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Power vs. Skill

Dermot Gilleece on the big hitters in golf

Posted Jan 31, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

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A compelling case can be made for the notion that tournament golf as we know it, changed radically at the Sony Open in January 2006. It was when Bubba Watson, as a 27-year-old PGA Tour rookie, reduced Waialae’s 551-yard 18th hole to a drive and a wedge in all four rounds. The genie was seen not only to leap clear of the bottle, but to go walkabout.
                 
Using a Ping driver with a 44-inch shaft and a 460cc head, Watson hit left-handed power-fades that made John Daly look like a pat-a-cake golfer by comparison. In fact he closed the tournament with an eagle three which comprised a drive, wedge and five-foot putt. Elsewhere, the 466-yard fifth had been reduced to a two-iron, nine-iron and at the 353-yard 10th, his drive landed 15 yards from the green.

Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open champion and an ESPN commentator at the time of Watson’s Waialae exploits, expressed deep concern.  "In 10 years, there will be guys of 6ft 3 and 220lbs who will totally finish the game of golf as we know it," he said.  "By hitting the ball 360 yards in the air, the Bubba Watsons are going to destroy golf courses and shotmaking."

Now, as a CBS commentator, the Australian didn’t seem to have any problem last weekend when Watson married length with considerable finesse in capturing the Farmers Insurance at Torrey Pines. In this context, it is also interesting to note a conversation I had with Jack Nicklaus in the wake of the 2006 Sony Open.

In agreeing with Baker-Finch, the Bear said: “The way things are going, there will be no place in the game for a man with the skill and commitment of Gary Player. Imagine not being able to accommodate the winner of nine major championships! You could also rule out Hogan.  All that skill being destroyed by power.”

The Bear went on: “I played quite a few times with Hogan, including the last round of the 1960 US Open when Arnold (Palmer) won and in the 1966 Masters when I won.  Sure, I outdrove him, but in those days length was only a part of the game. Now, it IS the game. Guys nowadays can hit it miles, but they've got no game."

Nicklaus pointed out that in his pomp, he was using a driver weighing 131/2 ounces, compared with 12 ounces nowadays and with a 41-inch shaft, compared with 44 or 45 inches.           Predictably, both he and Baker-Finch emphasised the need to limit the modern golf ball as a matter of urgency and the Australian also advocated reducing the current "ridiculous" size of driver heads to a maximum of about 270cc. 

Interesingly, they would now find support for their views in an unlikely source.  When I put the issue of length to Daly in a recent interview, he replied:  “Where big-hitting is concerned, you’re always going to have a quarter-back who throws it longer than other quarter-backs.  But talk to Bubba, (Robert) Garragus or JB Holmes and they’ll tell you that technology hasn’t helped our length.  If anything, it’s hurting us. The technology is now so good that the guy who doesn’t hit it so well is going to get a lot more out of it. At the same time, our clubhead speed is not going to change. The club is not going to help us hit if further. I’m gradually trying to get back to the old draw I had in the nineties. I’m not as young as I used to be and I need the extra yardage.”

Others argue that players are hitting it longer simply because they’re physically fitter than the previous generation, but course-designer Pete Dye doesn’t buy that one. Speaking at the time of Watson’s Sony exploits, Dye said: “It’s not the strength of the players. My good friend John Daly hits the ball 30 yards further now than he did in 1991. Now John will be the first one to tell you he hasn’t done too many push-ups in the last 15 years.”

Ignoring the advantage in length since his PGA triumph at Crooked Stick, Daly went on: “In my view the whole of golf has suffered from the technology changes. If you asked me whether I’d prefer to play a balata or a three-piece ball right now, I’d pick the balata because of the extra feel it gives you around the greens.” By way of endorsing Nicklaus’s point, he added: “You see our amateurs beating balls on the range and their short games are not very good. That’s because the construction of the modern golf ball is not conducive to a good short game.”

In the meantime, Bubba Watson is doing his thing to splendid effect.

- Dermot Gilleece

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