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Why golf is a game of precision and not just booming drives

Golf is a game that requires physicality, strategy and mental strength. But is the joy of the game being diluted?

Finesse and precision make golf so interesting.
Finesse and precision make golf so interesting. (AFP)

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In 1984, German athlete Uwe Hohn threw the javelin an astounding distance of 104.0 metres at a track and field event in Berlin. Hohn’s throw shattered the existing world record of 99.2 metres and was the first to break the 100-metre barrier. Today, Hohn holds the bittersweet distinction of holding, what athletes refer to, as an ‘eternal record,’ and yet being de-recognised as the mark which javelin throwers aspire to beat. To cut a long story short, Hohn’s throw brought into focus safety concerns in the sport: an errant throw going over a 100 metres would endanger unsuspecting spectators at most arenas. Ergo, in 1986 the International Amateur Athletics federation tweaked the javelin’s design to make a throw of that distance virtually impossible. The records were reset, only counting throws made using the now-legal javelins. It's unlikely if anyone will ever come close to matching Hohn’s mark. An interesting piece of trivia: Hohn coaches India’s Neeraj Chopra, the reigning Olympic Champion.

Coming back to golf. The Royal & Ancient that governs the Rules of Golf in conjunction with the USPGA, publishes annual amendments to the rules by which the game is played across the world. Among these are strict stipulations concerning golf clubs and balls: their construction, the materials that can be used, the dimensions of the club face, the number of dimples on the golf ball, number and type of grooves on a club face, length of shaft, and so on. The idea, first and foremost, is to level the playing field, but it is also to keep the nature of the game intact. Let me elaborate: golf, the way it was intended to be played, is a complex sport of skill, both physical and mental. It’s a sport that combines physical abilities, creativity—both in terms of shot making and strategy—and mental strength. Traditionally, power has been important: length off the tee has always given the long-hitters an advantage. But that was tempered by the inherent need for finesse around the greens, and rewards for precision.

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That paradigm changed for good when a certain Tiger Eldrick Woods made his appearance on the world stage. With his booming drives, and elite athlete level of physical fitness and strength, Woods didn’t just overpower his peers, he decimated golf courses that were not built to challenge the kind of length he brought to the game. Further evolution of clubs that included wedges that could hack through deep rough; and hybrids, which enabled a player to hit good shots from bad lies, further rendered traditional hazards somewhat toothless. 

Woods’ radical blueprint became one that every young player aspired to replicate: physical fitness became paramount, and, as the emphasis on hitting the golf ball over astoundingly long distances grew, equipment manufacturers rushed to keep pace. On one hand, the game-improvement clubs make it nigh on impossible to hit a ball that curves wildly off-target. On the other hand, dime-sized sweet spots on drivers make it possible for even aberrant swingers to hit the ball a mile. Now all of this has been good news for the likes of us amateurs who spend their lives trying to improve at a difficult and frustrating game. Today, with club fitting, most of us can play much better, consistent golf than even a few years back.

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It’s a completely different ball game when it comes to the best players in the world. You don’t even have to look at an outlier like Bryson de Chambeau, who regularly hits precision drives that go over 400 yards; even Rory McIlroy, the top-ranked player in the world, consistently drives well over 300 yards. Supremely talented as he is, the Irishman’s virtues when it comes to golf are very different from, say, a yesteryears star like Seve Ballesteros who could barely hit a straight drive and yet excelled in creative escapes and imaginative shot making. Ballesteros, who famously remarked that “my hands are my computer”, while dismissing modern tech, made the game fun to watch. In the modern age, Woods is possibly the only golfer who is as imaginative and creative as he is powerful. But the current stars of the game, are ‘bomb and gouge’ artistes—hitting it as long as they can and then wedging it close to the pin.

Watching their favourite players, most amateurs become equally skewed in their focus and their practice towards the long ball. This isn’t lost on equipment companies that release bigger and more forgiving drivers every year in a ploy to bait weekend golfers on a quest for bigger and more booming drives. The fact that the ten-yard greenside bunker shot, counts as much as that 250-yard drive off the tee is conveniently ignored. If all you’re seeing on television is pros bombing it 300 yards and hitting wedges into 500 yard par-4s, then it's unlikely that you'll be motivated to work on a deft touch around the greens. Who wants to spend hours in a bunker practicing shots, or little chips off the green when you can tee it up and go all ape on the ball?

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And that works fine when you’re in your home club where there’s really no new strategy required and you know exactly where to hit the ball. Trouble arises on new courses where you’re required to ‘place’ the ball—off the tee, and off the fairway—while avoiding hazards that aren’t already mapped in your golfing brain. That’s when the ‘grip it and rip it’ swing falls apart and fear takes over. Your muscles get tight and the ball goes precisely where you don’t want it to go. 

Without a doubt, the best way to get an accurate reflection of the merits of your swing (or lack of them) is to play courses you’re unfamiliar with. That’s when it hits you: this is a game of precision. Perhaps the best advice for amateurs came from PGA Tour player and Major-winner Geoff Ogilvy. He remarked in an interview with the New York Times that amateur golfers love the driver because, “They think they’re practicing to have nice scores, but they’re really only practicing to have fun.” Would you rather have a fun day with the driver and not such a great score? Or, would you rather not hit any blinding drives but walk off with a decent score? I know what the answer to that conundrum is, for me at least. And I’m no smarter than the rest of us.

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.

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