What would a tournament with a shorter ball look like? It's already happened
In August of 2006, the Ohio Golf Association, in an attempt to bring to light the burden facilities were feeling to lengthen their golf courses for state events, conducted a competition requiring the use of a shorter tournament ball to be played by all. The Champions Tournament boasted a strong field of amateur and collegiate players, using a ball designed to go 10 to 15 yards less off the tee. Golf Digest sister publication Golf World chronicled the event in its Sept. 1, 2006 issue with reaction from those who played and the organizers of the event. As we look to a future with the potential for elite competitions to be played with a shorter ball, here’s a look back to when it actually was done.
The headline may read that Blake Sattler, a senior at the University of Akron and a two-time qualifier for the U.S. Amateur, won the Ohio Golf Association’s Champions Tournament last week by nine shots with a pair of 67s at the 6,822-yard Windy Knoll Golf Club in Springfield.
The back story may be that the development of the golf ball has reached a curious and perhaps critical crossroads.
The OGA’s Champions Tournament was the first event of any substance to require players to use a uniform tournament ball. It was seen as a worthwhile, even necessary experiment by organizers and participants.
“I think we’ve shown our member clubs that there is an alternative,” said OGA president Hugh E. Wall III. “You don’t have to host an event where the players would only need a driver, a wedge and a putter.
“I think we’ve opened the door in an appropriate and polite manner. To what extent it goes beyond this, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Wall reiterated the OGA’s concern that distance is hurting golf at the state tournament level. The impression that the Ohio Golf Association was intent on rocking the world of golf with its one-ball tournament last week may have been overstated. The real concern was the practical issue of where to play state events. Popa said it has become standard practice to see a group of players waiting for the green to clear on shorter par fours.
“Over the course of 10 years, we might have 30 to 35 courses that host our events,” says Jim Popa, executive director of the OGA. “About a third of them are too short right now and that number is growing.”
The ball used for the event, the Volvik ProSpect, was a 70-compression, blended Surlyn cover that the manufacturer said contained 50 percent urethane. It generally played shorter off the tee, according to research conducted at the event by Interactive Sports Game’s TrackMan ballflight radar tracking device and Tom Mase, executive vice president of research and innovation at Hot Stix Golf, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based clubfitting research center.
An initial review of the data from players at the tournament, obtained by Golf Digest, suggests that the ball carried 10-15 yards shorter on tee shots than typical multilayer urethane-cover balls like those used by most tour players. Still, there were players who saw greater and lesser distance loss than those numbers, although generally, higher speed players saw the greater decreases in distance. Golf Digest robot testing conducted by independent research firm Golf Laboratories showed the ball consistently carried five to seven yards shorter off the driver at three different swing speeds, but that differences in total distances were inconclusive.
Flight data for short irons indicated the ball may have been slightly longer, but generated less spin. That latter characteristic, not especially the distance difference, caused the most consternation among players at the event.
“This ball could be pretty frustrating,” said Matt Ries, who finished tied for seventh in the event. “Iron shots seemed to roll out more. I think if we could get something that flew 10-20 percent less, but checked around the greens like balata, that might be a better test. It’s definitely an equalizer, though.”
The winner agreed. “I was surprised how I adjusted so quickly,” Sattler said. “I think the ball did exactly what it was meant to do in terms of equalizing the field. It brought the shorter hitters a little closer, but the hardest part was adjusting to the release. In a way, it brought more strategy into the game.”
Popa said the OGA received encouragement from Jack Nicklaus, as well as several other players on the PGA Tour. Alan Fadel, a former tour player, reinstated amateur and a member of the OGA’s board of directors, was instrumental in selecting the ball that would be used. The motivation all along, he said, was the accelerated obsolescence of the state’s venerable venues.
“I don’t want to see technology bypass Moraine, Scioto and Inverness,” he said. “We’re trying to protect the integrity of the courses in the state.”
Still, not the entire field endorsed the shorter ball. Chris Wilson, a senior at Northwestern who led the Big 10 in scoring average last year, finished tied for second. He understood the OGA’s method, but wondered if ultimately it was unfair.
“I can see the concern when Medinah is 7,500 yards and guys are near 20-under,” said Wilson, the 2005 Ohio amateur champion. “But if you’re in the gym three or four days a week and working hard on your game to do what you can to create more speed, you should be rewarded. There are other ways to make the course more challenging.”
Where does the debate go from here? The OGA will meet in October to consider whether to hold another one-ball tournament next year. The event was expensive than other tournaments the OGA administers, thanks to the additional cost of ordering 500 dozen balls (the minimum order for the specially marked balls) and the expense of studying launch characteristics with three TrackMan ballflight monitoring machines. Popa said the OGA had received inquiries from other state organizations before and during the event.
In an event played the same week and in the same state where PGA Tour players were averaging 310 yards off the tee, it’s no wonder Sattler believes his little victory in a little state tournament may have been a big part of history.
“Over time, there could be more of these type of events,” said Sattler, who believes contesting the event on a 7,000-yard course might be more interesting than playing a shorter venue. “There’s been a lot of talk about this idea, but now we have something with some real results. I think this tournament really moves things forward. But this is just step one in a long process.”