June 18, 2007

Fantastic Voyage

What might our sport be like in 2067? A peek into the future provides a glimpse of golf 60 years from now

In an exercise eerily similar to taking approximately A shot glass full of the last mortal remains of "Star Trek's" Scotty and launching them into suborbital space only to have them plummet back to Earth in the New Mexico mountains, the editors of Golf World thought this would be a capital time to take a brief voyage into the land of golf 60 years from now.

As a shot across that bow, I've polled an unscientific list of the game's great thinkers, chosen almost entirely because they remain among the dwindling number who continue to speak to me. Some, such as David Fay, executive director of the USGA, didn't necessarily find any particular upside to the exercise. "I'm no Nostradamus," was Fay's terse reply. Some have embraced the land of the imagination so long, the time frame was daunting. "I can't tell you what it's going to be like in six more days," says Pete Dye. Others simply demurred. "I live in a retrospective world," says former USGA president Bill Campbell. "I can't turn around and face the other way, because I don't like what I see."

Some with less downside risk were more expansive. Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, for one, thinks we're very likely heading back to the future. "I think in 60 years golf is going to be very much like it was 20 years ago," says Beman. "I think the rules-makers will ultimately come to their senses and return to golf balls that curve and clubs that are user-friendly but not so user-friendly that it doesn't require the highest level of skill to shoot the really low scores.

"Until the modern era nobody ever won anything if they couldn't drive it in the fairway, and I believe we're going to return to that--real shot values, real driving values. No time in the history of the game have the rules-makers ever turned over to a bigger, stronger person implements that were so forgiving, that so favored strength over other balancing factors that have always been present in golf. And I think people will come to their senses." Take that, Nostradamus.

Almost everyone anticipates bigger and stronger players. Kai Fusser, Annika Sorenstam's trainer, thinks computer aids and an early introduction to a golf-specific regimen will be common. "Kids are going to be younger starting off, being specialists for playing golf," he says. "The question is, can we find a swing with less violence and teach it? Can we prepare the body better early on to build muscles around those areas so that muscles take more of the strain than the bone and ligaments and tendons?"

Could future injuries be treated with replacement parts? "There might be a way to replace discs," Fusser said. "Glucosamine is a proven product you can use for prevention and build some cartilage in your body. Getting stem-cell research and stuff like that, who knows what they can do?"

No one, however, sees the athlete of the future with quite the gusto of Gary Player. "We don't have any big men playing golf right now, compared to what I'm talking about," says the nine-time major champion. "In 60 years you'll have all these fellas and they'll all be enormous, and they'll all be training with weights and 400-yard drives will be very common. They'll turn around and say, ‘That Tiger Woods was a marvelous golfer, but gee, he was a peashooter off the tee.' "

Martin Brouillette, a professor of engineering at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec, sees a number of technological improvements enhancing the future game. He believes all this in an endearing French-Canadian accent. "You could have a Palm device that has 3-D information from all the greens," he says. "You could have a GPS receiver inside of the ball and some kind of wireless relay technology like Bluetooth. The ball would send a message as to where it is so you would never lose it. In the fairway you'd always know what distance you are from anywhere and on the green, since you have the 3-D map you don't have to read the putt. You never have to plumb-bob or crawl on the green anymore."

There's more. "If you have the GPS in the ball, you could have a receiver on the flag so you'd know who's away," he said. "You'd never have to measure. It could keep all the stats. The PGA [Tour] has a system like that, but it has guys entering all the data. You could have the ball itself sending. It knows its position. You have a map of the course, the rough, so you'd have all your stats."

Naturally, not everyone is so keen on gadgets. "I do hope that it won't be taken over by technology, and by that I mean both in hitting the golf ball and the gizmos that go with it," says Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A. "I hope we won't have computers that tell us how far we are from the stick, what the wind speed is, what club we should hit and what swing we should use. I hope it remains as natural a game as it is today."

Professor Brouillette is one of a number of people who believe, for one reason or another, virtual golf is going to be huge. "Probably in 60 years, they won't allow you to play golf outside anymore. Maybe it would be too hot," he says. In his virtual world, "you have the wind and the smells. Rather than have a cheap screen in front of you, you could be immersed in a 3-D chamber, so if you want to play Pebble Beach, you don't have to pay $400 to go there. Maybe 50 bucks for a round. The problem with those future things is we never have enough imagination. We're shackled by what we know now."

Dr. Richard Coop, mental coach to the stars, also sees future uses for virtual reality. "We'll be able to put people into some kind of holistic dome-like thing, and they can feel exactly what it feels like to swing like Tiger. You'll feel it, not just see it. There's some of that, holography, going on down at Disney. Part of what they're doing now, the golf community will be doing in 60 years," Coop says.

"A lot more time will be spent on the mental side because the physical side will get easy," he continues. "When you're working on your game by yourself, you'll have all kinds of things that will go off when you make the wrong move. You'll know immediately which move it is. It's not like you're guessing. And competitive players will be hooked up to heart-rate monitors. They'll be wired, so when they get really nervous, it'll be sent back to a computer. Of course, you can't change them on the course while they're playing, but you can have a data set. When they get in the zone, that state of flow concentration, we'll have the physiological indicators that coincide. [We] can begin to re-create those in practice to help the player know how to get in the zone more often."

