A Golf Purist


Played golf the other day with a good friend who brought along a gentleman I had never met. After the usual exchange of pleasant inanities my friend mentioned I wrote about golf and the new guy said without any prompting, “Well, I can’t see all this new equipment. Why they just don’t go back to persimmon drivers and a wound ball like the old Titleist Professional.” Continue reading

USGA Shoots Themselves in the Foot…Again

USGA has again taken a position that gives the impression they like embarrassing themselves and enforcing the feeling of many the organization is irrelevant to golf in the real world.

The latest is the announcement by the USGA (and R&A) citing they “are proposing regulations regarding the use of green-reading materials, reaffirming the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgment, skill and ability. Continue reading

Monday After Carnoustie

Truth time. My favorite majors are the Masters and the British Open and that’s not saying anything against the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open, just my view. This past week at Carnoustie, the most northern course on the Open rota, we got to see the 147th playing of the world’s oldest major and Francesco Molinari was certainly a worthy Champion Golfer of the Year.

We also had the chance for a few observations, hopefully cogent and worth reading.

The Course
The R&A found the time to test the face rebound of 30 drivers used by contestants and all of them passed muster…not too much trampoline effect. They were able to engage in this equipment certification exercise because they didn’t spend endless hours attempting to trick up the layout, trick the players or otherwise mess around with an already immensely difficult course. On Wednesday Carnoustie’s fairways were tested by the Golf Channel and had a Stimpmeter reading of 9.2; less than the greens but not by a lot which probably averaged 10 for the week.

The British Open is played au naturel and unlike our national golf association the R&A doesn’t seem to have an agenda to “preserve par” or push the greens to the edge of extinction. Even Tiger Woods agrees the R&A has the right idea saying after his round on Thursday, “…this is how the game should be played. It should be creative.”

Difficult for sure and unfair at times applies to every Open and especially the 2018 Car-nasty event. But who cares. It is compelling to watch.

Tiger
If you are Woods fan his performance for the week was encouraging and if you’re not it was confirmation his struggles to close out a tournament once in position to win. Since his return from back surgery and other personal problems his pattern has been reasonable play in the first two rounds then almost lights out in the third round where he has the best scoring average on the PGA Tour. We saw this clearly at Carnoustie and to win on Tour, much less another major, he must relearn how to close.

Woods T-6 performance in Scotland did achieve one thing. He advanced from 71st in world to 50th giving him a spot in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational starting on Aug. 2nd which is played over Firestone CC (South) in Akron where he has won eight times.

Long Ball
Molinari’s win should again point out the fallacy of the argument the golf ball goes too far. The Champion Golfer of the Year is ranks 53rd in driving distance on Tour and 79th in driving accuracy. It’s likely however advocates of “rolling back the ball” will either ignore these facts or put it down to a never to be repeated Carnoustie fluke.

Television Coverage
How anybody could have serious complaints about the 50 hours of live Golf Channel/NBC Sports coverage says reams about the critic’s lack of knowledge about the massive effort televising an outdoor sports event requires. And while we are on the subject, special kudos goes to the producers. For the third year at least one shot of each of the 156 players was shown on television. “If you’re good enough to qualify for The Open, you deserve to be seen on TV.”

Monday after Shinnecock

In 2004, the last time our national open was played at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club at the extreme eastern end of Long Island, the wailing and gnashing of teeth by players could be heard 90 miles away in Manhattan. At issue was the course setup and particularly the par-3 7th hole where in the final round the first four contestants made a triple bogey, a triple bogey, a triple bogey and a bogey. The putting surface was so fast the ball would not stop much less stop anywhere near the hole.

On that Sunday fourteen years ago, the USGA rather than suffer further embarrassment, opted to water the 7th and a few other greens allowing the leaders including champion Retief Goosen to be able to play the hole without undue mishap.

Now that the 118th U.S. Open is in the record books with Brooks Koepka putting on a memorable performance for in second Championship in as many years here are five takeaways.

