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  • Alistair Tait

Mission impossible on distance debate

Ian Woosnam wasn’t a happy man at dinner on the Monday evening before the 1990 American Express Mediterranean Open. He could see the future of top flight golf and it appeared to do him no favours.

As myself, Peter Baker and photographer Matthew Harris sat in restaurant near Las Brisas Golf Club in Marbella, Spain, Woosie said metal headed drivers were drastically changing the way the game had been traditionally played.

Woosnam felt it on a personal level. He thought his advantage had been taken away from him. The advent of metal headed drivers meant players who weren’t even close to him as ball strikers were closing the gap. He lamented that players could hit the ball practically anywhere on the metal head and it was going to fly, unlike traditional persimmon headed woods where players, literally, had to hit the ball out of the screws to make it fly far and true.

Was the death of persimmon woods in favour of metal headed drivers what led to Bryson DeChambeau’s demolition of Winged Foot in the 120th U.S. Open? If lawmakers could turn back the clock, would they go down the baseball route and say elite professionals must use persimmon headed drivers, while amateurs can use metal? We’ll never know.

Of course, Woosnam didn’t suffer because of metal headed drivers. He won the 1992 Masters using a persimmon headed driver. Yet I have to believe if he’d had his way he’d have banned metal woods when they first appeared in the 1980s. Bet even he can't believe where we are now compared to 1990.

Woosie wasn’t the last player to win a major using a persimmon driver. Langer’s 1993 Masters win is believed to be the last major won with a persimmon headed wood.

Persimmon seems as far away now as featheries and hickory shafts did when they became extinct. There’s a huge difference now, though. We can’t push golf courses any farther. We’ve maxed out on length, unless we want 8,000-yard golf courses.

The ball comes in for a lot of criticism. It’s the curse that has made great courses obsolete, according to many. Not totally for me, albeit I recognise the extra distance it has given modern players. It’s a combination of the ball and huge frying pan headed drivers that have seen a phenomenal increase in distance.

Hitting it far has always been an asset. Nicklaus did in his day. Tiger overpowered courses, but what we saw at Winged Foot was almost scary.

No criticism of DeChambeau. He figured out how to max out his body and his equipment to win the U.S. Open. All credit to him. However, he's talking about hitting the ball even farther with more muscle, different driver heads and longer shafts.

The palpations can almost be felt from R&A headquarters in St Andrews and Far Hills in New Jersey, where the USGA makes its home. You can bet the green jackets in Augusta are right now conjuring up ways to make sure DeChambeau doesn’t bomb his way to become a member of the golf club by winning the Masters with an all-out assault on Augusta National two months from now.

Simple question: what do the governing bodies do now?

I wish I knew. I bet they do too.

I’ve heard everything from reduced compression balls, smaller driver heads, a limit on the length of tees, to bifurcation – one set of equipment rules for elite pros and one for amateurs. The B word is the one the rules makers want to avoid. I don’t blame them. And don't forget, their are many in the game who don't want to reign back technology. They're quite happy to watch players hit 380 yard drives.

The now defunct Golf World magazine ran a 12-page feature not too long ago on what the law makers should do to reign back technology. Their conclusion? It was an impossible task. It still is.

I have no idea how the R&A and USGA solve this conundrum. It really is mission impossible.

#JustSaying: “There is a serious thought that the game is now in the process of decline as a result of over-mechanisation; art and skill are being replaced by lust for distance of hit.” Robert Harris, Sixty Years of Golf, 1953

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