“I must go down to the tee again, to the lonely tee with my bag, And all I ask is a brisk wind, blowing straight at the flag; And a long drive and a good lie and an iron shot without shaking, And an uphill slope on a four-pot putt that won’t be breaking. “I must go down to the tee again, though what usually happens to me Is a topped drive, shanked iron, and a pitch shot out of the trees; Three-putts, penalty strokes, and lost balls in the clover, Till 1 collapse in the 19th hole when the long round’s over.”
Now comes April. Time to pull out the golf clubs and get a good grip on my game. This year I’m going to shoot 80 consistently. Absolutely. No question.
In September 1982, I put away my bowling ball and tennis racket and embarked on a five- year plan to become a respect- able golfer, which to me means being able to shoot 80 anytime or anywhere.
I’m now beginning the sixth year of my five-year plan).
My breakthrough will likely come in 1988, however. Especially in view of the cadre of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians conspiring to lower my score. They’ve been busy prototyping, designing, testing, and manufacturing new golf clubs and balls that promise to mask if not obliterate the grotesque features of my game: the Waxahachie Worm-Burner, the Texas Chili Dip, the Elephant’s Rear-End.
All of the improvements in golf technology and course maintenance coincide with record numbers of men and women flocking to the sport. The National Golf Foundation estimates 20.1 million American players, a market that’s projected to expand to 25 million by the mid-Nineties and top 30 million by the year 2000. It’s true that golf has traditionally drawn its legions from the Alex P. Keaton, Young Republican, hip-to-be-square set. (It’s been said that some Eastern prep schools ask applicants to divulge their current handicap; anyone over a 10 need not apply.) But sheer numbers suggest that Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, Socialists-even Rainbow Coalitionists-play golf.
Now, these millions of new golfers will be able to equip themselves with clubs that produce greater distance with more accuracy, and balls that travel farther, fly higher (or lower, depending on your preference), and spin tighter. Technology has changed the game so much in the past few years that it’s difficult to believe I still can’t shoot 80.
The hottest topic in golf equipment concerns the controversy between the United States Golf Association and Karsten Sol-heim, the creator/founder of Ping Manufacturing Co. The USGA contends that the “square grooves” on the clubface of one of Solheim’s clubs, the Ping Eye-2, do not conform with USGA specifications and offer a competitive advantage. Other equipment manufacturers-virtually all of them, to be sure-make clubs with square grooves, but Ping alone has been singled out for providing players with too much help. It’s the kind of product publicity that all the money in the world can’t buy.
The USGA-Ping squabble makes great reading in the golf journals, but what’s more germane to the average player who is aiming for 80 are compensating clubs, flex shafts, and metal-woods. Compensating clubs are so named because they’re designed to compensate for the average golfer’s lack of ability. Credit the aforementioned Karsten Solheim of Ping with pioneering the concept. Compensating clubs differ from traditional irons clubs in that the clubface weight is redistributed from the center of the club to the heel and toe. The reconfigured clubface looks odd when compared with a traditional forged blade, but it has a distinctively bigger hitting area, or “sweet spot.” That doesn’t eliminate golfers’ poor swings, but it makes their bad shots not so bad.
One prime feature of compensating clubs is that they help the high-handicapper get the ball airborne, thereby reducing the number of skulled tee shots that never get more than a foot off the ground and skitter down the fairway no more than a hundred yards. Your basic Waxahachie Worm-Burner, in other words.
Compensating clubs are golf’s equivalent to mid-sized and over-sized rackets in tennis. They raise the skill and enjoyment level for all players. Recent estimates indicate that 90 percent of all retail sales are for compensating clubs. It’s no mystery.
Shafts of golf clubs have also undergone major changes. The current trend is to lighter shafts, especially graphite, titanium, and lightweight steel. Lighter shafts mean more weight can be distributed to the clubhead, which helps a player generate more clubhead speed. And clubhead speed, more than anything, determines how far a player hits the ball.
Lew Gibson, who custom fits golf clubs for players on the PGA and Senior PGA tours, suggests that players experiment with different flex shafts-regular, stiff, extra stiff-to determine their individual needs. Chances are the set of irons that came gift-wrapped under the Christmas tree won’t be tailored to an individual’s game.
