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Jan 07

Technology, Putting and the Old Course

 

Has Professional Golf Become a Putting Contest?

As Woody Austin spoke of approaching his fiftieth birthday recently, he talked about how he made his mark by being a ball striker and “knocking the flag over.” Citing the great Ben Hogan, the man Austin believes to the best to ever play the game, he lamented that technology had outgrown the older golf courses and “put everything into a small bowl.” The suggestion was that golf on the professional level has become a putting contest, and Austin was never all that great with a putter in his hands.

putting 1 I’m trying to equate my amateur experience with the pro experience, and maybe it’s a leap too far. Still, what technology means to me is that a constant upgrade of clubs and swing alterations have helped me hit the ball as far, and perhaps even a little straighter, than I did when I was young. I’ve watched Tom Watson hit the ball a country mile, and he’s a good deal older than I am, so steady progress in club advances must be continuing, although I guess a little technique and timing is still what gives Watson the significant edge over my game. Nevertheless, technology for me has been compensation for oncoming age, something to keep me in the same place.


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That being said, I don’t feel like anything’s come down to a putting contest. Even if advancements in technology have made the distances shorter, a professional still needs to hit it straight, just as much as we do on the municipal weekends. Hitting it farther means more opportunity for success and more opportunity for trouble in my weekend efforts. I recently bought a driver that can get me so far deeper into the rough than I ever dreamed, or it can reduce my second shot by two clubs. Same risk as ever, as far as I can see.

putting 2 Ben Hogan was a good example to cite. I believe that he hated the putting game, and derided those who were good at it, such as Billy Casper, intimating that it was unfair for Casper to be in contention on such a regular basis, simply because he could putt. True, Hogan’s study of the human swing, and the resulting excellence of that study was profound. However, if you’re going to call modern golf a putting contest, you can’t go back and say to Hogan and his colleagues that this weekend’s tournament will be decided by “closest to the pin.” Dislike it as we may, putting is a part of the game, and every player is required to do well at it if he or she wants to get very far.

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Speaking of technology and the golf club still refers to distance more than to any other consideration. All right, so the course is shorter than it used to be. Things can be done about that. It can be toughened with pin and hazard placement, heightening the dangers around the green, or putting something horrible and score-threatening in the exact spot where you put that shiny new driver almost every time. Is anyone suggesting that we scrap Colonial, Augusta or Firestone, and replace them with vast new stretches of expanded real estate to accommodate a new set of clubs?

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I have only played miniature golf once in my life. On that particular day, I was so awesome that I almost couldn’t stand myself. I am absolutely certain, however, that it bore little or no resemblance to my performance on a real golf course. Likewise, I’ve been in a lot of putting contests with the thought of improving that aspect of the game. Sometimes, I do pretty well, but even that doesn’t translate directly into success from the first tee on.

I have to go with Billy Casper on this one. If you’re not a good putter, strive to become one. You can’t wish it away. Outside of that, the larger course, I feel sure, still has a lot to offer the shot-maker and the master swing-technician, a lot of opportunity and a lot of trouble, just like it did in the old days.

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About the author

G.F. Skipworth

has spent every available moment playing golf or studying the greats since the 60s, in between world tours as a classical musician, Harvard studies in Government or as the author of a dozen novels. Nicklaus and Snead may be the statistical greats, but Skipworth is a life-long devotee of Gary Player, and considers meeting the South African at the Jeld-Wen to be an unforgettable milestone. His driving passion in golf these days is to raise viewer interest in the LPGA.