Long Day: Technology, Training Change Golf
Willie McRae remembers the days when Dick Chapman, the 1940 U.S. Amateur champion, needed a 3-wood to reach the green of the 18th hole at Pinehurst No. 2. It took a 6-iron for Labron Harris Jr. to reach the par 4 finishing hole in winning the championship match of the 1962 Amateur at Pinehurst.
McRae, a caddie at Pinehurst for more than six decades, shakes his head over the evolution of golf, its implements and the way it's played today.
"One boy just hit a driver and wedge into 18," he says. "It's phenomenal what they do. On 15, they're hitting 5-irons 210 yards. Dick Chapman, Julius Boros, Art Wall--I caddied for all of them--they'd hit a 4-wood. And then they'd have to jump on it."
Each night when superintendent Paul Jett and the Pinehurst grounds staff begins manicuring the No. 2 and 4 courses used for this week's U.S. Amateur, they go to a patch of fairway about 275-300 yards from the tee to fill in the divot holes. Jett says there were a couple of divot marks on the 13th hole at the base of the hill leading to green, just 50 yards short of the 378-yard hole.
One volunteer at the base of the practice range reports "quite a lot of noise" with balls landing after atmospheric travels from the top of the range. They've quit mowing the grass beginning 40 yards from the base of the Maniac Hill area so balls won't roll onto the lower level, and it's a 320-yard carry from the middle of the top hitting area to the front of the lower practice ground.
"We also had some ball marks on the greens at the base of the range," Jett says. "And they weren't made by 15-yard chip shots."
Spend a couple of hours roaming the Pinehurst courses and watching the competitors and you'll marvel at their swings and the heat they generate. Billy Horschel hit a driver on the dogleg right seventh, cleared the bunkers and landed dead center of the fairway narrowed to 20 yards just to give players pause about an aggressive drive. He had 80 yards to the middle of the green on the 404-yard hole. Kyle Stanley hit a 3-wood off the first tee more than 275 yards and had a wedge into the green of the 401-yard hole. Anton Arboleda hit a 3-wood off the tee of the 448-yard 11th on No. 4, leaving Tom Marzolf, as associate of architect Tom Fazio, to say, "It's scary what they can do to a golf course."
Peter Uihlein, who qualified for match play with an even-par 140 total, notes there's a trade-off to all this highfalutin distance.
"The longer you hit it, the harder you hit it, the more spin you create, the more the ball curves, the more it travels off-line," says Uihlein. "With the rough this week, if you're off-line you're in trouble. Play from the fairway and you're a lot better off."
Modern equipment is certainly an issue. Balls travel farther in the air and stop quicker on the green. Club shafts and heads deliver more swing speed at impact and better control of mis-hits. One significant change in equipment rules takes effect in 2010, when the size and shape of grooves on wedges through 5-irons will be restricted to put more of a premium on shot-making. Players will have less ability to generate high-spin shots out of rough when square grooves will become smaller and more rounded.
But King Kong golf is not just about the arrows. It's the Indians and the way they are trained as well.
A generation ago, most golfers stood 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11. They were taught rhythm, tempo, feel and body motion -- a full turn and proper weight shift, for example. Frank Stranahan in the 1940s and Gary Player in the 1960s were the only golfers of any note to espouse the qualities of exercise and physical fitness for golfers.
Now many of the top young golfers stand 6-foot-2 and weigh more than 200 pounds. Lots of them look like wide receivers on a football team. Many might still be playing football or basketball if not for the fact that their Baby Booming fathers are keen for golf, the game is cool and there are massive dollars to be made on the professional tour.
Tiger Woods set the standard for fitness among golfers, and now many strut the fairways in tighter-fitting shirts than those XXX Ashworths of 1994, their toned biceps, wide chests and lean bellies accentuated by the ultra-thin, malleable fabrics.
And their swings are things of beauty--back and through with a minimum of waste. You can set a Swiss watch with their tempo.
"Golf swings today are so efficient," says Eric Alpenfels, Pinehurst's director of golf instruction. "There is no wasted motion. Their clubfaces are square. They are not going to hit it but just so far off-line. That allows them to put all of their energy into swing speed."
Southern Pines' Pat McGowan, a former tour pro and today the father of a top junior golfer, marvels at how the game has changed since he was a collegian in the 1970s.
"You go on the range on the Champions Tour, and every swing looks different," he says. "A lot are homemade golf swings. Everyone in the U.S. Amateur over 40 probably has a homemade swing. These kids are pretty much all one-plane swings. They've gotten good instruction since they were little, and they take it back on-plane and deliver it on-plane. It looks like an effortless swing, but it's an efficient swing. They have no fear of going off-line. You can go 100 percent if you have no fear of missing the fairway."
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