Jack Nicklaus will tell you it’s a different game of golf these days from what he remembers and at the moment seems the most outspoken high profile name campaigning for a change in equipment rules. His main grudge lies with the advancement of ball technology and cites this as the main contributor to overall distance increases players have experienced post millennium. Hootie Johnson (2005), Chairman of Augusta, also hinted at the possibility of a “Masters’ Ball”, a ball that wouldn’t fly as far, been introduced if the newly added 500 yards couldn’t offset developments in technology that have reduced the challenge Augusta used to present.
Some courses have now become obsolete because they are simply not long enough to cope with the demands of the 21st century player. But can anyone play golf without any real overwhelming skill or talent just by having the right equipment? Over the next few paragraphs I’ll be looking closely at these new developments in technology since 2000 and underlining the impact they’ve had on the game. My main aim is draw some conclusions with my research and see what solutions are available to us.
In 2000 around the time Tiger Woods was starting his “Tiger slam” another piece of history was being written. The culmination of 2 years of research by Titleist led to the launch of the Pro V1 ball. Its first release at the Invensys Classic in Las Vegas won headline news, as it led to 47 players changing to put it into play, making it one of the largest shifts of golf Equipment at one event in history.
Callaway also introduced their first ball to the market in 2000 called “rule 35”. Since then they have received a lot of success with their HX tour ball which is rivalling the Pro V1 because of its similar playing attributes.
The Ball still received the most press as being the protagonist for the changes that golf has seen in recent times but new clubs made a huge difference as well.
In the mid 90’s titanium headed drivers came to the fore, but at the turn of the new century average head size was still around 250cc. Ultra light titanium allowed head size to increase without making the club any heavier and reducing swing speed. The magic would trigger 3 new changes to driver design. Firstly increased clubhead sizes increased also the size of the sweet spot making off-centre hits still fly well. Secondly, the length of the shaft could now also be increased without looking disproportionate to the head, and thirdly, the introduction of “spring like” clubfaces. The new thin titanium clubfaces would actually bend at impact allowing more energy from the club to be transferred to the ball than the 75% which was only possible with steel.
These three changes together led to great advances in driver distance, so much so that governing bodies of golf had to step in and take control of the situation before technology replaced skill. The two parties agreed on limitations of clubhead size to 460cc and shaft length to 48” and legislation was introduced in 2004. The biggest controversy was caused over the spring like effect many manufactures were getting from their clubfaces. In 1998 the USGA set a COR limit of 0.83, meaning that a maximum of 83% of the energy was allowed to be transferred from the club to ball. In 2002 the R&A agreed on the same limit but delayed its introduction until 2008.
Technology also improved in custom fitting in the form of Launch Monitor Systems. Using a series of sensors and cameras this new computer based analysis system provided impact information of a players’ swing. Information was now available about swing speed, ball speed, ball spin rate, launch angle and energy transfer from club to ball. It also predicted how far a ball would fly and what combination of shaft and loft would give the best launch angle and transfer of energy to produce the longest drive. It meant players could quickly identify what would benefit them the most.
The impact of technological advances in equipment has indeed made a difference to the way courses need to be set-up. When the US PGA Championship was played at Medinah in 2006 the course was 7,561 yards long. The course that hit the headlines the most on this issue though was Merion. Home of many major championships Merion has been rejected as a major venue due to its lack of length and is a prime example of a US Open course on which a US Open can no longer be played on.
The notable difference on the game now though is the incredible distance players seems to hit the ball so let’s have a look at the facts.
The average driving distance on the USPGA Tour has increased by 15.5 yards over the last 10 years but the scoring has remained quite similar meaning probably that course adjustments have correctly compensated the distance gain.
Graph 1 shows the number of tour pros averaging over 300 yards from the tee rose steadily since 2000 but peaked in 2005 and is declining now.
To complement this, Graph 2 shows that during the same time the tour driving accuracy % declined since 2000 as drives became longer until 2005 and then started rising again.
Surely this suggests that the importance of precision is returning.
Currently if you look at the world rankings (Graph 3, over) the top 10 players are all long hitters with the exception of Stricker and Furyk.
So have the new clubs and balls aided only the long players? Yes, but indirectly i feel. Research by the USGA dispelled the rumours that advantages of modern technology were disproportionate to long hitters. The study showed that across the board in the last 10 years most Pro’s had gained an average of 10 yards. The examples they gave being John Daly (the longest) gaining 8.7 yards and Corey Pavin (the shortest) gaining 7.9 yards. The report was contrary to peoples thoughts that the modern ball had to be hit over a certain distance and speed to really be activated and show a real gain. The USGA actually went one step further with their next study, which involved the Coefficient of restitution (COR) of Driver Heads and how effectively energy is transferred from the club to the ball.
As Graph 4 above shows, when clubhead speed increases the COR actually decreases, meaning that the likes of Corey Pavin are getting more power out of their swings and more distance than the Tiger Woods’ of the world.
Of the most recent debates to arise around new technology the hype surrounding U-grooves seemed to gather pace when Vijay Singh replaced Tiger Woods as World Number 1 in 2004. Interestingly during the season Singh’s driving accuracy percentage went down as his greens in regulation stats went up. Questioned on this he said,
“I would rather sacrifice accuracy for length. I have a better chance of marking birdie on a hole hitting a shorter approach with a wedge from the rough than hitting an 8-iron from the fairway” Vijay Singh, USA Today, 2004
The premise being that modern U- grooves are allowing the players still a high level of ball control even from thick rough. Senior Technical director from the USGA, Dick Rugge, likened modern U-grooves to tyres with deep treads saying that,
“Grass is mostly water, so the ball can aquaplane off the clubface if there’s grass between ball and club. Like a car Tyre, the bigger the groove, the greater the chance for the water to go away” Dick Rugge, USA Today, 2007
So it seems as of 2010, as proposed by the USGA and the R&A together, U-grooves on hybrids, irons and wedges will have to be reduced in size to produce ball spin rates to similar levels from V-grooves. Currently U- grooves produce 50% to 100% more revolutions per minute on balls than V-shaped grooves. This will reduce a players’ control from longer grass and put the emphasis back on hitting the fairway.
