No Rollback Necessary

Jack Nicklaus had a rough week at the U.S. Open. And he wasn’t even in the field. Nicklaus, the all-time leading majors winner, is also the high priest of the movement to roll back the golf ball. He is not by any means alone in this movement, which includes Arnold Palmer, many other pros of a certain era and many in the golf media. But Jack is Jack, and he is the most consistently vocal about the golf ball going too far. Ask him a question about anything in golf, and he will invariably tie it back to the demon sphere. Don’t get me wrong: Like most golfers, I have the greatest admiration for Jack. Whether or not Tiger Woods passes his 18 major championships, a feat which looks increasingly unlikely after Merion, Jack will still be golf’s greatest champion. However, despite that admiration, I do not agree with his almost single-minded focus on the golf ball as the root of all evil in today’s game. Jack’s argument goes as follows: Older golf courses like Merion have been rendered obsolete by the distance the modern golf ball travels in the hands of today’s touring pro. And yet despite the fact that today’s players are athletes as never before, that their equipment has been optimized to fit their swings, that advances in agronomy have had a drastic impact on how golf courses are maintained and that course-maintenance equipment has advanced just like drivers and irons, all of golf’s ills can be traced to the ball. It must be rolled back to protect, well, Merion. But it turns out Merion didn’t need any protection, thank you. And as a result, the argument that the golf ball needs to be slowed down has been shown to be based on false logic. People tend to confuse pro golf with major-championship golf. On the PGA Tour, birdies and eagles on perfectly manicured, sometimes poorly designed and uninteresting golf courses are the norm. The players like it, television likes it, and everybody is happy. Major-championship golf, on the other hand, is very different. It’s what you saw at Merion. Narrow fairways, deep rough, challenging green complexes. In regular pro golf, all a player is typically asked to do is bomb the ball toward the hole and make a few putts. Championship golf, on the other hand, requires sound strategic thinking, precise execution and a level of patience not typically found among today’s bombers. The Nicklaus apologista were out in full force even before Justin Rose took his first victory lap. They offered all kinds of excuses, including the narrowness of the fairways, the raised length of the fairway grass, players’ lack of practice time at and unfamiliarity with Merion, and on and on. But the fact is none other than David Fay, the much-admired former executive director of the USGA and a powerful voice in bringing the Open back to Merion, said this Open would absolutely be a referendum on the distance issue. The rollback crowd was giddy with delight as the week dawned, looking for a convincing rout of Merion leading to what Sports Illustrated hoped would be “a tipping point” that would lead to dumbing down the ball.


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