Course setup – Thursday proved that wind, 4-inch rough and thigh-high fescue can make any course into an extremely tough test even though fairway widths were generous averaging 41 yards compared with less than 30 yards in some recent Opens. The course Thursday and Friday was extremely difficult but playable. Moderate green speeds and shaved false fronts along with shaved false sides and shaved false backs meant controlling approaches was diabolically critical. Saturday afternoon however the course was unplayable to even well struck approaches and putts. A non-apology from the USGA did nothing to mitigate the fact they really messed up. They compensated by putting lots of water on the course in preparation for Sunday so that fourth round scores averaged an astonishing 3.2 strokes lower than Saturday. The USGA continues to believe they should push course setups to the point that when weather conditions don’t match weather predictions the result is a disaster.

Woods Performance – It’s 10 years since Tiger Woods last won a major and before start of play Thursday some who should know better announced he was ready to win his 15th major. From the first hole however, it was plain Woods game is not ready to take on a course of U.S. Open difficulty. Poor iron play paired with mediocre driving put too much pressure on his short game. His scrambling was passable, but he just didn’t hit enough greens and combined with a bottom third of the field in putting he had no chance to make the cut much less contend. U.S. Open’s aren’t won with three double bogeys and a triple bogey. Put another way, the 42-year old Woods has a long way to go before we see the Tiger of old not simply an old Tiger.

Traffic Was Awful –  Before the Championship began USGA Executive Director Mike Davis said Shinnecock Hills would be in the consideration for another Open in years to come. Let’s face it, one of the biggest reasons old traditional courses are not played by the Tour any longer is the lack of acreage to hold thousands of fans, parking, concessions, the TV compound and multiple corporate hospitality locations. Should an efficient way to get players and fans to the course be part of the consideration or is this another case where the USGA does what they want because they can? And besides did anyone notice Shinnecock Hills is at the end of an island with one main road? Oh well, at least the Open won’t be back here until 2026.

Lefty’s Brain Cramp: Rarely do you see a professional do something as inane as Phil Mickelson hitting a moving ball on the 13th hole during Saturday’s third round. The whole episode was ridiculous regardless of his excuse, rationalization, justification or reasoning if indeed any reasoning even existed at the time. Phil called USGA Executive Director Davis offering to withdraw if he had crossed the line of acceptable behavior but the USGA had already ruled he would not be disqualified. This however didn’t stop the postings on social media and Olympian pronouncements by certain analysts. Might Lefty’s real problem been his frustration trying to win his career grand slam U.S. Open on a course that had become unplayable…we’ll probably never know.

Two-hole Playoff: Thanks to Koepka we didn’t have to experience the new two-hole playoff which hardly anyone has a good word about. The USGA made the decision to drop the 18-hole format citing, “…everyone wanted to see a Sunday finish.” Would it be unreasonable to suggest that Fox, who have the broadcast rights, heads the list of “everyone?”

Criticism of Driving Distance is a Nonstarter

Television commentators often talk about how far players hit the golf ball and this prompted the thought that by looking the results of PGA Tour players who have the highest driver swing speeds we could gain some insight into the current criticism of ball distance. So, here are the “fast five” as of the Arnold Palmer Invitational–statistics provided by the PGA Tour:

Keith Mitchell 123.97 mph
Rory McIlroy 122.34 mph
Tiger Woods 121.90 mph
Tony Finau 121.90 mph
Gary Woodland 121.84 mph

The “elites,” touring professionals and top caliber amateurs, unquestionably hit the ball farther than in the past however that’s not the issue. We need to know if added distance is a detriment to the game.

By analyzing the results of those with the highest swing speeds we should see a correlation with driving distance, scoring and money won and taking the elite of the elites, average driving distance is:

Keith Mitchell 312.1 yards
Rory McIlroy  314.1 yards
Tiger Woods 304.2 yards
Tony Finau 322.7 yards
Gary Woodland 312.2 yards

But that’s not the whole story. Mitchell is only number 10 in driving distance, McIlroy is 6, Woods 36, Finau first and Woodland 9.

More interesting, in fact very interesting, is how swing speed translates into scoring average: Mitchell is number 143, McIlroy 16, Woods 5, Finau 13 and Woodland 29. To put this in perspective, this year’s scoring average leader is Dustin Johnson at 68.843 strokes per round and in 1999, prior to introduction of the “game-changing” Titleist Pro V1, the leader was Tiger Woods with an average of 68.432.

Statisticians would call that amount of difference over 19 years “noise.”

