David Howell: The ball doesn’t go too far

Golf ball technology has increased over time, but it has likely peaked. What has changed over the last 20+ years is the tech that goes into the clubs and the athletic developement of the modern-day player.

Why not start the year with a little bit of a debate? I’m hearing a lot about the golf ball going too far. I’m hearing that the R&A and the USGA need to reign in the ball, maybe just for the pros at least? Well, do you know, I’m not so sure that the ball is the problem. In fact, I’m not convinced there is a problem at all.

Human beings progress, that’s what we do; athletes get fitter, stronger and faster, up to a point when human progression hits its limit. There is a ton of money in the professional game of golf, so it’s well worth your while getting really good at it. From what I can see, a lot of very athletic people have worked out how to move their body in a powerful manner that propels the ball well over 300 yards in the air.

Now people have always hit the ball hard, but what has changed enormously over the last 20 years is the materials that golf clubs are made out of – light and strong materials that have allowed clubheads to be twice the size they used to be, creating a huge sweetspot, which has enabled shaft lengtha to increase by 2 or 3 inches. This is the main difference if you ask me. Pick up an old TaylorMade ‘Burner’ from the early 1990s and tell me you’re excited to use it? They were tiny clubheads back then and now they are massive. Am I missing something or is this not what’s really changed?

Aggressive manner

Add in to that mix, Tiger Woods inspiring a load of young people to play the game in an aggressive manner. They all started not only watching Tiger on TV but using perfectly sized and weighted junior clubs to smash the ball from an early age, 3D biomechanics explaining human movement in the swing and launch monitors that gauge our power outputs. Hey presto, what do you have? Justin Thomas, one of the longest hitters in the game, a man who is only 5’ 10” or so but has the ability to hit the ball as hard as anyone.

Dustin Johnson is an athlete who has chosen golf as his sport, while Rory McIlroy developed a way of creating power in such a beautiful way it doesn’t even look like he is hitting the ball that hard. The modern golf ball is a piece of engineering that has been improved countless times over the last 100 years, but as far as distance is concerned I’d say not much has been gained over the last decade or so. What has changed is the variety of options for top players to match their swing characteristics to the ball. But in terms of raw distance gains, I think the ball has pretty much peaked.

Golf courses have become longer and wider to accommodate these huge hits, instead of shorter and narrower. Each time the PGA Tour plays on a shorter narrower course the scoring tends to be worse than on the monster courses. The TPC at Sawgrass and Harbour Town at Hilton Head are renowned for throwing up winners who are shorter and straighter. Hitting it long has always been advantageous – and so it should be – but what gets many tour pros irritated, is when a certain amount power takes all of the trouble out of their thinking. A ‘bombers paradise’ is what we call it.

Accuracy and not just power

So we have a few ways to go from here. Firstly, just accept the new normal, and pray that we find a way to host some of the world’s great events on courses that are reliant on accuracy and not just power.

We could split the rules so that pros play with different equipment from the amateurs. Personally, I think one of the nice things about golf is that we get to play together at different standards and seeing the difference is a nice thing.

Or we can look at the size of the modern driver clubhead, and slowly, over time, shrink it back to its old size, or thereabouts. It would be interesting to know what happens with the old sized clubhead. My gut feeling is that amateurs might lose fewer balls and see their scores stay the same, and the pro game would change somewhat back towards shot-shaping and not just raw power. What will we do?  I’d say we will do nothing, because I don’t think golf has that much of a problem. People are playing it, it’s still a fun thing to do, and a well struck 5- iron and a good putt still goes a long way towards a low score.