The ball : no change is not an option
Q. Is he right?
A. The design and construction of golf clubs is still important. But the players, their scores - and the courses - will always be more affected by changes to the ball than by changes to the clubs.
Getting the right balance between the challenge on any course - and the enjoyment which players get from that challenge - depends very largely on the characteristics of the ball.
Q. So is the balance about right now?
A. We say definitely not for REAL golf : even for TOP golf that balance is at a crossroads. There is plenty of evidence that golf on 7000 yard courses, with rounds taking five hours or more, is just not fit for purpose, either for REAL or TOP golf. It does not hold our enthusiasm - playing or watching. 50 years ago, 6500 yards would have been considered very long – and three hours for a round was easily achieved.
Q. And that’s the fault of the ball?
A. Much of it, yes , although Pace of play also involves other factors. Most of the extra length added to courses has been necessary because the ball has been going further and further. Since about 1910, actually, but the last 50 years have seen the biggest “advances”. Maybe not so much in the last decade, but by then the damage was done.
Q. Who’s to blame?
A. Pretty much everybody for the last 100 years. The ball makers, The R&A and the USGA, the Tours, course developers, recreational golfers – anyone who never sat down and asked themselves : what length of course will give me an enjoyable challenge which fits my own abilities? Once you think about that, it becomes clear that you should play a ball which best fits the length of the course you choose to play.
Q. But aren’t all balls pretty much the same? And don’t recreational golfers always want to play the longest ball?
A. Well, they’re not all the same – there’s always a trade-off between distance and control (especially around the greens). Even so, most recreational golfers don’t bother about that, so long as the ball goes far enough. And modern courses are so long, it has to go far enough!
Q. Are you suggesting I might enjoy playing a ball that doesn’t go so far, but is easier around the greens?
A. It’s all relative. Suppose we asked you to play on a course of 2700 yards i.e. the average for each hole is 150 yards. On the day, we all play with a less-powerful ball, a ball which is 10% lighter. Turns out we can hit it far enough on such a short course and have just as much fun in rather less time. In fact, when we try the heavier ball on the same course, we find it harder to hit and more difficult to control around the greens. Less fun but more time.
Q. I see what you’re getting at. But 2700 yards is way too short isn’t it?
A. Yes, for a full-length course, but it gets you thinking about the optimum length of course for you – and what ball might be best for you. The lesson of history is that back in 1910, most courses were less than 6000 yards long, golfers had a big selection of different weight balls to use (i.e. a range of power ) – and the game was expanding in popularity as fast as it has ever done.
Q. Well, you haven’t proved to me that a less-powerful ball could give me as much fun, even if the course was shorter.
A. I don’t expect you to take my word for it. Thanks to Far East manufacturing, there are plenty of ball makers who can now supply us with such balls – of decent quality - to try out. Seeing is believing. But the benefits of shorter courses, both in cost to you and time taken to play, do have to be shown to lots of golfers before anyone takes this seriously. This will take time – and open minds!
Q. But my course measures 6800 yards – where could I go to try out these balls?
A. You can easily shorten any course by playing off forward tees, and seeing how the golfing challenge then works for you. It’ll be quicker, for sure.
Q. When I get older, even on a shorter course, could I go back to a more powerful ball?
A. Yes, why not? REAL golf is about enjoyment and in friendly games the choice is for you and your golfing partners. There would still be the trade-off between distance and control, but on shorter courses that's less critical.
Q. But wouldn’t it be better if The R&A and the USGA set the limits?
A. Fortunately, they already did, back in 1921 : the weight of the ball must be no greater than 1.62 oz and the diameter of the ball must be no less than 1.68inches. Within those parameters there is great scope for varying the power of the ball.
In any case, taken over the last century, statutory regulation has not been - to put it mildly - very successful . Once you get the idea that the ball must fit the course and your abilities – not vice-versa – then voluntary self- regulation might prove the better route. But only if we are really prepared to focus on the imperative of playing REAL golf on shorter courses, which cost less and are quicker to get round.
Q. Do you think it will ever happen? And what about handicaps and competitions?
A. Where would you like the game to be in 20 years time? 8000 yard courses, six hour rounds – and a game in terminal decline? That's where it's going, led inexorably by the demands of the TOP game. If The R&A and the USGA are unwilling to legislate further on the ball, then we think they should do much,much more in leading the debate on the optimum length of courses for recreational golf. Get that right, and everything starts to fall into place, even handicaps and competitions - which we can discuss later.
But, at present, we think the whole subject of the ball is shrouded in secrecy which is counter-productive – although there was a time when both the Royal and Ancient GC ( before it created The R&A, in 2004 ) and the USGA engaged in much more public debate about this crucial subject, which affects the enjoyment of us all.
Q. Isn’t that secrecy due to the fear of legal action from ball makers?
A. Perhaps. But that is precisely why the concept of self-regulation is so important. It would allow the status quo to continue, even for TOP golf, as well as giving the impetus for facilities to offer REAL golf which is more time-friendly and more affordable – and just as enjoyable.
A final word about the ball makers. Their constant plea is that technology has always been around and brings advances that make the game more enjoyable. They never, ever refer to the extra cost in building and maintaining courses, or the extra time needed to play them. Their apparent concern for the customer has helped to land us with 7000 yard courses and rounds which take far too long. A game which is barely fit for purpose, and has lost millions of golfers in the last decade.
Yes, the ball is the most important piece of equipment we use. Well said, Phil.