How about a correlation between swing speed and money won? Mitchell is number 170 in official money after 10 events, McIlroy number 19 and 5 events, Woods 32/5 events, Finau 10/10 events and Woodland 15/11 events. In money won per event played Mitchell is number 215, McIlroy 8, Woods 15, Finau 19 and Woodland 25.

Then there’s an oft voiced concern courses are being turned into “driver-wedge” layouts, but the percentage of greens hit in regulation should tell the story. Mitchell is number 113 hitting 64.93% GIR, McIlroy 182/60.78%, Woods 174/61.42%, Finau 32/69.29% and Woodland 3/72.76%. Again, comparing with 1999, David Duval was first with a 73.57% GIR while today Kevin Streelman the 2018 leader is at 72.83%…more statistical noise.

We could go on, but the conclusion is obvious, though the elites are swinging faster and hitting the ball farther it does not translate into results.

But then you knew that.

The question is why don’t the solons of rules at the USGA and the R&A?

There have been unsupported statements about several topics among them ball distance causing slow play, forcing layouts to add length and of course, the great old shibboleth, traditional classic tracks are unable to host Tour events. All these opinions are nonstarters and their proponents have yet to present facts in support.

We all know slow play has everything to do with the individual players not the distance they hit the ball. The problems and costs of maintaining all golf courses, not just the ones beefed up in the belief longer is better, have been addressed by greens superintendents already much to their credit. Finally, the old classic courses (usually spoken of in mystical terms) is that many don’t have the acreage for parking, corporate hospitality, television production and tens of thousands of fans. Ball distance has nothing to do with it, they just aren’t capable of holding a big-time event.

Those who want to either “roll back the ball” or split the rules into us-and-them, so-called bifurcation, seem bent on convincing themselves tee ball distance needs to be fixed and equally convinced to do so in the face of a mountain of contrary facts. Every the USGA’s own 2017 Driving Distance Report doesn’t make a case for the ball going too far. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America have stated there isn’t any problem as have Acushnet, makers of the Titleist Pro V1, and TaylorMade Golf whose drivers are the most played by professionals worldwide. The PGA Tour clearly understands they are in the entertainment business and knows Hank Haney has it right saying people don’t go a ballgame to see a bunch of bunt singles, they go to see homeruns.

What we are facing is not a problem of the ball going too far but the perception of a problem simply because a few respected industry members have beat the drum long enough that the USGA and R&A finally have said they agree.

That’s no way to decide any issue.

The ball distance discussion isn’t over. Not as long as Tour players are bigger, stronger, better trained elites playing clubs computer-fitted to their swing, hitting low-spin solid core balls onto firm, fast fairways.

The USGA and R&A have said there is a problem evidently so then they can justify imposing a solution and more importantly and more tragically is how they are clearly out of touch with the overwhelming majority of golfers.

Fuzzy Thinking

Fuzzy thinking, even by well-known and respected people is still fuzzy thinking and when the topic is the distance the golf ball goes, fuzzy thinking easily results in a call to “doing something before the game is ruined.”

Respected icons of the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have said more than once the problem with golf is the ball goes too far.

Maybe by taking a look at the facts we can sweep away the fuzziness concerning golf ball distance because if we don’t, sure as heck, the fuzzy thinking will eventually prevail.

First, this controversy over technological advancement is not new. It was essentially the same in the nineteen century and rears its head with every major advancement in balls and clubs. If you have some time, look up the evolution of the feathery ball to the gutta percha and then to the rubber-core ball or the story of the Schenectady center-shafted mallet putter being outlawed after Walter Travis used one to win the British Amateur.

The cry was all the fine old courses would be made obsolete because they were too short and no longer challenging or simply improvements in equipment meant the game was becoming too easy. Sound familiar?

Today the distance the golf ball goes is due to vastly improved launch conditions. This began with the introduction of metalwoods and then the development of graphite shafts allowing an increase in size of driver club heads. When titanium heads were introduced makers were able to almost double driver clubhead size again and driver shafts could be made much longer. All of these plus an immense improvement in ball aerodynamics added significant distance with all clubs.

Professionals—the ones fuzzy thinkers believe hit the ball too far—have also benefitted from intensive computer-aided instruction, better physical training and the simple fact a large number of them are taller and bigger than in the past.

