June 29, 2008

'I've been thinking...'

Nicklaus speaks out on the game, Tiger, Phil, Michelle, and more

'I don't think the masters is diminished. But it's another type of tournament than the one i won.'

'I don't think the masters is diminished. But it's another type of tournament than the one i won.'

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.

This is not an assault on the modern player. They're playing the cards they were dealt, just like every generation before them. These guys are talented, and they work hard. They're doing what works best with the equipment they've been given. But they don't bend the ball very much because the modern golf ball is harder to curve and much easier to hit straight. They don't have as many shots from the rough because square grooves allow them much more control from bad lies. They hit driver much harder because the ball goes so much straighter and because they're not as worried about the rough, especially with a short iron or wedge in hand. Long-iron approach play has become almost a thing of the past.

I see a lot of young guys caught up in this style of smash it and gouge it. The truth is, talented guys who play a sort of one-dimensional power game can make a very good living on today's tour. But ultimately, to win tournaments -- and majors -- a player needs to be a shotmaker.

By the way, I believe modern equipment has a role in why America seems to lose so often in international team play. In the past our players could rely on superior technique that came from growing up in the country with the best teachers and learning facilities, but today's equipment has neutralized that advantage. With today's balls and clubs making it easier to play power golf, it's more important to be a good athlete and have a lot of spirit and guts. Worldwide, the athletc talent pool is very deep, and players who come from smaller countries or countries where golf is just starting to grow tend to be very hungry. I think that's been a big part of the story in recent Ryder Cups.

Golf-Course Design

We have about 16,000 courses in the United States. Almost all of them are obsolete for tournament play. For them to become relevant, we need to roll back the ball about 40 yards. That or rebuild all the fairway bunkers at 300 yards. Which is what we're doing, and it costs a fortune. Instead of changing equipment, we're changing golf courses. It's great for my business. I'm making a living redoing my old courses. But the game should be able to go back to the classic courses just as they are. Why should we be changing all those golf courses? It's ridiculous.

Trying to build great courses today is more complicated than ever. I've decided it's best to basically design for the enjoyment of the average golfer. That's what works best for the owners, who are selling memberships and selling their land. I was once accused of designing courses that were too severe. A lot of that was because I was designing a lot of tournament courses.

A course today that intends to hold a tournament needs to be designed at about 7,500 yards from the back tees. I still put the members' tees at about 6,500 yards. To do that, I've stopped building multiple tees. That's because most men will go to the tees next up from the extreme back. Before, when a course was 7,100 yards from the tips, they might drop down to 6,800 yards, and that wasn't so bad. But if the back tees are at 7,500 yards, the next tee would be at 7,200 yards, and they can't play that. It's the way it is with golfers: Our egos often get in the way of what is best for our game.

Creating a true challenge for the best professional players for one week of golf makes it too tough for the average player who is going to play it the rest of the year. I've come to the conclusion that the only way to make the game better for more golfers is to take the driver out of the hands of the elite player. So I tighten up the landing areas for them. It's kind of a sad compromise, but I think it's the only solution we've got.

When I make changes at Muirfield Village for the Memorial Tournament, I have a difficult time keeping the strategy of the golf course intact. I'll move fairway bunkers out past 300 yards, and there will still be a lot of players who can fly them. You feel like your course is obsolete 10 minutes after you finish.

Augusta National

I miss the old Augusta National. Is the radically redesigned golf course a good one? Yes. Is it the golf course with the design principles that Bobby Jones and Alister Mackenzie intended? Absolutely not.

Augusta was generous off the tee, which made it great for everyday member play. But to score -- to really play golf -- you had to position the drive to get a good angle at the green. It was a second-shot golf course.

Now the tee shot is more restricted. Trees and new bunkering have narrowed the landing areas, making Augusta a tight course with few angles or options. I know the changes were made to provide an increased challenge for modern pros and keep them from overpowering the course, but it has taken the charm out of the Jones/Mackenzie design.

