No, not players on steroids. It was the game of golf that was on steroids last week at the WGC Match play in the rarefied and elevated air north of Tucson in Marana, Arizona.
The dust has settled now from the pulsating playoff in which Aussie Jason Day, built more like an NFL strong safety, outlasted a young French magician called Victor Dubuisson–whose nickname in his homeland is “Golden Hands.” So let’s examine what got lost in the shuffle of the drama.
Day hit 6-iron into a 601-yard par 5. For his second shot.
Dubuisson flew the green in the playoff from 200 yards. With a 7-iron.
Rickie Fowler reached a putting surface from a fairway bunker 135 yards away. With a sand wedge.
All week long players, big and small, routinely hit irons off the tee on 460-yard par 4s; carried bunkers 330 yards from the teeing ground; smote three woods that were longer than trail smoke.
How many times could we see this and then listen to CBS experts Nick Faldo, Gary McCord and David Feherty gasp in amazement?
What was remarkable to me last week was the fact the players themselves were not surprised by any of this. They have grown accustomed to a game with which the rest of us are not familiar.
To repeat: The air is thinner in the high Arizona desert. The ground last week was dry, firm and even hard as a rock in places as golf balls bounded forward and careened like spilled marbles on an asphalt tarmac. The temps were warm.
But if they ever decide to roll back the golf ball–a concept I don’t favor–the pooh bahs in charge of the rules will point back to last week’s Match Play as one of the turning points. The bifurcationists will try to convince us that enough is enough.
But the truth is this has been going on for some time now. Way back in 1998 at Royal Birkdale Curtis Strange hit a 7-iron from 270 yards through the green at the 18th hole. It was dead downgale, on a browned out fairway that was playing like cement. It was a portent.
The truth is Tour pros aren’t like you and me. They already have bifurcated on their own. Colin Montgomerie once told a writer one of the great things about golf was, “Your best shot can be as good as ours. But we will hit more of them.”
Not so anymore.
The changes in equipment, fitness, agronomy, science, metrics, apps, launch monitors and instruction have created a small percentage of supermen among the larger golf population. And the gulf is widening.
(Launch monitors, huh. Back in the day when Jack Nicklaus would turn up 10 pounds lighter in January and attribute it to a new diet, we talked and wrote about lunch monitors. When someone asked Tom Watson what he thought about a flatulence-inducing, cabbage soup diet Nicklaus had tried, Watson said, “I don’t know. But I’m not going to walk behind him.”)
To be sure, the 50-year-old guy with the high single digit handicap can gain 10 more yards with that new $500 dollar driver. But Tour pros get 30 more yards with the same switch. Our increase is arithmetic. The Tour pro’s increase is geometric.
Right about now is when you expect me to say the golf apocalypse is near. Oh, contraire. I applaud this game that the best play. I am in awe the same way I watch in wonderment as NBA players jump over pick-up trucks to dunk basketballs.
And then there’s that distant carnival planet on which the long drive contest guys live. Not even going there in this essay.
Instead, I choose to celebrate Herculean golf and acknowledge that it is here to say. I worry not. As long as there is wind and rain and places, most recently like Merion where you will always have to fit your golf ball around the layout, our game will survive.
And I am reminded, most recently by the Sunday prestidigitations of Dubuisson the clever artiste: The name of the game still is, and always will be, get the ball in the hole.