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  • Alistair Tait

Should golf follow the javelin’s flight?

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

Uwe Hohn set a new world distance record for javelin throwing in 1984 with a throw of 104.8 metres. The German athlete was the first, and so far, only person to achieve a toss of over 100 metres. That throw helped revolutionise the sport in what seems like a parallel with the distance debate currently taking place in golf.

Hohn’s throw came at a time when officials fretted over the danger of javelins overshooting the playing area and endangering other athletes, or even fans. In 1986, the IAAF decided enough was enough and implemented new rules on javelin design. They decreed that the centre mass be moved 40mm forward so the javelin didn’t travel as far.

The German athlete’s mighty toss wasn’t the only reason the IAAF implemented new design rules. Previous designs meant javelins sometimes didn’t always stick in the ground, resulting in invalid throws.

Moving the centre mass forward meant the new javelin descended at a steeper angle and travelled a shorter distance, an average of about 10% shorter. The corollary of that is obvious: it meant officials didn’t have to extend the playing area.

Golf is the only major sport I know of where the playing areas have had to be expanded on a constant basis to cater for elite players. I get the fitter, stronger argument of those who believe the game does not need to be changed. However, athletes in all sports have become stronger, fitter, have benefitted from more knowledge and technology, yet we don’t see tennis, basketball or badminton courts being enlarged. Ditto for football fields, cricket pitches, baseball diamonds, hockey rinks, ping pong or snooker tables etc. Yet championship golf courses have had to extend tees to cater for elite golfers.

Bryson DeChambeau is obviously driving the distance debate right now. His quest for longer carries, higher ball speeds, has many people up in arms about distance ruining the game. Yet he hasn’t dominated this year’s PGA Tour. He has one other win aside from his U.S. Open victory, the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He’s missed three cuts from 18 events and has one runner-up finish, the WGC – Mexico Championship, and third in the Charles Schwab Challenge.

This past weekend saw Ross McGowan and Patrick Cantlay win on the respective European and PGA Tours. They’re not exactly bombers. McGowan is ranked 128th on the European Tour’s driving distance ranking with a 290.08-yard average. Cantlay is 98th on the PGA Tour with a 303.1-yard average.

McGowan is 44.08 yards behind tour leader Wilco Nienaber, who hasn't won this year. Cameron Champ is ranked fourth in driving distance on the PGA Tour with a 326-yard average, two clubs longer than Cantlay. Yet Champ hasn’t won this year either.

That old adage about drive for show and putt for dough is as apt now as it was when someone well into their cups coined it in a St Andrews bar two or so hundred years ago. Course setup is still important in determining great champions, but perhaps more so now when even average hitters can drive it 300 yards.

The R&A went through a modernisation process of its championship courses during Peter Dawson’s term as chief executive. Courses were altered to provide sterner challenges for the game’s elite players. It’s hard to imagine incumbent Martin Slumbers or a future chief executive having to do likewise considering most of our great links are already stretched to the maximum.

Javelin went through the same sort of ethical debates as golf is going through right now on distance. As Sean Clarkson wrote in a 2012 blog entitled “The Story of the Javelin – Bringing it Back Down to Earth:”

Is it wrong to restrict the performance of athletes by technological change or should we be allowed to push the boundaries of sporting performance with the use of technological enhancements?”

The IAAF sided with restriction in 1986. What side will the R&A and USGA take in golf’s distance debate? Will they also say enough is enough? Will DeChambeau be to golf what Hohn was for javelin throwing?

#JustSaying: “Putting affects the nerves more than anything. I would actually get nauseated over three footers, and there were tournaments when I couldn’t keep a meal down for four days.” Byron Nelson

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