Improved equipment and better agronomy have resulted in courses, especially on Tour, playing firmer and faster. Plus we must recognize the desire of operators to have the longest, toughest layout so they can boast of the difficulty for professionals rather than the playability for recreational golfers.

The number of golf courses is steadily decreasing so overall use of the land is not an issue. It is true some “fine old courses” may not have the land to be stretched in order to accommodate the modern professionals but that’s OK. For the average player not every course needs to be like this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills and have the capability to be played to over 8,000 yards.

However, the fact is in 2017 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 291.20 yards, an increase of about one yard in the preceding ten years so there’s been no “distance explosion” in more than a decade.

For recreational players titanium-headed-graphite-shafted drivers and solid-core-low-spinning urethane cover balls have not produced anywhere near the gains in yardage achieved by professionals. Technology has not caused golf handicaps to plummet and the typical male golfer still isn’t hitting the ball over 200 yards–if that.

The rulers of our game don’t seem to understand the problem in terms of the average golfer who occasionally makes a par and buys a celebratory beer when he makes a birdie. Additionally the USGA continues with the idea the ball goes should be reduced while telling weekend warriors to play from a shorter tee set. That’s illogical and a nonstarter.

Of course the culprit most often cited is the Titleist Pro V1 which debuted in the fall 2000 and at once became the most played ball on Tour. Every manufacturer now makes similar balls that are low spinning with urethane covers and solid cores.

The PGA Tour is in the entertainment business and the business model should be what its customers, i.e., golf fans, want. There’s no question we want to see birdies and eagles and drivable par-4s not to mention DJ smoking one 340. In 2007 the scoring average on Tour was 71.34 and this season it is 72.00. In fact going back 20 years the average was 71.77 showing courses aren’t getting easier despite what some would like you to believe.

As Frank Thomas former technical director of the USGA and current golf industry consultant has often said, driving distance has gone as far as it can go because the physics involved are maxed out. Or put another way, you can’t argue with Mother Nature.

Finally, part of the fuzzy thinking can be laid at the doorstep of the media because it’s easy to write that a well-known player, ex-player or some administrator is decrying the state of the game. One headline trumpeted “Great Balls of Fire!” referring to today’s low-spin golf balls. This is a cheap shot displaying a lack of knowledge not to mention an abuse of journalistic standards.

The inescapable conclusion there’s no horrific problem with the distance the golf ball travels. That’s just plain old fuzzy thinking.

And the solution is easy. Do nothing.

The crisis in golf technology or golf ball distance is only in the minds of fuzzy thinkers.

An Old-Fashioned Attaboy

In the past there have been a number of times I have been critical of golf’s rules givers, the United States Golf Association and R&A, but today they deserve an old-fashioned “attaboy.”

The reason is they promptly came up with a fix to what many viewed as a ludicrous situation, namely the four stroke penalty given to Lexi Thompson during the ANA Inspiration. The USGA and R&A modified the Rules of Golf to address an obviously inherent unfairness.

Decision 34-3/10 of the Rules of Golf, which takes effect immediately, limits the use of video in accessing potential rules infractions. The announcement has caused an eruption of comment on the Internet from both the knowledgeable and, as one might expect, also those who are evidently clueless. Though the Internet is a tool we have come to rely upon it’s also provides a ready forum for the uninformed.

But setting that aside and in case you’ve been otherwise occupied, Lexi Thompson was on her way to winning the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the year, when during the third round she marked her ball on the green but inadvertently replaced it one-half inch from the original spot. A television viewer pointed this out in an email to LPGA.com the next day and after reviewing the video the LPGA rules committee assessed Thompson a four stroke penalty.

Officials informed Thompson of the penalty on the 13th hole of the final round and what was a three shot lead at the time became a one shot deficit. Thompson eventually lost the championship in a playoff.

The outcry by everyone from fans to players to those who can’t tell a birdie from a bogey was tremendous. Tiger Woods even got into the discussion condemning the whole idea of officiating from a sofa.

Though the USGA said no particular case prompted their action it’s more than coincidental Decision 34-3/10 came just three weeks after the Thompson penalty. In addition of course, there was the other well publicized incident during the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open playoff when Anna Nordqvist was hit with a two shot penalty after high definition, close up, slow motion video showed her club grazing a few grains of sand.

