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On the Ball
If not in 2004, then it will certainly not be long before the USGA and the R&A address the problem of the ball, for if it flies much further it will soon require radar-tracking devices to follow it. The question is posed, and there is apparently no immediate answer to it, can the great championship courses of the world go on being lengthened to keep them in challenging play? Are we prepared to see them become obsolete? Worse still, as far as I am concerned, do we want to see them increasingly tricked -up with more or re-located bunkers, longer and longer rough and narrower fairways to provide them with new teeth?

There is a vociferous minority that would have you believe that it is a combination of factors that has generated the phenomenal lengths being achieved off the tee. Players are said to be fitter and stronger. They hit the ball harder with faster clubhead speeds and consequently the ball flies further. This I doubt. Nick Faldo was no wimp and few would take the risk of kicking sand in Greg Norman's face. Was any golfer ever fitter than Gary Player, or more pugilistic than Arnold Palmer?

There is also the question of improvements in clubhead and shaft technology. Metallurgy and the physics of torsion have certainly made an impression, as everyone that has continued to swing a club through the last 20 years knows full well. Not only is the modern club more forgiving of a bad action, but it is also easier to make a better clubhead connection with the ball. This has meant that the player can strike harder with more confidence, but it is the ball that flies in consequence and the ball is simply flying too far for comfort.

The ball has undoubtedly made the greatest contribution to the unprecedented lengths off the tee. For the new young echelon of players, a 300+ yards drive is commonplace. Par five holes are now routinely two shots to the green and shorter par fours are commonly driven. These young guns are no better or stronger than those that have gone before, they simply have a ball to play with that flies further.

Concern about the ball is not new found. Many will recall Peter Thomson's early expressions of concern when the yearly increase in driving averages were but a yard or two. Jack Nicklaus also called for constraint but, like Peter Thomson, his pleas fell on deaf ears. There were even simple-minded commentators who called sour grapes, quite forgetting that these two great champions had done it all, had no axe to grind and were clearly expressing their concern about the game and the wonderful courses that had made it great.

Now Big Bill Campbell has added his weight to the cause of the ball and his muscle is not inconsiderable. Bill Campbell is the only person to have presided over the USGA and captained the R&A. That he has also won the US Amateur and captained US Walker Cup teams simply adds weight to his golfing credibility.

Big Bill was awarded the 2003 Donald Ross prize by the American Association of Golf Course Architects in Pittsburgh recently and used the occasion to make his opinions known. In his recipients address he said that: 'Recent ongoing increases in driving yardage seem to be exponential and are indefensible and not in the game's best interests.' Big Bill recently celebrated his 80th birthday. He has seen it all, done it all, has no axe to grind and without doubt has the best interests of the game at heart.

It is clear that the thousands of man-hours of aerodynamic research that has been applied to the ball have borne a fruit of the bitterest kind. Together with the materials science and the differential densities studies that the golf ball manufacturers have put into the production of the modern ball, they have transformed the game. It is not altogether serendipity that the latest technologically enhanced ball with its aerodynamic dimpled configuration generates less backspin and has a higher launch trajectory. These factors are among the most prominent in having a dramatic effect on long hitting.

How much more can the ball be 'improved', or rather, made to fly further? Some would have us believe that the limits are being rapidly approached. Some materials scientists and aerodynamics experts would ask you not to believe a word of it. Clearly, the status quo is a shifting thing that should be fixed now before the ball's flight becomes farcical.

Is it possible to make a ball for all that would reduce the driving distances of the long hitters without affecting the rest of us? The answer is yes, density adjustments alone could do that. Besides, if the ball manufacturers can produce balls that fly 300+ yards, you can bet that it is not outwith their capability to produce a ball that flies no more than 250 yards, no matter how hard you hit it.

©    23 - DECEMBER 2003

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