Date: June 21, 2017
Author: Mark Hayes

COMMENT: It’s ball o’clock, surely

I nearly choked.

As millions of others doubtless had, I’d been marvelling at Justin Thomas’ record US Open score (against par) as a storm of third-round birdies washed over Erin Hills.

And then, in the post-round Golf Channel analysis, Brandel Chamblee uttered words that surely made Alister MacKenzie roll in his grave.

“We need longer courses,” Chamblee demanded as my jaw stopped millimetres above the floor.

“They need to be 8000 yards … maybe even longer.”

Wait? What?

Longer than the major championship record 7839 yards (7168m) than Erin Hills was set up for the second round?

Because some guys went low? Are you kidding?

By contrast, the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco – to some the toughest of the “traditional” US Open layouts – played at 7170 yards (6556m) in 2012, and even then after eight “longer” tees were added and two other par-threes substantially lengthened from the previous four times the club had hosted the year’s second major.

That course was played as a par-70 – an often overlooked fact when arguments flare over the perception that the USGA tries to manufacture a “par” winner.

There are myriad differences, obviously, between a heavily tree-lined coastal gem and a relatively new “links-style” mid-west course with just five trees on the property – not least of which is the comparative “bounciness” and run of the fairways.

The cut was made at eight over at Olympic; it was made at a record low one over par at Erin Hills where most players asked as they left the sprawling course said that it really wasn’t playing its true length because of how many metres were gained on downhill tee shots that ran out like antelopes across the Serengeti.

You might think that sounds as though I’m advocating for an increased yardage.

But you’d be WAY wrong.

I’m firstly saying that course length isn’t the decisive factor.

But the nub of the matter is surely, at long last, there must be some form of consensus on how technology, primarily the ball, is making courses obsolete.

We could pull up a bar stool and argue all day about whether a US Open course should be set up to find a winner near level par. I would argue that finding the best player in the field is more important than the score, but there’s a strong case for those who think the USGA’s pinnacle event should be discernibly different to regular US PGA Tour events.

Of the flaws in Chamblee’s argument, I’d say the most significant is that if we made courses ever longer, we’re actually diminishing the chances of all bar the power hitters in the field.

On the 72nd tee of this US Open, soon-to-be champion Brooks Koepka was on the threshold of his maiden major, so opted for a 3-wood, presumably for “safety”. He promptly dispatched it a lazy 379 yards. No, that’s not a mis-print.

This on the same hole on which Thomas flushed his three-wood second shot 2.5m past the pin a day earlier – on the 681-yard par five – on his way to an eagle for a sublime 63, just one of a record 32 rounds under par that afternoon.

In the final round, 50 of the 68 players to make the cut averaged more than 300 yards off the tee.

These numbers once would have been filed comfortably under the tag of science fiction. But now they’re all too real for a game that needs to address its future urgently and collectively, in much the same way it has with modernised rules proposals and the world handicap system initiative.

They naturally added up to an equal record US Open winning score – and by far the lowest scoring average in the tournament’s history.

Some critics are having a field day saying “links-style” courses such as Erin Hills have no place on the US Open rota because they’re too easy or “have no soul”, whatever that means.

What a load of rubbish that is, logically. Soul comes from history and design genius, not from high scores.

Expect next year’s host, Shinnecock Hills, to be lauded for paying heed to traditions when it returns to the famous New York venue for the fifth time.

Reality check, though: it’s a variation (albeit vast) on the same links-style course we just saw in Wisconsin – and you can bet now it won’t be won at 16 under, nor magically lengthened to 8000 yards.

The quick answer, naturally, to reining in these scores will therefore lie in set-up variations – longer rough, narrower fairways, faster greens, tucked pins to name a few.

And in some senses, this will be a good thing because, hopefully, it will reinvigorate the subtlety of shot-making as opposed to the current dominant trend of bludgeoning.

But it’s a temporary patch on a bigger issue.

My far more learned colleague Mike Clayton wrote these prophetic words just last week: “Any young player studying the tour’s driving statistics understands the five longest hitters make a whole lot more money than the five straightest hitters.”

That, naturally, is eye-opening research for any up-and-comers to undertake. But again, surely it rules out a whole genre of a game that’s very beauty is that anyone should be able to contend; that it’s not always advantageous to one mould of playing styles.

The sport, at this highest level, has become, at all bar the bounciest British links courses, a matter of driver or 3-wood, then your choice of up to five wedges.

Admittedly, these same problems aren’t exactly multiplying in club land. Then again, it’s nowhere near as relevant in competitions that rely on handicaps.

But when you’re advocating building or remodelling courses on the north side of 7500m, you’ve forgotten what the game’s all about.

How do you think that instruction would wash with members of Warringah Golf Club in Sydney’s north as they fight to maintain land its local council wants to claim back for other sports and developments?

Or with clubs that have no space to grow such as Royal Perth, which has a beautiful 6038m layout that is almost perfectly woven into the smallest parcel of land such a facility requires?

That list would be nearly infinite for logistical reasons, let alone finances.

Not to mention the additional maintenance and increase in time to play a round when the opposite is plainly critical to the game’s future.

Which brings us back to the ball – the only logical conclusion.

The game’s primary governing bodies – the R&A and USGA – are, admittedly, in a pickle when it comes to the legal aspects of applying the technological handbrake.

Tennis administrators exercised their power over their balls’ properties to slow it down a generation ago, but in golf, it’s the manufacturers who hold sway.

A protracted legal battle – such as that which once raged over Ping Eye 2 clubs and their grooves – is definitely not an attractive proposition for the sport’s top administrators as they face demands, both moral and financial, on many levels, most notably from those at grass-roots level who rightly claim their absolute importance to the sport’s future.

MacKenzie, the architectural mastermind of some of the world’s most revered courses, implored those in charge to reel in the ball as far back as the 1920s – as with many things in golf, he was ahead of his time.

Now, almost a century later, it’s the only sensible step.

I think very few people would look to Formula 1 motor racing as a moral arbiter, but at least they’ve had a crack over the years at clamping technology to vaguely manageable levels. At the opposite end of that scale, two almost laughable words: America’s Cup.

That, admittedly, is extreme. But you get my point.

Golf is surely, now, at the crossroads of what it becomes into the future.

Top administrators for years have been at pains to keep the game at the highest levels as close as possible to the one us hackers enjoy each weekend. But permit me to face facts on the majority’s behalf, the last time I hit a ball 380 yards was with two solid clunks to a par-four.

That similarity ship has sailed.

So unless they suddenly start doling out new, free land to any tournament golf course that needs it – or unless your club is Augusta National and can afford it regardless – it’s time to stop the ball.

We simply cannot have discussions about building new, longer courses that require the land area of some small European countries. It’s just not viable.

So please, Brandel, I like most of your thoughts, but let’s start pushing in a logical direction.

Better late than never, MacKenzie might say, but finally, surely, it’s ball o’clock.