He stresses the need for every serious golfer to have his clubs custom-fitted- checked for the correct shaft, grip size, and lie and loft of the clubface. “Otherwise,” he says, “it’s like running track in football shoes. You can do it, but you won’t have your best times.”
But undoubtedly the biggest news in golf equipment is the proliferation of metal-woods, No less an authority than Gibson, who’s helped many PGA Tour players switch over from wood-woods, calls the metalwood the biggest change in golf “since the development of the steel shaft” in the early Thirties. The principal difference between a metalwood and a wood-wood lies in what’s called perimeter weighting. The center of the clubface on a metalwood has been hollowed out and filled with foam, with the weight moved to the perimeter of the clubface. The intent is the same as with compensating iron clubs: to increase the sweet spot and reduce the effect of mis-hits. So I’m vowing that in 1988 I’ll play with a metalwood and compensating clubs and have all my equipment custom-fitted. Then I’ll shoot 80. Maybe.
For years, golf balls, unlike TV cherubs, had a uniform number of dimples. To be exact, 336. But now they vary all over, from Titleist (384) to Hogan (392) to Wilson (432). The largest number I’ve come across is the heavily dimpled Spalding (492), but I bet somewhere there’s a ball with 500 dimples. Probably in Japan.
The changes in the dimple patterns serve several purposes, but the primary one deals with distance. Always important, distance became a crucial factor in golf about twenty-five years ago, when golf architects started designing significantly longer courses. Championship lengths shot up from the 6.700-6,800 range to 7,000 yards or more.
Why? One plausible explanation points to the fact that many golf architects were hired by real estate developers, who knew that bigger courses meant longer fairways and longer fairways meant more choice fairway homesites. More fairway homesites meant more potential homebuyers, which in turn meant more members for the homeowners’ association and the country club.
Classic Dallas golf courses like Brook Hollow (6,713 yards) and Lakewood (6,632), which were built in the 1910s and Twenties when suburbia wasn’t even a concept, are now considered “short” courses. Meanwhile a Preston Trail, built in 1965 at the height of the big-course craze, stretches 7,037 yards. Which is fine if you’re a course regular like Lanny Wadkins or Mickey Mantle, but not so fine for the less muscular masses.
Experts say that manufacturers have developed prototype golf balls that travel 400 yards off the tee; only USGA rules on the initial velocity at impact have kept these balls off the market thus far. If they are sanctioned, we may need 10,000-yard courses.
Terry Melvin, director of research at Spalding, pioneered the new era of dimples by developing the “icosahedral pattern.” The pattern features two sizes of dimples, one large and one small, set within equilateral triangles. Together with the internal chemistry of the ball and the cover composition, the dimple pattern gives a ball its properties of trajectory, aerodynamics, and spin. “A player should experiment to determine what produces the best results,” says Melvin. Or consult your nearest physicist.
It’s hard to imagine that the golf season in Dallas-Fort Worth this year will approach that wonderful year, 1987. The mild winter of ’86-87, ample rainfall last spring, and a milder summer (fewer 100-plus days than usual) produced optimum golf last fall. I played at least six area courses-Gleneagles, Chase Oaks, Brook Hollow, Great Southwest, Hackberry Creek, Lakewood C.C.-that were in mint condition, No, I didn’t shoot 80 on any of them.
Don Armstrong, superintendent of the famed Colonial Country Club course in Fort Worth, says better course conditioning in part reflects a combination of better chemicals and better maintenance equipment. As new pre- and post-emergent chemicals wage war on weeds, more soluble fertilizers are producing a stronger strain of grass, he says. And verticut machines, which condition grass to grow straight up and make cutting fairways like giving a flat-top haircut, give courses a more manicured look.
Finally, the breed of whacked-out, gonzo greenskeeper that Bill Murray played in Caddyshack has been replaced by college-educated agronomists with a scientific approach to the job. Their prowess has all but eliminated the bad bounce, the poor lie, the bumpy green-those nasty breaks that put sixes, sevens, and eights on the scorecard. Even so, success or failure ultimately rests with Mother Nature. “With all the care and knowledge we put into our business, we’re still at her mercy,” Armstrong says.
Better golf courses-together with better clubs and balls-add up to fewer strokes en the scorecard. There’s no question I’ll shoot 80 in ’88.I hope.