Now under Decision 34-3/10 officials have two ways to judge the use of video in determining if a penalty is to be accessed. First is the so-called “naked eye” standard which simply means if high definition video is needed to see a potential violation then reasonableness dictates there is no problem. The other part of the decision also uses the reasonableness standard to judge the location of a drop or ball placement.

The lords of Far Hills and St. Andrews evidently got a lesson from the situation surrounding what’s called the “DJ Rule” last year. During the 2016 U.S. Open Dustin Johnson was penalized when his ball laying on a green rolled about the width of one dimple and it was judged more likely than not he caused the ball to move. However Rule 18-02 was rewritten done less than six months later and under the same circumstances should a player cause the ball to move inadvertently it could be replaced without penalty.

Is the new “Lexi rule” in Decision 34-3/10 perfect? No, and it may be modified in the future. But critics and naysayers should take into account the obvious. The game is not one of perfection nor played in a controlled environment. There always has been and always will be room for judgement, equity, reasonableness and fair play.

Reasonableness and reasonable judgement…how refreshing and we didn’t have to wait for the usual four year cycle of rules rewrites.

Unfortunately what has been lost in all the noise over the unfairness of the Nordqvist or Thompson incidents, is congratulations to the USGA and the R&A for doing something in a competent and timely manner.

An “attaboy” well earned.

The Significance of the DJ Rule

The “DJ Rule.” The modification of the Rules of Golf by the United States Golf Association that took effect January 1 is important. In fact, it could be said as being very significant and not just as a simplification of the Rules we play by.

If you remember, in the final round of the U.S. Open last June, Dustin Johnson lined up a par putt on the fifth green and before he addressed the ball it rolled backwards, i.e. away from the hole, a tiny distance. Johnson immediately told a referee walking with him and fellow competitor Lee Westwood and the official simply asked if he had soled his putter behind the ball.

Johnson answered, “No,” which was quickly confirmed by Westwood. The official was satisfied and told Johnson to play on with no penalty.

Everyone thought that ended the incident until later as the duo walked on to the twelfth tee. Senior rules directors informed DJ there was a problem, namely there might be a penalty stroke added to his score for the incident seven holes previously.

According to the version of Rule 18-2 in effect at the time, on the putting green if a player caused a ball to move whether he meant to or not, he must put the ball back and add a stroke to his score. To complicate it further the rule contained the wording “more likely than not” as the standard the committee should apply in making their judgement.

The situation went from bad to worse since neither the average fan nor Johnson’s fellow competitors felt it neither sensible nor fair to overturn an on-the-spot referee’s judgement hours later. However, the Rules of Golf do specifically give the Committee the right to change a referee’s decision after a round based on their evaluation of the circumstances which often comes from studying videotape of the telecast.

A wait of seven holes to tell DJ he was in the crosshairs was beyond reasonable. The possibility of a penalty stroke left Johnson and the entire field in limbo as to where he and they stood in the most important championship of the year. To put it simply, the USGA wasn’t showing its best.

The incident proved again the myriad complications of the Rules of Golf cannot be passed off simply as the way to maintain the integrity of the game when it is a sport played out of doors with constantly changing conditions. Common sense should be factored in and thankfully Johnson, the phlegmatic South Carolinian, was able to overcome the uncertainty to win by four strokes though the record book shows the final margin was three.

Effective January 1 the USGA changed the language of Rule 18-2 so if the ball on the green is moved accidentally, whatever the cause, the player puts it back without a penalty…what I’m calling the “DJ Rule.” It fixes the previous inequity properly and is more realistic, more sensible and fairer.

Which brings us to the reasons why the DJ Rule is so significant.

First, the USGA was responsive to the howls of protest by everyone from golf fans to PGA Tour players. The Rule 18-02 change is eminently more realistic and perhaps best of all accomplished without waiting for the usual molasses-in-January quadrennial rules review. Quite properly the words “more likely than not,” used as justification in accessing the penalty on Johnson were dropped. No longer will Johnson or any player be convicted by inference and extrapolation rather than facts.

Secondly congratulations to the USGA who, without compromising the spirit of the game, are “significantly” reworking the Rules of Golf to make them more user-friendly with a preview of the changes next month.

Hopefully the redo will be along the lines of, “You start here and hit it until it goes in over there.”

Images courtesy of the USGA