Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Technology Ruining Professional Golf?

This post is part of a determined effort to write about other than the current news and politics.  I don't know how long I'll keep that up, but I will try for a while to see if that engages me.

I watched much of the U.S. Open that concluded yesterday, played on a new course at Erin Hills, a golf course north of Milwaukee, the first time this tournament has been played in the state of Wisconsin.  There was drama in it as the outcome was in doubt till near the end of the final round.  The winner, Brooks Koepka, played very well, tying the record for shots under par (16) in a U.S. Open.  Many of the others near the top also played well.  Hideki Matsuyama, the highest rated player who made the cut, mounted an impressive charge on the final day, only to come up a little short. Yet I found the tournament strangely disconnected from past U.S. Opens and thus less interesting to view than it might otherwise have been.  What I have to say about it echoes comments by Steve Stricker, but this is strictly from the perspective of one fan of golf who watches on TV. 

To keep matters simple, I will divide pro players into two types, grinders and boomers.  As long as I've been aware of pro golf, there have been players in each category.  Grinders are known for consistency and accuracy.  Boomers are known for hitting their drives very long and, in particular, taking advantage of par fives.  When I became aware of pro golf, the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.  It did this by having narrow fairways with very punishing rough adjacent to the fairway.  I have some distinct memories of watching David Graham win in 1981.  His advantage was that he hit his drives in the fairway, while many other players did not.  He often used an iron on the tee, to assure this outcome.  Graham only won the U.S. Open that one time.  Other grinders who won it twice include Hale Irwin (he won it 3 times), Curtis Strange, and Andy North.  Interestingly, among the major championships these players only won U.S. Opens.  That cemented the idea for me that the U.S. Open was a tournament that favored grinders.   (Stricker is also a grinder, but he has not yet won a major championship.)

In contrast, The Masters is a tournament that favors boomers.  Players from the earlier vintage in this mold include Craig Stadler, Fred Couples (whose nickname was Boom Boom), and more recently Bubba Watson.   They could out-drive the field and at Augusta National that is a great advantage.

One should observe that truly great players can succeed in both settings, which shows that golf is more than just how you hit it off the tee.  Recovering from a mistake matters.  Putting well matters; it matters a lot. Understanding how to take advantage of course layout also matters, as does its converse, knowing what pitfalls to avoid so as to stay away from getting a high score on a hole and thereby playing yourself out of contention. 

Yet the last two winners at the U.S. Open were boomers.  Koepka really hammered his drives all day yesterday.  Dustin Johnson did likewise the year before.  Has the U.S. Open become a boomer tournament?  Are there any tournaments left for grinders?  Those are the questions I want to think through - from a fan's perspective.

First, consider a trend that has influenced all pro sports over the last 30-40 years.  This is the importance of weight lifting and strength training as part of the preparation of the athletes.  I'm under the impression that Tiger Woods brought this to golf.  His spectacular success demanded a reaction by the other players, so they could keep up.  I learned by watching this weekend that Koepka and Dustin Johnson often work out together.  Just looking at them, they are incredibly strong.  Koepka, in particular, is barrel chested and looked much thicker than some of his competitors, who may have been equally athletic but were much more slender.  (Matsuyama is another player who is muscular in the way Koepka is.)

The thinking used to be that muscle bound players in all sports would lack touch.  The question in golf is whether that was true 35 years ago or just an old wives tale.  The nature of the golf swing has changed since then, though why it has changed I am not sure.  When I first became aware of pro golf, the player held up to have the ideal swing was Julius Boros.  His swing was smooth and effortless.  (Ernie Els swings in this mode now, but he is just about to end his career at majors.)  Nowadays many of the players seem to swing exceptionally hard.  Sergio Garcia does this with his wedge as much as with his driver.  The very hard swing has become the new ideal.

Now I'm going to switch into guess mode, because I don't understand the physics of hitting a golf ball and what the new technology - the clubs and the balls themselves -  have done to affect the flight of the ball.  There is much talk about how the change from wood to metal in drivers and fairway woods has increased length of the shot.  Indeed there were ads for a new Calloway driver throughout the tournament that kept pushing the fact of it being revolutionary as far as length.  But my sense is that more important than average distance is decreased variance, both in how offline the shot might go, and in how long the shot goes in the air.  Indeed, one of the really noticeable things when they showed the drive via tracer (which is a technology that improves viewing the golf) is just how straight most of the shots were.  The boomers were hitting it just as straight as the grinders.  It's just that they were hitting it a lot further.

I don't think this was always true.  My impression is that with a wooden driver (I still have my persimmon woods which I keep in a golf bag in the garage) the slice or hook spin is harder to control, so those shots had a tendency to go more off line.  Further, with a wooden driver, fading the ball might have given somewhat more control than hooking it, but it would sacrifice distance.  Now there is such a thing as a power fade.  The big hitters seem to prefer that to the hook.  The metal drivers enable that.  If you can hit the ball as straight with the driver as you can with a long iron, then the latter has no utility at all and you won't keep it in your bag.

So the rough was largely not in play during the tournament.  Once in a while there'd be an errant shot.  But in the old days,  even a halfway decent shot that landed in the fairway might end up in the rough, owing to undulations in the fairway that were hard to control for.  That sort of thing hardly seemed to impact the player's decisions on the tee in this year's tournament.  What did matter was where the traps were.  Some players would choose three-wood over driver, so they'd end up short of the trap.  In other words, the roll after the ball hits the fairway is still something that has variance to it.  So players do make adjustments for that.  I recall even Koepka doing that once.  But most of his drives were so long that the fairway traps were not in play for him.

I think it is similar for the irons, both the stiffness of the shafts and the weighing around the head of the club.  The players hit the sweet spot a lot more frequently now, which is one reason why the scores were so low over the weekend.

While taking the next suggestion seriously might screw up the players swings, so the experiment wouldn't be tried for that reason, I'd like to see a few tournaments played where all the pros used equipment from 1980.  (Wikipedia says that Calloway, a company that makes golf clubs, was founded in 1982.)   After the players had adjusted to the older clubs and balls, what would their shots be like?  I'd like to see this, to get some insight on how much of performance is the skill of the current player and how much is the equipment.

Major league baseball, in contrast to pro golf, has ruled out the use of aluminum bats and still relies on the wooden ones.  But in little league through college, metal bats are preferred, for both durability and performance.  Likewise, the duffer who plays mainly once or twice a week as an escape from the day job should be allowed to use all the modern equipment, especially if it makes the experience more fun.

As a viewer of pro golf, however, it is less interesting to watch them play when booming the drive becomes the decisive factor for who wins the golf tournament.  To a certain extent, that made Jordan Speith a breath of fresh air, as it was his superior short game that elevated him to championships.  Another player in contention yesterday, Brian Harman, who was in the last group, also has an excellent short game.  It was fun to see him on top of the leader board for so long.

But he was at a severe disadvantage, not being nearly as long a Koepka.  He could not reach in two on the par fives.  And on many of the par fours, he had to hit a much longer iron into the green, making it more difficult to get close to the hole.  Golf at this level is not just shot making, however.  It's also about controlling your nerves.  All the players in contention operate under a great deal of pressure.  A boomer who can trust that his shot will end up in the fairway faces less pressure than other players.

It wasn't a guarantee that Koepka would win the tournament.  Indeed, he wasn't in the last group and was a shot off the lead at the start of the day.  Yet going into Saturday, when many players were tied at seven under par, Koepka included, ESPN had a piece that said Koepka was the man to beat. 

This was at the U.S. Open, a tournament that in my mind should still favor grinders.  I wonder if we'll ever return to that.

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