I recently spoke with Scott Tolley, a former reporter for The Palm Beach Post who has spent the past two decades as the communications czar for Jack Nicklaus and the Nicklaus family. Scott’s a friend and we chat often. But this time he made an interesting observation about his boss: “It’s funny to look out over the media (in a press conference) and see the faces of the veterans when some young guy says, ‘Jack, how do you think things are going with the golf ball?’” Scott said. “A bunch of chins hit chests when that happens because they know what’s coming.”
In the media center at the Honda Classic on Tuesday afternoon, the question didn’t even come up. Nicklaus’ latest sermon on the golf ball was in answer to a question about slow play. After sharing a couple of stories about his own battles with overdeliberation, Jack was asked, “How can this game (speed up)?”
“The golf ball is the biggest culprit,” Nicklaus said. “I mean, we used to play golf courses 6,500 yards, 6,600 yards, and that was a championship golf course. Today you’re 7,500 or 7,600 yards. The older golf courses, the tees, the greens, were very close together. The golf courses built today, they spread them out for real estate purposes. It just takes longer to play. I don’t think that’s good. I think if you bring (the golf ball) back 20 percent, that really will bring it back to about what it was in about 1995 when we played last wound golf ball.”
Jack’s math is a little off. Dustin Johnson, who, so far in 2018, averages 305.6 yards off the tee, would hit it 244.5 yards if the ball was rolled back 20 percent. In the ’60s and ’70s, when Jack was in his prime, he regularly drove it between 270 and 300 yards. But Zach Johnson, who currently averages 292.1 off the tee, would hit it 233.7 yards with Jack’s proposed new ball. That would put him 130th in driving distance … on the LPGA Tour.
“I had dinner with (USGA CEO and executive director) Mike Davis Sunday night,” Jack said before recounting their exchange about the potential of rolling back the ball. “Mike said, ‘We’re getting there. We’re going to get there.’ He said, ‘I need your help when we get there.’ I said, ‘That’s fine. I’m happy to help you. I’ve only been yelling at you for 40 years.’ 1977 is the first time I went to the USGA.
“I’ve talked to Mike a lot. Mike’s been very optimistic about wanting to get something done but hasn’t been able to get there yet.”
Last Feb. 15 the USGA has put out its second annual report on distance, a report that we at The Post covered. That report stated that the average driving distance on five of seven professional tours increased 1.2 percent, or about 0.2 yards a year, from 2003 through the end of 2016. On the other two tours, driving distance went down 1.5 percent.
No substantial changes in golf balls have been reported in the past year, and release of the 2018 USGA report on driving distance is expected soon. “The USGA and R&A have a strong partnership and will be releasing the distance report and sharing our collective view on next steps in the coming weeks,” a USGA spokeswoman said.
“The guy with the golf ball that is going longer, the average golfer, they don’t find half their golf balls,” Nicklaus said. “When I was growing up, the best player at the club is the one who kept it down the middle, bumped it up around the green and he’s the guy winning the club championships. And they were playing in about three hours, three hours and 10 minutes. That doesn’t happen today. So if the golf ball came back, it would solve, I think, a lot of those issues.”
Again, Jack’s math might be a bit misleading. In 1980, as a college golfer, I averaged 264 yards off the tee and hit 7-iron 160 yards. Today, as a 55-year-old senior amateur, I average 260 yards off the tee and hit 7-iron 165. Rolling back the golf ball 20 percent would have me driving it 208 yards and hitting 7-iron 132 yards. I hit wound balata balls farther than that in 1974 … when I was 12.
Nicklaus added: “I think we only have one golf course in this country, my opinion, that’s not obsolete to the golf ball. That’s Augusta National. They are the only people who have enough money to keep the golf course and do the things you have to do. They are even buying up parts of country clubs and roads and everything else to get that done. Not that other people couldn’t do that, but it is just unpractical. Why, every time we have an event, do we have to keep buying more land and making things longer? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
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Then Nicklaus took an unnecessary swipe at a manufacturer, although, to be fair, he was goaded into it by the questioner, who mentioned Titleist’s reticence to jump onto the “distance is bad” bandwagon.
“Titleist basically controls the game,” he said. “But Titleist and the other manufacturers, they don’t make the rules of the game. And I don’t understand why Titleist would be against (rolling the ball back); I know they are, but I don’t understand why you would be against it. They make probably the best product. If they make the best product, whether it’s 20 percent shorter, what difference would it make? Their market share isn’t going to change a bit. They are still going to dominate the game.
“I mean, for the good of the game, we need to play in about 3½ hours on a daily basis. All other sports on television are played in three hours, usually three hours or less, except for a five-set tennis match, but all the other games are played in that.
“It’s about the people watching the game and the people that are paying the tab,” Nicklaus added. “The people paying the tab are the people that are buying that television time and buying all the things that happen out there. Those are the people that you’ve got to start to look out for.
“And the growth of the game of golf, it’s not going to grow with the young kids. Young kids don’t have five hours to play golf. Young kids want instant gratification.
“We need to shorten down the game, reduce the cost of the game and reduce the difficulty for the average guy, not necessarily the pros. But that has to happen.”
He would get no argument from me about lowering costs and making the game faster and less penal for the average player. The disagreement is whether shortening the golf ball across the board would accomplish any of those goals.