Every family has a sport they play or follow with enthusiasm; GAA, rugby, cricket. My family’s sport is golf. There is not one member of my family who hasn’t swung a club at one point in their life. I enjoy the game but would not be an avid watcher. However, the Masters are on and I’m curious. I was surprised, and slightly concerned when I saw and heard how the game has changed. I always viewed golf as a sport that anyone could play, a sport where 3 generations could walk out onto a course and it could be anyone’s game. Now, a new way of playing the game has emerged due to the physical strength of younger players. As a result of this, advanced technologies and better equipment, golf course designers are beginning to create longer, larger fairways and greens. However, this is not sustainable for the sport or the environment.
I called on two golfing experts of my family to straighten out the facts and answer my questions. Peter Lawrie, professional golfer, winner of the Spanish Open 2008 and director of golf at Fairways and Fun Days Ltd., and Ian Lawrie, avid golfer with a handicap of 6, who has played on over 108 golf courses. They are brothers and together they finished 6th in the Dunhill Links Championship in 2006.
When did you start playing golf?
Peter: Oh, I began when I was probably seven or eight with my dad.
Ian: I started playing pitch & putt when I was about eight or nine and then I started to play golf when I was about thirteen or fourteen.
Over the years, have you seen a change in the game?
Peter: There was a huge change when Tiger Woods came on the scene and that was probably back in the late 1990s. That transformed golf completely because it moved the dial for a lot of the players to make professional golf more professional. It meant that guys started going to the gym, guys started working out. They started knowing what they were good at, what they weren’t good at and it just became a more professional game. And with Tiger, he opened the doors to other people to play the game and golf, instead of being private member’s only, began to welcome in far more people who had never seen a golf club before.
Ian: Yeah, the equipment has changed dramatically and people hit the ball further. Also the one big thing, it takes an awful lot longer to play, people play much slower. People are watching players on the television taking ages over their putts. Then when they’re on the green they think they’re playing in the British Open and they’re not ready to go! When it’s your shot, you should be ready to go ready to play. A player should be planning their shot while the other player is playing their shot. Golf used to be about being able to play singles, say a 3 ball takes 3 hours, a four ball takes four hours but now it’s up to four to five hours. Then people can’t go into the club, because it’s taken too long. Then the clubhouse takes are going down so that subscriptions are going up. If you play now you have to take the whole day. You know, there’s not a morning game or an afternoon game anymore which is hard on young people with children. Before you’d start at 8, be finished and had a cup of coffee with your mates and be still there to pick up Jimmy from training at one o’clock. You know, you can’t do that anymore.
What are some of the biggest factors do you think are affecting the sport right now?
Peter: The major factors affecting the sport are golf ball development and clubhead development, especially with the driver. So it’s the distance debate that continuously goes there. So golf courses that are built in urban areas are dysfunctional now, because the golf ball travels that far, you know, you can drive greens that were meant to be able to drive a green when the hole was designed. So therefore, they’re going to have to build bigger golf courses. And that has a knock on effect of taking up much more land, using much more water, using much more of our resources that we can’t afford to just waste. So that will have to change eventually. And whether that just changes for the professional world or whether that changes for the amateur world is something that will probably play out in the next couple of years.
Ian: I think new technologies will actually bring the sport on. The biggest thing affecting the sport, I think it takes too long to play.
Are you aware of the term “bombing and gauging”?
Peter: Yeah, so this, this is what we’re talking about the length factor. So it’s standing up on the tee, and hitting it as far as you possibly can. And then not worrying about whether it goes into the rough or not, because you’re going to gauge it out with a sand wedge and get it onto the green. Whilst dial it back 10 years, the guy or lady is worried about hitting the fairway, to hit his or her neck shot onto the green but with a seven or a six iron rather than a wedge.
Ian: Yeah like Bryson DeChambeau, the guy who hits the ball miles and then it doesn’t matter where it goes because you’re close to the green you can gouge it over the rough. There’s going to be kids that are trying to hit the ball as far as DeChambeau and everyone can hit the ball a mile. But they can soon change that by just making changes in the golf ball if they want. They could be heavier. A long time ago, we had a smaller ball and then they made a bigger ball. They had an American sized ball and a European size ball. The American ball didn’t go as far. So they could actually make the ball heavier. Or they could do something that could that could stop the ball going. It’s the Bryson DeChambeau factor. Basically what he did was he went to the gym and put on loads of weight for the long drive competitions. Everyone loves to see a guy hit the ball for miles, right? So in America, they have the competitions for these guys who specialize in this, and they maybe wouldn’t be great golfers when they got off the tee. And people will be in the audience watching these big guys absolutely hammering the ball down the fairway. So, Bryson DeChambeau thought that, well, if I can hit the ball that far and retain how good I am with short game, maybe that would give me an advantage.