These key technological developments since 2000 have obviously had a drastic impact on the way the game is played, but where will it go from here?
Some suggestions for the future of the game have come from many top figures of the sport. As i stated at the beginning Jack Nicklaus has been an advocator for a change to be made to the ball. He was actually responsible for the invention of the “Cayman Islands” ball, which was designed to fly 10% shorter than traditional modern balls to combat the short courses there. He said on the issue
“If the ball goes shorter, you don’t have to come out every year and have the same conversation about what do we do to Augusta to combat what they did to the golf ball.” Jack Nicklaus, ’Golf technology has scary impact, and that’s no myth’, Van Brimmer, Adam 2006.
The USGA have already taken steps in this direction by asking leading ball manufactures to develop prototype balls which fly 15 to 25 yards less under test conditions. As for now the USGA say their request is purely for research purposes but it does suggest a change could be in their thoughts. Titleist Chief, Wally Uihlein, commented on the request from the USGA saying,
“We could make the ball lighter, but if we’re not careful, the game will hardly be what it is today” Wally Uihlein, ‘Golf ball distance under scrutiny’, Doug Ferguson 2006
Changing of ball characteristics has actually already happened recently in Tennis, so why not in Golf? In their case, similar with golf, the power game was putting more emphasis on the serve and reducing some sets to only a handful of rallies making it boring in the eyes of many fans. The 6% increase in ball size increases drag and gives the receiver 10% more time off the serve for the return shot.
Also the subject of a “Pro” ball could be an option in the future. The idea would involve makers producing normal balls for the mass market and limited supplies for the Pro Ranks. In the end though, all amateurs want to compare themselves to the tour stars so the pro ball would probably be the highest selling ball.
I also believe there is more scope for changing the way courses are set-up because as the quality of grasses increases the game will continue to become easier. The length of fairway grass has been reduced by ¾ of an inch over the last 20 years increasing the roll of drives on the fairway. Stipulations of higher fairways, minimum ¾ of an inch, like in the 60’s, and the combination with today’s low spinning balls might lead to “mini Flyers” and send the top pros back to the ball makers asking for high spinning balls once again.
Since the introduction of clubhead size, COR and shaft length regulations as of 2004 driving distance on the Tour has only increased by 1 yard per year. So it seems governing bodies have tightened the ropes around distance. Would reducing the maximum permissible number of clubs from 14 help bring back more skill to the game? Certainly if there were less irons in the bag and 6 or 7 degrees between each iron it would return the art of shot-making to prominence. Distance seems to be regulated now so maybe it really is the case that power golf is attributed to the high tuned athletes now playing rather than technology.
Stachura, Mike 2007 ‘Just how many drivers are over the limit?’
www.golfdigest.com/equipment/2007/07driverlimits_gd0707 (accessed 29/01/2008)
2007 ‘Straight talk on grooves’
www.golfdigest.com/equipment/blogs/bombgouge (accessed 29/10/2008)
Johnson, Michael 2007 ‘USGA continued its grooves research on tour last week’
www.golfdigest.com/golfworld/2007/11/gw20071102equipment (accessed 29/01/2008)
2007 ‘The science of Tennis’
www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/tennis/balls/shtml (accessed 29/01/2008)
Kostis, Peter 2005 ‘Stop blaming the ball!’
www.titleist.co.uk/technology/details.asp?id=303 (accessed 29/01/2008)
Ferguson, Doug 2006 ‘Golf ball comes under scrutiny’
www.titleist.co.uk/technology.asp?id=304 (access 29/01/2008)
Hauser, Melanie 2006 ‘The great golf ball debate’
www.titleist.co.uk/technology.asp?id=318 (access 29/01/2008)
Johnson, Micheal 2006 ‘In defence of technology’
www.titleist.co.uk/technology.asp?id=324 (access 29/01/2008)
Quintavalla, Steve 2005 ‘Do long hitters het an unfair advantage?’
www.titleist.co.uk/technology.asp?id=362 (access 29/01/2008)
2007 ‘Titleist introduces new Pro V1 and Pro V1x’
www.titleist.com.au/mediacenter/pressdetail.asp?id=240&bhcp=1 (accessed 22/01/2008)
Potter, Jerry 2007 ‘Club grooves limitation sought’
www.usatodat.printhis.clichability.com/pt/cpt?action=cpt&title=club+grooves (accessed 29/01/2008)
R&A 2007 ‘R&A propose new club grooves rule’
www.proshopeurope.com/news/index.php?nid=20 (accessed 29/01/2008)
Van Brimmer, Adam 2006 ‘Golf technology has scary impact, and that’s no myth’
www.augusta.com/strories/040906/mas_76766.shtml (accessed 24/01/2008)
2006 ‘R&A and USGA change rules on “hot” drivers’
www.golftoday.co.uk/news/yeartodate/news02/randa1.html (accessed 24/01/2008)
Statistic Data for Graphs 1,2 & 3 from http://www.pgatour.com/
Data for Graph 4 by Quintavalla, Steve, research engineer USGA, printed by Titleist www.titleist.co.uk/technology.asp?id=362 (access 29/01/2008)
Golf World March (2008) issue 3 Vol 49 ‘Equipment changes needed to end distance debate’ p19
R&A 2004 ‘Dimensions and size’ in Rules of golf, R&A, UK P148-149.