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Woosnam's blues
Ernie Els was the only person in Dubai who failed to register surprise when Robert-Jan Derksen won the Dessert Classic this week. Derksen himself was astonished. It was certainly one of his golden moments for not only was this his first tournament win, it was also the first time that he had even contested a tournament lead.

His story is simple enough. He played well, putting beautifully for four days and in the crucial final round he returned a 65 with an eagle at the 13th and a birdie at the last hole to beat Els by one shot.

But the 2003 Dessert Classic is less likely to be referred to as Derksens greatest hour than it is to Woosnam's outburst about the modern golf ball. The press were certainly taken aback when Woosnam, after returning a second round 66 announced that he no longer enjoyed playing golf. Thomas Bjorn did not have to be pressed to agree with Woosnam's sentiments and it would be wrong to believe that Woosnam's reasons for his belief that the magic is being taken out of the game by the modern ball are expressions of spleen.

Both Peter Thomson and Jack Nicklaus have been voicing concern about the way the game is going for over 20 years and now a number of seasoned players, hitting the ball further than they have ever done in their careers are voicing their concern. The issue is, and always has been, the flight of the ball.

Thomson and Nicklaus' initial concern was about the great old courses becoming irrelevant as golfing tests as distance off the tee increased. Courses were required to be lengthened and they continue to be lengthened. Royal St George's is in the process of being lengthened by a further 246 yards in preparation for the Open Championship in July. At 7,106 yards Sandwich is an altogether different place.

But Ian Woosnam has broadened the debate to shot-making in the whole game. He should be listened to, as Thomson and Nicklaus should have been listened to years ago. Doubtless, like these two great champions before him, Woosnam will be accused of sour grapes. This would be silly for although it would be understandable for great players as they slip into the autumn of their competitive years to accept overhaul by young bloods with bad grace; this is not a factor in these men's concerns.

Woosnam has had 27 years on the Tour and played in over 500 tournaments, has a green jacket in a locker at Augusta and won over £8 million. He is one of the few that always appeared to enjoy earning his money, striking the ball beautifully and making shots that were and still are a joy to behold. Yet, according to Woosnam: 'The game is gone. I don't enjoy it anymore. It's not fun. The whole game has changed. It's just hit it as hard as you can and hit it as far as you can.

'There's no finesse anymore. You don't cut one with the wind, or hook one against the wind, or hook one in low. The art of squeezing the ball and shaping your shots is gone.'

Few over the age of 40 would disagree with Woosnam. Today, every hole is played the same way by every competitor in the field. It is the error and its consequences that get the attention and not the well executed shot. At the top level the game has become an increasingly athletic contest aided by technological innovation. Hours spent in the gym match those spent on the practise ground. The age of beautifully crafted clubs is long since gone as computerised solutions to design perameters have generated uniformity with metallurgists contributing more than the craftsman.

There seems no limit to what aerodynamics in concert with chemistry can do to the flight of a golf ball. Their combined contributions have produced balls that not only fly further but also straighter. With a putty-soft coating that does not cut up like balata, with so much elasticity that it does not lose shape and aerodynamic properties that require it simply to be hit hard and high for it to continue to fly true, the game is being reduced to a putting competition.

Consider the results of what I suspect was the first recorded long driving competition ever held. It took place on the New Course at St Andrews after the first professional tournament held on it in 1895. A local clubmaker won the £5 prize with what was then considered a 'mighty blow of 220 yards and one foot.' Only three others, including James Braid, got over 200 yards.

Today, not a lot over one hundred years later, the average club golfer considers 200 yards off the tee a duff shot while a mediocre pro has that distance and more off the tee in the air and 300 plus yard drives are commonplace.

A yard a year is perhaps not a staggering evolutionary rate for the flight of a golf ball but parallel evolution of clubs and balls have certainly, as Woosnam put it, 'taken the finesse out of the game', reducing it to a mere power event. Great old links courses are being reduced to pitch-n'-putt parks.

Everything progresses; the clock cannot be turned back. But the time has surely come for an address on what form the game is to take in the future. This is in the hands of those appointed to administer it and the sooner they address the perameters limiting the flight of a golf ball the better.

©    10 - MARCH 2003

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