Time to rein in Rory McIlroy and other long-hitting golfers - Hindustan Times
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Time to rein in Rory McIlroy and other long-hitting golfers

The Economist
Apr 13, 2024 08:10 AM IST

The days when players could subdue Augusta National, home of the Masters, may soon be over

THE SIGHT of Augusta National Golf Club in its pomp—azaleas blooming, water tranquil and the greens an almost impossibly vivid shade of green—is one of the finest in sport. Indeed given Augusta never looks anything other than beguiling when the television cameras descend for the Masters every April, its beauty implies a kind of stasis. Yet the course in Georgia is changing all the time. More specifically, it keeps getting longer. When Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997 at the age of 21, Augusta was 6,925 yards (6,332 metres) long. When he starts the tournament for a 26th time on April 11th, it will be 7,555 yards.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland(Getty Images via AFP) PREMIUM
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland(Getty Images via AFP)

Courses around the world have been beefed up in order to provide a suitable challenge for powerful modern professional golfers. But this approach has a limit. Not all holes can be extended. Not all professionals flourish if they need to drive a ball the length of the Titanic. After a long debate, the authorities have stepped in.

That Masters of 1997 was significant not just because Mr Woods became the first African-American winner, but because he played the game in a way that was notably different from that of other golfers. In the process of shattering 20 tournament records Mr Woods posted an average driving distance of 323 yards—25 yards beyond anyone else at the event. In the first round he played the 15th hole, a 500-yard par-5, by hitting such a massive drive that his second shot was a 150-yard wedge onto the green. Over the weekend he played the eight par-5s in 13 under par.

Mr Woods looked like an athlete at a time when most golfers resembled regular Joes. But it did not take long for his muscular approach to catch on. Thanks to developments in club technology, as well as golfers’ biceps, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour, the professional men’s circuit in North America, rose steadily, from 267 yards in 1997, to 288 in 2009, to 300 last year.

In response, golf courses started “Tiger-proofing” their holes: buying up neighbouring land and dragging the tees backwards. It is an approach that Augusta has embraced with vigour. The 13th, for example, has been extended twice since 2002. And the 11th has been transformed. In 1997 it was a 455-yard par-4, with a broad fairway angling gently to the right. By 2022, it had become a 520-yard monster, with a narrow fairway.

The players, for their part, do not hold back. Smashing a ball down the fairway offers a trade-off. When increasing the distance of their shots, they may lose control. Yet research has regularly shown that the benefit of extra yards more than offsets any loss of line.

This is a trend, though, that places heavy emphasis on driving—and golf is a game of many facets. As in cricket, where the best pitches give a little help to different types of bowler, the authorities want to see golf courses that offer a test of players’ proficiency with driver, long irons, short irons, wedge and putter. Golf’s two most influential governing bodies, the R&A, based in Scotland, and the US Golf Association (USGA), have spent years considering the issue. Late last year they weighed in.

Their solution is to change the rules regarding the balls that the pros use. Current balls may travel no farther than 317 yards when struck by a certain robotic driver with a club-head speed of 120mph. For balls used from 2028 that speed will be raised to 125mph, but no increase in distance will be tolerated. These balls will be made available to recreational players in 2030. The USGA argues that it will be possible to design a ball that reduces the drives of the biggest male hitters by up to 15 yards, but will have no discernible effect for casual players. It hopes this will head off criticism from keen amateurs who wear their driving distance as a badge of honour.

Rory McIlroy, who as one of the longest drivers in the game has the biggest competitive advantage to lose, is wisely sanguine. The move, he wrote on X, will “help bring back certain skills in the pro game that have been eradicated over the past two decades”. The new balls will not put an end to the debate. Eventually some players and equipment manufacturers will find a different edge and others will look to emulate it. The same debate over technology has been seen in a variety of sports, from tennis to swimming. But what is significant about golf’s move is that the authorities have created a mechanism to tweak their sport again in the future. Top golfers will continue to hit long; now they can expect the governing bodies to hit back.

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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