When I first began playing the game seriously many years ago, I was playing at a local course with my brother when an old chap asked if he could join us as his playing partner had not turned up and he didn’t want to play on his own. We readily agreed and he invited us to tee off.
For once, my brother and I hit decent tee shots with our drivers while the old man took out a wood that must have been from the 1950s and smacked the ball 200 yards maximum, a good 50 yards or so behind our balls.
Easy pickings you may think, given our age advantage and technology. It was quite clear that this likeable old chap was a decent golfer in his day but his decision to rely on his older clubs would likely cost him dearly.
It is recalling this story to mind that brings me to the topic of golf technology. Specifically, whether it is a good thing or a bad thing for the game that we now have equipment that is turning some of the world’s most iconic courses into what Rory McIlroy famously called “a pitch and putt course” when referring to the Old Course at St. Andrews a few years back.
So with that in mind and before I return to my story, let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of modern golf technology.
1. Increased distance – There’s no doubt about it, hitting a ball further makes the game easier. It is so much easier for a decent level golfer to hit the green and control the ball with a 7 or 8 iron, than it is with a 3 or 4 iron. Hitting the ball further also helps lesser players shoot lower scores while the technology in how the club head is shaped, weighted and put together can help eradicate small errors and ‘force’ the ball to correct a slight tendency in the swing of a player.
2. Lower scores = happier players – No amateur enjoys coming off the course having shot 100+ and so golf technology that can shave strokes off your game means you tend to be a happier golfer, thus you play more often and as a result participation will increase. Or that’s the theory, though interestingly a study by KPMG into Golf across Europe in 2011 revealed that across Europe over 40,000 people fewer played the game in 2011 than in 2010, though this may be down to economic factors, rather than any lessening in enjoyment of the game.
3. Style – There’s no doubt about it, while traditionalists may love the look of the old style woods, these new Titanium drivers, forged and weighted irons and elaborately designed putters are a thing of undeniable beauty. They may be there to help you on the course, but they do also make you look rather stylish around it too.
1. Cost – New technology isn’t cheap and if you are a golfer on a budget, it can be impossible to afford all the latest models of drivers, balls and irons on the market. With manufacturers bringing out new sets every year almost and tweaking clubs to even greater degrees of accuracy, that research and development comes at a price and it is a price that the millions of amateur golfers tend to pay.
2. Exacerbates mistakes – New clubs may be more forgiving than their older versions, but amateurs like myself still get it very wrong from time to time and there is a world of difference in slicing a shot hit 100 yards and ending up slightly off the fairway, and slicing a wood 250+ yards and seeing your ball fly miles out of bounds into a different postal code.
3. Technology is making many courses obsolete at the top level: In 2001, when Augusta first started redesigning its course to take into account the extra distance players hit the ball with newer clubs, Davis Love III remarked “They’re not just lengthening them a little bit, they’re lengthening them by a lot…That just means we are going to have to push the limits of technology and we’re going to have to get stronger and learn to hit it even farther.” Watching Bubba Watson triumph in 2012, it is hard not to be impressed with the prophetic nature of that observation.
What’s my opinion? In true sitting-on-the-fence fashion, I can relate to both sides of the argument here. I think modern technology does make the game more accessible and enjoyable to play, however I think the rate of change of the technology means it is cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of golfers and that golfers can quickly come to rely on technology to help them improve, rather than developing skills within their own game.
It is this point which brings me back to my story, as after the opening tee shots, my brother and I expected to be watching a lot more of the old chap play his shots, than we would each other. Yet by the time we shook hands at the 18th green, we had both been humbled considerably by the old chap who recorded a victory by at least ten shots over the pair of us.
At the time, I didn’t understand why this was; we hit the ball so much further than he did. What I didn’t understand was that our reliance on our technology in the bag, was going to be our downfall.
The old man didn’t hit the ball as far as we did, but he hit it much straighter, much more consistently and was impeccable around the green. In terms of golfing ability, he was light years ahead of us and it showed. My brother and I realised that day that hitting the ball with a top class driver doesn’t make you a good golfer, it makes you a bad golfer using new equipment you don’t really understand.
Fortunately, golf is a game that still rewards the effort you put in learning the game, regardless of how old the clubs are that you are using.
So in my view, golf technology can help the game in many ways, it can make it more accessible, help the top players make stunning shots and control the ball like never before, it can help amateurs hit further, more accurately but it will not do this alone. You have to keep working at your game to see the improvement.
And at the highest level of the game, if technology is resulting in more birdies, then what’s the problem? I take no pleasure in watching the world’s top players struggle on a course that has been set up primarily to defeat their skills. There is a falseness about that I find distasteful. So what if Bubba won the Masters hitting the ball vast distances, Augusta is still a real test of golfing skill as is any course you’d care to mention.
The only concern I have with technology is on how it is changing the perception of the skills needed to be a great golfer. Are young golfers now learning to hit the ball longer, or straighter first? My main worry is that golf technology will lead us along a path where we develop distance before skill, technique and finesse and I think that is a bad thing for the game of golf.
As just as that old man showed, it doesn’t matter how far you hit it, it is how many shots it takes to get the ball in the hole that matters.
Pictures courtesy of Gorilla Golf Blog, Honma Golf, Callaway Golf Facebook Page, Ping Facebook Page