December 30, 2007

Straight Talk

Geoff Ogilvy is enthralled by 'proper golf,' but current conditions and equipment won't permit it

Most current tour courses don't demand players to work the ball, Ogilvy says.

Most current tour courses don't demand players to work the ball, Ogilvy says.

When it comes to the art of shotmaking, golf has several unofficial spokesmen. Along with Tiger Woods, the leading voice among the younger generation of players is 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.

But while Woods practices what he preaches, the 30-year-old Australian, currently ranked 13th in the world, has a hard time actually playing the style that he so favors. The reason says a great deal about why shotmaking is on the wane.

"I have all these romantic ideas about it, but yeah, I definitely don't play proper golf in tournaments very much anymore," said Ogilvy by telephone while visiting family near Royal Melbourne, where the day before he had played a friendly round using hickory-shafted clubs. "I tend to just aim it at the flag and try to hit it there. I don't worry so much about the right shape. Unfortunately."

But Ogilvy's regrets are outweighed by what he has found works best for him in today's competition. "The truth is that hitting it high and straight, with the equipment we have now and on the turf conditions we play, is the simplest option," he says. "It gives you less to think about, and sometimes on the golf course, thinking about less is good.

"But the big thing is that the reward for hitting the proper shot -- on a regular tour course -- is just not as great anymore. Off the tee you just look down the fairway and hit it, because it really doesn't matter where the ball ends up as long as it's in relatively short grass. Coming into the soft green, when the ball stops easily and it doesn't matter what side you miss it on, all of a sudden the perfectly shaped shot loses its relevance and becomes not worth the effort."

However, on those occasions when it is worth it, Ogilvy gets inspired.

"At the majors I think about golf differently," he says. "It becomes more interesting and, in my opinion, more interesting to watch as well. Especially at Augusta and the British Open, golf courses with really firm greens where it's really bad to miss it on the short side of the pin, that's when the reward for shaping is much greater. When the ball actually does something when it hits the ground -- when it rolls a bit after it lands -- that's when shotmaking matters.

"On a seaside links, if you get in a heavy right-to-left crosswind with a right pin and all you can hit is a draw, there is no way you will be able to get the ball within 30 feet of the hole," Ogilvy continues. "At the Masters the slopes on the greens have a similar effect. A great golf course with firm conditions will demand more skills."

Ogilvy admires those players for whom sophisticated shotmaking is the norm, citing Steve Elkington and Sergio Garcia in particular. The exemplar, of course, is Woods. "At the majors Tiger is the epitome of a shotmaker," says Ogilvy. "At a regular tournament he'll hit more drivers off the tee because the penalty for missing is not as severe, and he'll shape the ball a bit from the fairway, but not a lot. He wants to win, and even though a normal tournament is kind of like a test laboratory for him, he's going to play the style that gives him the best chance.

"But in the majors, he goes back to what I call 'proper golf,' " Ogilvy says. "Shaping the ball off the tee with the trajectory and ­sidespin that's going to give him the best chance to hit the fairway and get the best angle, then drawing the ball into a left pin, fading it to a right pin, coming in high when the pin is in front, coming in lower when it's in the back, hitting fairways, hitting the wide part of the green. In a major he's about the most conservative player in terms of style of play, but he's figured out that if he reduces the mistakes when everyone else is making them, he'll be there at the end. At Southern Hills, he played so smart. At Hoylake, that was a clinic." On the other hand, Woods isn't an easily emulated model.

Geoff Ogilvy

Photo: Darren Carroll

"He has the talent and the work ethic to really go after perfection," Ogilvy says. "Tiger is different in that he doesn't just master what he does well, he's made himself the master of everything. Speaking personally, I can't try a lot of things in competition that I'm not doing well. I might go home and think big thoughts about career goals, but when I tee it up on Thursday morning, rightly or wrongly, all I'm thinking about is playing well that day. So some days I can hit every shot, but most days, I'll just hit the shot that is working.

"And I think that's how most players play. Because of equipment, it's probably easier than it used to be to have a one-dimensional game and play well. Like Bruce Lietzke, he just mastered what he did and accepted the limitations. He was sort of a pioneer in that style, which has the drawback of not being well suited for majors. But for as much money as we play for now, you can have an unbelievable career playing like that. It's like mechanical trading on the stock market. They have these computer systems that take all the emotion and intangibles out of the decision, and they buy and sell on your behalf. We are starting to play golf on tour almost like that. It's kind of like the way Dave Pelz coaches pitching -- with set swing lengths for specific distances. It's the exact opposite of Seve, who was all emotion and art."

All that said, Ogilvy believes shotmaking can be revived.

"Before we mess with the rules, I think the challenge is for the tours to set the courses up more like majors," he said. "Firm ground is the motivation for shotmaking, and a lot would be fixed if we stopped watering the greens so much. Right now, guys are using balls that don't spin very much because they go farther, and they can get away with it because the greens are soft. But if you firmed up the greens for the pros, they would start using balls that spin more. They would be sick of the ball rolling over the greens, and they'd use a ball they could move around in the air so they could bring it in from the right direction. It's no accident that Tiger uses a ball that spins more than anyone's. Guys would change their style of play, but they won't until they have to."