Hank Haney, swing instructor to the stars, has much the same vision about the size of the athletes and how they will likely train. "Tiger has always said he thinks golf will change when the real athletes start playing golf--the bigger, stronger, faster guys," Haney says. "As technology gets more into instruction, it will almost be where, if you do something wrong, a little beeper will go off. I think something like that will happen in instruction--a robotic teacher that can give you the feel for the swing and [you] just repeat it over and over again until you have it."

And 3-D won't be reserved for the learning curve, either. "I would hope that in that time frame we would see what I would consider to be three-dimensional television," says Frank Chirkinian. "To me, that is the next major breakthrough. They're already doing it in the movie industry." Not that the ex-officio czar of CBS golf sees that as the ultimate improvement. "Will the technique change? Will the presentation change? It's one thing to have mobile equipment and what­ever else we're using, but can you capture shots live instead of on videotape? When you play those shots back out of sequence, that's disturbing. And I see too much of that today."

In Tom Fazio's vision, despite the incremental lengthening we've experienced over the last few years and an overall flattening of greens to accommodate slick speeds, the course of the future isn't likely to see many substantive changes. "Golf is such a traditional game," says Fazio. "I think the future is what usually happens in the past. There will always be something unique because golf is a little bit of an art form. There will be some Desmond Muirhead-kind of bizarre stuff or an eclectic Pete Dye. I think that's a possibility. I don't know if it's going to be accepted that much. It has taken 40 years for Pete to be accepted. I just don't see it changing that substantially, and certainly not for the majority of us."

Fazio does, however, anticipate advances in turfgrass, as does Ricky D. Heine, president of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, who thinks, "the grasses of the future are going to be more water-conserving, require less mowing, less input from pesticides. The environment is going to be critical." Heine doesn't foresee a great future for artificial turf because the beneficial effects of real turf are too numerous--producing oxygen, filtering water and preventing erosion. He does expect advancements in the way courses are maintained with, say, a flotilla of less-polluting hybrid mowers, guided by GPS, dispatched at night to groom the course. "In the morning," he says, "there's a fleet of dirty mowers for the mechanic or the shop foreman to clean up."

Carol Mann, an LPGA Hall of Famer, also falls into the camp of continual improvement of the species. "The women of then will be the best athletes ever assembled," says Mann. "My major impression is players on both tours will be breaking 60 with regularity." In addition to heart-rate monitors and better training, Mann predicts more attention will be paid to skin cancer and, thus, the clothing golfers wear will be transformed. "I think the garments will become changed substantially. More long-sleeved stuff, maybe with vents up and down the arms. Our heads and faces may be covered more."

Those heads and faces may look different, too. Several people mentioned global growth, but Joe Louis Barrow Jr., executive director of The First Tee, sees it perhaps a bit more locally. "I think we're going to have a lot more women playing golf. We're going to have a lot more diversity in the game of golf. Golf will essentially be America's sport," Barrow says. "In 60 years I think we're going to see a lot more diversity on the tours, both the LPGA and the PGA tours, and lo and behold, there may be more consistent play of women on the PGA Tour. We might see a woman playing at the Masters because she has won a PGA Tour event."

There were a few more specific predictions, as well. While Dr. Alan Hocknell, the VP of innovation and advanced design at Callaway Golf, believes equipment may not change much more than it did during the steel and wood decades, the game of golf will become an Olympic sport. Haney thinks future hazards will be patterned after the penal, deep bunkers of Oakmont CC and that fixing any part of the club directly to the body will be illegal. Benoit Vincent, the chief technical officer at TaylorMade, says he believes a whole other kind of golf will appear, "like snowboard to ski." And Player, while avoiding the dreaded word "bifurcation," believes that is exactly what will happen to the rules of golf and, in a major upset, tour pros will be required to cater more to sponsors and spread their schedule across lesser events. Otherwise, "we're going to lose [sponsors] to some other sport where there will be participation."

Not everyone sees a lot to like when they peer into the future. Gary McCord responded, in part: "The earth is in chaos; numerous outbursts of nuclear detonation have destroyed the atmosphere and put the remaining population underground. What's left on top is a combination of giant holes in the ozone layer, toxic radiation and acid rain. Nuclear winter. The Astroturf golf courses that did abound during global warming have now melted. It's lifeless up there. ‘You're up' is the cry at the video monitor. The problem is, we're all down now."

So, it already is clear what happens when you have pericarditis, back spasms and spend too much unsupervised time with David Feherty. And, lest we get too carried away, the R&A's Dawson is quick to put this little exercise in context. "It's only another 10 percent on the life of golf, another 60 years, isn't it?" he reasons.

In fact, so far, this has all been strictly conjecture. I, on the other hand, know exactly what golf will be like in 2067. The best player in the world will be the Chinese son of a former Nike insole inspector who grew up in Shanghai with Woods' records displayed on the plasma screen on his bedroom wall. The Masters will have moved to early March to catch the dogwoods and azaleas in bloom, and the green-jacket ceremony will be conducted in the basement of the Winfrey Cabin. At the U.S. Open, players will be routinely given post-round MRIs to scan for banned nanotechnology. Barack Woods will be a three-term Senator from the state of South Florida, and Jim Nantz will still be doing the Masters, the Final Four and Super Bowl CI. Incidentally, assuming Golf World still exists, I fully intend to fact-check this when the time comes. I'll be a spry 116.