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Golf's growing distance problem is causing great courses to be ruined

While the authorities are yet to stop professional players driving ever further, they are instead altering courses in harsher ways

Patrick Cantlay of the United States plays a shot from a bunker during a practice round prior to the 120th U.S. Open
Winged Foot will provide players a serious test at the US Open this week Credit: GETTY IMAGES

One of the great shames of this US Open is that Geoff Ogilvy is in lockdown in Melbourne and, as the last Winged Foot winner, will not be visiting the media centre to be quizzed by the press. 

Ogilvy, 43 has long been hailed as the best interview in golf. Erudite, amusing and always engaged, he is a required listen and, to my mind, provided one of the great sets of quotes when asked about the distance debate a few years ago.

"It's complete nonsense," he said. "In my career, it’s gone from 300 yards was a massive hit to you’re a shorter hitter on tour now, legitimately short. It’s changed the way we play great golf courses and that is the crime. It isn’t that the ball goes 400, that’s neither here nor there. It’s the fact the ball going 400 doesn’t makes Augusta work properly. It functions completely wrong.’’

It is at this point that the Bifurcation Brigade sound their bugles. “The bifur what?” The noun means “the division of something into two parts” and it drives the distance deniers into a state of quasi-religious apoplexy. They cannot stand the thought of the ball being rolled back for the pros only, so obliterating the connection between Tiger Woods and the weekend hack (NB: there is already no connection). 

Brandel Chamblee, the former PGA Tour winner turned TV analyst, has emerged as the champion of this band of zealots. “Bifurcation would lead to the inability to accurately quantify how superior professionals are to amateurs, reducing the awe and wonder of their performances,” he recently tweeted. “Inasmuch as sports are watched to leave the audience with a great sense of awe/wonder, how is this good for golf?”

“It isn't!” his followers scream, leaving Chamblee to plunge in the knife. “Professional golfers represent roughly .0002 per cent of all golfers in the world,” he says. “To those who propose a rollback in equipment (because pros hit the ball so far) you want to see the game changed based upon the participation habits of such an infinitesimal group?”

Except bifurcation is a solution and is actually not even that radical a solution in the sports world, as Ogilvy explained. “Major League Baseball in America, they use wooden bats, and everywhere else in baseball they use aluminium bats,’’ he said. “And when the major leaguers use aluminium bats they don’t even have to touch it and it completely destroys their stadiums. It’s just comedy.

“That’s kind of what’s happened to us at least with the drivers of these big hitters - we’ve completely outgrown the stadiums. So do you rebuild every stadium in the world? That’s expensive. Or make the ball go shorter? It seems relatively simple from that perspective.’’

At last, the USGA and R&A, the game’s two governing bodies, have realised this and, while they tiptoed around the legal complexities (the equipment companies’ lawyers are ready and billing) the report they released in February showed a willingness to act. Alas for now, the USGA plays for time and at Winged Foot they will have the chance to quieten the issue by keeping the world’s best close to par

To this end, they have added 213 yards, grown the rough to a foot and fertilised it to make it extra thick. “It’s a wonderful course, but basically they’ve turned it into a long slog,” a leading caddie told me on Tuesday. “They’ve fiddled the card to protect par - just a long 72 disguised as a 70. There’ll be plenty of hacking out onto fairways and if the pros go too low the USGA will simply quicken up the greens. A pity, really. They should just let it be Winged Foot.”

Ogilvy would no doubt agree, but unfortunately we will not be able to hear his thoughts. Yet courtesy of a podcast on thefriedegg.com we can at least rejoice in his favourite story about his playing partner in that unforgettable final round 14 years ago.

"Poulter wore head to toe pink on that Sunday,” Ogilvy said. “Pink hat, pink shirt, pink trousers, pink shoes, pink socks, pink bag, pink head covers, pink everything. We know what fans can be like in that area, but it was as if Ian was saying: “attack me and yell at me because I’m wearing all pink today - baby pink”. And I was invisible. Poulter really helped me, because I had an unscathed five hours through a New York crowd. He was the lightning rod and I owe him that one.”