Editors' Blog
August 29, 2008

Golf's Distance Debate: Whitten Respoonds

A couple of days ago Dave Reinhardt, a Florida club professional, wrote to complain about comments by Sandy Tatum in Ron Whitten's Lido Competition story about "unfortunate" increases distance off the tee. Reader Reindhardt said, in effect, what's the big deal? Athletes get bigger, better and stronger in every sport. He invited response from Ron and Sandy. Here's Ron's response for he and Tatum:

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Dear Dave,

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Thank you for your e-mail regarding the latest results of the annual Lido Design Competition. You asked for comments regarding your frustration over the statement by Sandy Tatum that it's unfortunate that golf course designer today must deal with the "considerable" number of golfers who drive the ball over 300 yards.

As much as you may disagree with the statement, it's both an opinion held by Mr. Tatum (which is why I chose to include it in the article) and a fact. Nearly every golf course architect practicing finds it frustrating that they must now design courses not only for the average golfer (who probably carries a tee shot no more than 180 to 200 yards in the air), but with a new generation who can carry the ball nearly 300 yards in the air.

(Not many people do that, you say? Well, if just one guy does it at your club, and just one guy does it at every one of the 16,000 course in America, that's 16,000 golfers. That's not an inconsiderable number. But in truth, a lot more than 16,000 golfers hit the ball a long ways off the tee. Go to a college tournament. Go to a high school tournament. Go to a PGA Tour event. (Statistics are based on only two hole per event. Follow any foursome for a number of holes. You'll find guys who hit it "only" 270 are consistently 40 yards behind everybody else. Part of that has to do with roll on perfect fairway, but still, those guys are good and long.)

You are absolutely correct in saying that the next generation of golfers are bigger, stronger, in better shape, have better equipment, etc. It's no crime to hit the ball 300 yards off the tee, but it is frustrating to golf architects that such golfers render grand old courses - like Sandy Tatum's beloved 6,500 yard Cypress Point - into pitch and putts. (When the Walker Cup was held at Cypress Point a few years back, several competitors hit nothing over an 8-iron into any par 4, and a several hit mid-iron second shots onto par 5s.)

To challenge long hitters (and that's part of the architect's job, to challenge) means new back tees (sometimes at absurd lengths, like the 8,200 yard set I had a part in installing at a course in Wisconsin recently), newly positioned bunkers, smaller and more contoured greens.

Mr. Tatum's lament was not a condemnation of golfers who hit it far, it was a comment that architects must now deal with it in new ways, ways that are adding costs to the game (additional land for back tees, additional width - because higher handicappers who can hit the ball a long ways now hit it a long ways sideways) additional hazards, etc.) He calls it unfortunate because he believes classic courses like Cypress Point and Merion are no longer genuine tests of golf. (We shall see in the case of Merion when it hosts the 2013 U.S. Open.)

I do agree with you that there are many hypocrites out there who talk a good old-fashioned game while playing new equipment. I recently played with a PGA Tour pro who complained that the USGA has ruined the game by abdicating its responsibility to limit club and ball technology, even as he teed it up with the latest square-faced prototype driver provided to him by his equipment sponsor. But I don't think Sandy Tatum is being a hypocrite by his observation. The point was that he ultimately chose a design that effectively challenged a long hitter as well as other levels of golfer. If he held his nose doing it, well, I think Mr. Tatum is entitled, based upon his age and career, to do so if he wishes.

Since you concluded that the mere fact I included Tatum's quote in my piece seemed to telegraph my position on the matter, I'll tell you my position. I'm one of the few involved in the field of architecture (as a writer and part-time practitioner) who doesn't feel equipmnent needs to be restricted or the ball rolled back. I'm one of the few that believes that 300 yard drives are inevitable progress. If you look at the history of the game, the same arguments brought up today - manufacturers are ruining the game, grand old courses are becoming obsolete - were used when the Haskell ball was introduced in 1902, when steel shafts replaced hickory shafts, when the sand wedge gained prominence, when graphite shafts were introduced, etc.

Roll back the ball? To what era? I asked Jack Nicklaus that recently, and he said "early 1990s." But if you look back at what Jack was saying in the early 1990s, he was saying (as an architect, not a competitor) they were hitting the ball too far back then, too.

There's a reason why Myopia Hunt Club, host of 4 U.S. Opens a century ago) will never host another major. It's still a grand old course, but it's not a grand old competition golf course anymore. I personally feel the same way about Merion (which is why I think it's a mistake to take a U.S. Open back there again - Merion's reputation will probably suffer.) The greatest golfers in the world eventually get old. Why is it we won't let the greatest competitive golf courses likewise grow old?

So I agree with you in part. It's progress. We can't stand in the way of progress. We have to deal with it. It's just that it's frustrating to a lot of golf architects to have to deal with that particular piece of progress, given all the other problems - environmental, governmental, etc. - they must also deal with. Design would be much simpler if only one caliber of golfer played it.

But I disagree with you that not that many people hit the ball a long ways these days. As they say, the woods are full of bombers. But so are the fairways these days, way down the fairway from where I hit it.

Thank for writing. Thanks for listening.

Ron Whitten