Do you think this new stronger way of playing will exclude other players in the future?
Peter: No, I think like I said, I think it’s more of a fad at the moment and it will contain itself. Bryson DeChambeau is the leader of this, and he’s sucking other people into it. You look at golf courses like the Masters this week, and he will always struggle on the golf course that is tactically setup. It’s not tactically setup for a long hitter. But Bryson will do very well and Bryson’s cohort will do very well on golf courses that are not set up that way. And they play many of them, you know, week in, week out on tours around the place, but eventually, that way will have to cease, because they will make changes to the construction of the golf ball and on the club head.
Ian: Oh, I don’t think so. I think an awful lot is going to come down to skill, because like your drive is only one part of the game. Like putting and chipping are very important as well. The reason why Bryson won the US open was because he chipped and putted really well. He did drive the ball mad, but he was only fit in length at the US open. That was the thing people questioned, because people thought you couldn’t win the US Open unless you hit the ball on the fairway, because they made it so difficult that you had to be straight. It was the one tournament every year you had to be as such because if your ball went into the rough sometimes you find it hard to find your ball. That was the one tournament that dealt with the short, accurate player. But then he came along and won it. And this is what made Rory think that maybe he needed to bulk up a bit to hit the ball further. But in reality, if you look at that day at that course, Bryson DeChambeau was the fifth longest off the tee, but I think he was number one at putting. So no matter how long he hit, if he wasn’t putting and chipping well that weekend, he wouldn’t have won the tournament. Yeah, you know. So it’s an aspect of it, you know, but not it’s not the Holy Grail.
Due to the changes in the game both the improved technology of the equipment and the stronger physicality of the players many courses such as Medinah, have extended their courses. Some golf courses designers are toying with the idea of 8000 yard courses. Are more old fashioned, shorter courses in danger of becoming unpopular?
Peter: This is my point where that is not sustainable. For environmentalists, it’s not sustainable. Because the more water you use, the more nutrients you have to use, the more chemicals you have to use. It’s eating into the natural environment. So you’re going to affect food chains, for certain types of animals, etc. And, they have gone down that road of building golf courses that are, you know, nearly 8000 yards. There is one in Sweden called Bro Hof Slott. It’s exceptionally long, and it’s a slog of a golf course. If you look at the way society is going, we are all under time constraints in some shape or form and bigger golf courses means longer times to play it. So instead of taking you three and a half hours, now it’s taking four and a half hours or five hours. And lifestyles don’t give up that amount of time, where you donate part of your life to go and play golf for five hours, it just doesn’t happen anymore. And if the alternative would be well, the older you get, the more time you have. But the older you get, the less likely you are to want to play a golf course of 8000 yards. So you want to play their short type golf course.
Ian: They’re gonna have to make the narrower and longer or they’ll have to change the equipment, change the ball. Certain courses will have development around them so they don’t have the capability to become longer. Then the courses become just too short for these people. Literally just too short. So they’re going to have to either adjust the equipment or just the ball.
Do you predict a change in golf regulations to keep up with the changing game?
Peter: Absolutely, there will definitely be a change in the regulations of the ball and the driver. To dial it back, so your your average tee shot won’t go as far as it is now they have to dial it back in. Because if they don’t, golf becomes a sport that only young players can play, purely because of the length that you have to hit it. Your careers become much, much shorter. So eventually the majority will realize that if they don’t do something, my career is over. So when you see guys competing now at 46, 47, 48, 49, even 50 years of age, that won’t happen they will have to finish their careers, like the footballers would in their early 30s. Because they won’t have the physical ability to hit the ball, as far as somebody who’s at 19. So that has to change and they realize that eventually.
Ian: They will have to either adjust the equipment or just the ball and I think they just did the ball will be the easiest, far less costly. To bring in, let’s say, from the first of January next year, we all have to use this ball which is going to be slightly heavier. Then people don’t have to change thousand of euros worth of clothes, they just have to change their ball. So I think it’d be easier to change the ball and cheaper for everyone. It would be more acceptable to do something with the ball rather than the clubs and that worked before when they brought in the American size golf ball.
So there you have it folks, the younger generation’s obsession with the almighty “gains” is ruining golf. Kidding! But the game is changing. Gone are the days of cigar puffing, big bellied golfers who retired to the lounge for drinks and chats. Now it’s all protein shakes, workouts and drills. These bigger, broader players and the new advanced equipment they play with, will eventually out grow most courses and this will not only affect fellow golfers but also the environment, as more natural spaces are used to create the greens. I may not be an expert but here’s my two cents. We do not have the space, resources of frankly the time for larger fairways so how about we pump up that ball and give everyone a bit more bang for their buck?