'I've been thinking...'
Nicklaus speaks out on the game, Tiger, Phil, Michelle, and more
Removed from the competition, my life is very full. My business has never been more brisk, but I pay attention to the issues in golf. From a greater distance, I look at the game a bit differently and probably more accurately than when I was a competitor.
Even though I don't enjoy playing as much, I love the game, and I care about it. I've been thinking on a variety of the topics and issues in today's game.
The Modern Professional Game
The best golfers should be better today than the best golfers of yesterday. At the moment, I'm not sure that's the case. I realize I'm an old fuddy-duddy, and that previous generations always say that their game was better. I guess I'd plead guilty -- in part. But here's the difference. The game in terms of equipment barely changed for 60 years. Then with the equipment revolution that began with metal clubheads in the '80s and accelerated with dramatic ball technology in the late '90s, the game changed radically. The best players suddenly found themselves able to hit shots more easily and consistently, as well as pull off shots they never would have tried in the past. It made the game for elite players simpler and easier.
As a result, I don't care as much for today's game as I did for the one played for most of my career. I like the old game of moving the ball both ways and using strategy with angles, and hitting all the clubs in the bag. My greatest concern, because I believe it has the most effect on the most parts of the game, is the golf ball. I'd very much like to see the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A institute at least a 10-percent rollback in the distance the golf ball travels. I know the ruling bodies are looking at limits on equipment, including possibly reducing the size of driver clubheads and eliminating square grooves, but that's treating an effect more than a cause. The desired results from such moves could be taken care of by a rollback in the ball. In fact, there would be much less need to limit equipment innovations that help amateurs play if the ball were rolled back.
I don't think a rollback should restrict an elite player's options in customizing the golf ball he or she would play. It's OK with me for, say, a player with a low ball flight to get some help by using a model of ball with a dimple pattern that creates a higher launch, or a guy whose angle into the ball generates an excess of spin getting a ball that spins less. In other words, I wouldn't want to see every player having to use the same exact "tournament ball" picked out of a jar on the first tee. As long as players could keep the ball characteristics that best suit their games, I honestly believe it would take them only a few rounds to completely adjust to a rolled-back ball that doesn't fly quite as far.
Although my main problem with the modern golf ball is what it's doing to the game at the highest level of competition, I still don't believe in instituting two sets of equipment rules: one for the elite player, and another for everyone else. From a practical perspective, such a structure would be very difficult to administrate. Perhaps more important, the notion that the rules are the same no matter what the skill level is as old as golf. It might be an illusion -- the difference between the equipment pros use and what's best for amateurs is increasing all the time -- but it would be dangerous to tinker with such a fundamental tradition.
I have faith in the USGA and the R&A to get this thing right, but they need some prodding. A generation has gotten away from them already.
What's ironic is that nobody benefited more from the technology revolution than I did. I continued to play credible golf well into my 50s in large part because advancements in the ball and high-tech drivers allowed me to keep my distance. That wouldn't have happened in the era of persimmon heads, heavy steel shafts and soft balata covers -- I would have lost so much distance off the tee that I would have stopped playing much sooner.
Even today, when I barely play, I realize that the challenge of hitting the ball solid and straight -- especially with a driver -- is not what it was. I can go weeks and even months without hitting a ball -- that's often the case -- and then after a few driver shots on the range, I'm hitting the ball fairly straight and far. I'll play and might not miss many fairways. If I'd had that kind of a layoff 20 years ago, it would have taken me a month to get my golf game back.
So why do I think this is bad for the professional or competitive game? Because modern players don't have to develop the skills they used to and are not as well-rounded as they should be.
The pro game used to be 80 percent shotmaking and about 20 percent power. There were certain courses where power was a bigger factor, when the rough was down or the fairways were wide, and I absolutely tried to take advantage of it, because I had that element. I remember one round in New Orleans I drove the ball on the green of three par 4s. I used power when it was prudent, and I could switch gears in the middle of a round.
But from what I see, the pro game has switched to where it's about 80 percent power and 20 percent shotmaking. Today, a Gary Player, a Ben Hogan, as talented as they were but with smaller statures, would have much less of a chance of being the best in the world.