I was disappointed that in doing the redesign, Augusta didn't consult the five oldest multiple Masters champions who also are course designers [Palmer, Player, Nicklaus, Watson, Crenshaw]. We would have had a lot of good ideas, and we wouldn't have clashed. We would have come to an agreement because we all have so much respect for what's there.

Perhaps what Augusta did is the best way to test the best. But it bothers me that it's come to this because the ball goes too far.

I don't think the Masters is diminished. But it's another type of tournament than the one I won. Power was always an important factor at Augusta. But never the factor. Mike Weir and Chris DiMarco have proved that medium-length hitters will still have their moments at the Masters, but they could be fewer and fewer. Player and Hogan each won multiple Masters. I don't think a player of their physical stature and length could do that today. Luke Donald might contend at Augusta, but not as much on a regular basis as he would have in the '60s.

In my prime, there were more players of different styles and strengths who could win at Augusta. In that sense, I don't think the percentages to win the Masters were in my favor as much as they are in Tiger's favor today.

Tiger

All that said, there is Tiger Woods, who is really a throwback. Which I think is one of his greatest assets.

In terms of equipment, he plays stuff that looks a lot like what I used to play. He even uses a ball that spins a lot, which is closer to the old balata ball than what almost every other player plays. It's interesting that the club he has the most trouble with is his most high tech: the driver.

But Tiger's emphasis has always been on learning, and knowing how to hit quality golf shots. Because he was taught by his dad to play the old game, he plays the new game better than everybody else. He made himself complete, and that makes a difference, especially in majors. It was never clearer than the way he played while winning the British Open last summer. He beat the best players in the world by essentially hitting irons off the tee.

Tiger also refuses to be satisfied with his golf game. It took a lot of guts for him to go from Butch Harmon to Hank Haney after winning all those majors, but Tiger is all about improving. He thought he had some swing flaws, and under the gun he was afraid of those flaws cropping up. It meant having to struggle and listen to second-guessing, but he dealt with the problem and made the change. His swing is better than it was -- more on plane. He'll drive it straighter with time, although he really doesn't need to hit driver that often. What's always made him so special is his short game and ability to scramble.

As he gets older, he's getting more precise as a golfer. Most good players evolve that way. I like that he's not trying to blow fields away as much as he used to. He's content to win by two strokes rather than 10. That's how I chose to play. You make fewer mistakes that way, and ultimately you win more.

Will he pass my record for major championships? If he keeps the same desire and focus, I think he will.

I'm grateful for Tiger. Every day he's mentioned, I'm often mentioned in the same breath. It's been wonderful for me. Thanks to Tiger, my name is being introduced to an entirely new generation of golfers and fans.

By the way, let's settle whether my total number of majors is 18 or 20. Because I believe that Bobby Jones' U.S. and British Amateur titles should count as majors, for a long time I considered my record to be 20. But measuring what's a major has always been imperfect. A good example is Walter Hagen, whose total of 11 majors probably shortchanges his victories at the Western Open (at a time when the Masters didn't exist). So I'm perfectly content with a total of 18 majors. I'm very proud of my two U.S. Amateurs, just as I know Tiger is very proud of his three. But that championship isn't a major anymore.

Closers

It's hard for me to watch golf on television and see guys falter coming down the stretch. It happens to too many players today. It's the biggest difference between Tiger and his challengers. He comes down the stretch and knows how to finish a tournament.

During my career there were many times on the final nine when I knew I just had to play safe golf because the guys in contention probably would make mistakes and not finish. But I had a lot of challengers like Watson and Trevino who I knew were going to finish and not give the tournament to me. I think I had more guys like that than Tiger does.

I got better as a closer after a couple of failures in 1963, my second year as a professional. I was tied for the lead at Pebble Beach with a 20-foot putt for birdie on the last hole. No way should I have been trying to aggressively make that putt, but I ran it five feet past the hole and missed coming back. Then at the British Open, I was a stroke ahead with two to play. On the 17th hole at Royal Lytham, I hit a solid 2-iron approach through the green and down an embankment and made bogey. The smarter shot would have been a 3-iron below the pin. Then on the 72nd hole, I hit a driver to try to carry the fairway bunkers rather than putting a 3-wood in the fairway. I barely missed carrying the bunker and again bogeyed, costing me a spot in a playoff or a win.

