, and who has not bemoaned his son for having it all too easy?

So how seriously do we take the pleadings of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Peter Thomson about modern technology making the great old links courses redundant? It is clear that the ball is flying higher, further and better. The art form of golf statistics back up what everybody has known for some time. Since tour records began in 1968 we learn that the pros average driving increased by a foot every year until 1995 when it made a quantum jump to seven feet a year. The best minds in materials science and maths say that there is another 15 yards theoretically available - then that's it!

Well, that may be that as far as the technology is concerned but players are not likely to stop improving their skills. But do the courses need protecting from this combination of technology and burgeoning skills? Stroke averages have not maintained a linear relationship with length. Course records are not tumbling. Tournament winning scores are not precipitating drastically. The courses do not need protecting in terms of length and if they are being threatened we have already seen what to do about it.

Carnoustie was protected well in 1999 by simply putting a premium on accuracy and control - the essences of the game. Tiger Woods learned something at Carnoustie and he returned to the east coast of Scotland the following year a much soberer man. Contrary to popularly held belief he did not simply drive over all the bunkers to win the Championship on the Old Course: he played safely and conservatively, taking the bunkers out of play by precision and not by power. It also helped that he putted like a man inspired.

Judicious planting of whin and gorse, siting bunkers and growing rough to find out the foolhardy is all that is required for both the pros to be tested and the punters to be pleased. The old links courses will endure and golf will progress better without the application of legislative brakes. Golf, it should be remembered is for all - not simply incidental tournament players. If technology is making the game more accessible to more people and generating more golf courses then I'm all for technology.

©    4 - FEBRUARY 2002

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