In both cases, I wasn't disciplined enough to play the shot that gave me the highest percentage to get the best result. And I told myself that I didn't ever want to do that again. Amazingly, I never three-putted the 72nd hole again when I was anywhere near contention. And though I made some late bogeys that cost me majors, I never again made the dumb kind that cost me at Lytham.

It's not that I wouldn't get nervous, but I could always think straight under pressure. I know some people tend to go blank. That happened to me once, at the 1977 Masters. I was ready to hit a relatively safe 6-iron approach to the last hole to make sure I made par when I heard the roar from Tom Watson's birdie on the 71st, which gave him the lead. Rather than take a moment to reassess, I decided to shoot at the pin with the same club, even though the new shot required a different club. Unfocused, I made a bad swing and a bogey.

Overall, I was a good closer. In part, it was because I had a lot of opportunities; in part it was probably a function of my temperament. I'm sure some players have a counterproductive personality or temperament for handling pressure and finishing off a tournament. Good golf requires a lot of self-knowledge. And some players don't have quite enough talent. The demands on talent increase under pressure, and some players don't possess the talent to get them through the hard part.

But my feeling is that our college and professional systems don't breed winners. With so much money in the pro game, conservative mediocrity sort of prevails. The goal is to make a good living more than it is to win. Yes, there's a lot of depth in the pro game. If you took a large group of today's players and put them against the group from my prime, today's group would probably beat our brains out. But I think our four or five top guys, as a group, would have beaten the brains out of the top players of today.

Michelle Wie

Michelle is a terrific talent. I've never seen a female golfer with her physical skills who can create so much power under control and with ease.

As far as her playing in men's events, well, she's selling tickets, she's creating interest. If sponsors have only so many exemptions, they have a right to give her one, and she has the right to accept. Anybody who has the ability to get on the tour by sponsor exemption -- my first tournament on tour, the L.A. Open in 1962, was by sponsor exemption -- is qualified.

On an overall skill level, I don't think Michelle is quite there yet, and I don't know if she ever will be. But she's never going to get there unless she's given the opportunity and she tries.

But is it going to get stale if she isn't competitive? Yes. And it's approaching that. The first four or five times it was OK. But there's a limit.

Maybe she got those exemptions too early. Maybe if she had waited she could really compete with men. She's been pushed far out into the spotlight, but she's also chosen that path. It has cost her some of her youth, but I was heartened to see that she's going to go to college after being accepted at Stanford. She has the ability to do things on the golf course that men do, and I'd love to see her do it.

The Health Of The Game

I hope we're not running people out of the game. As it has become an easier game to play for the pros, the trend toward more severe courses has made it harder for the amateur.

In most cases, the farther the amateur is able to hit the ball, the farther the ball goes off line. The old average drive was in the 190-yard range, but now it's more like 210 to 220. And on many of the newer courses, off line means searching for golf balls. It's making the game slower, and a lot less fun.

The game is more popular than ever among avid golfers with the income and leisure to play a lot, but most people have less free time than ever. The current generation of younger parents spends a lot more time supervising their kids than previous generations, and it means they find it harder to justify a weekend round of golf. Leaving for the course at 7 in the morning and coming back at 3 in the afternoon is a hard sell for a family man. But getting back in time for lunch wouldn't be.

That's why we should consider the possibility of making 12 holes a standard round. It might mean breaking up 18-hole facilities into three segments of six holes. Of course it would meet resistance, but eventually it would be accepted because it would make sense in people's lives.

Those who say that my comments are intended to help my course-design business are wrong. As a designer, I benefit financially from more land used, more renovations, more penal features. As for people thinking I favor a rollback in equipment because I don't want Tiger to break my record, going back to older-style equipment would help, not hurt, Tiger because his skill level would make a bigger difference. If we took equipment back today, he might win 30 majors instead of 20.

I'm more interested in the game of golf than in my records. I did what I could do in my time, and it was the best I could do. Now I just want what's best for the game.

  1. closers