Sunday, May 26, 2024 May 26, 2024
86° F Dallas, TX

Have Golf Balls Gotten Too Good?

One golfer drives an old Maxfli Elite down memory lane.
| |Illustration by Antonio Giovanni Pinna
golf chisel
Antonio Giovanni Pinna

Every year for many years, golf ball companies have produced and then marketed the hell out of their new, livelier, longer pelota. The annual change in the basics of the ball screwed up our sport in two ways. First, distance creep slowly robbed the game of historical meaning, which you can see by looking at our professional avatars: the average drive for Ben Hogan, the purest mid-20th-century hitter, was about 265 yards. The longest professional driver of 2023, Rory McIlroy, averaged 326. Rory hits a pitching wedge about 155; for Ben, 155 meant a 5-iron. For a game that cherishes its tradition and history, this growing disconnect between one era and another was troubling. Worse, distance inflation compelled golf courses to build new back tees or to acquire adjacent real estate to adjust to the new distance reality.

Worse, rock-hard, ever-longer golf balls took a lot of the fun out of the game. The not-so-secret secret to making a golf ball go farther lies in reducing the friction—and thus the spin—between the cudgel and the orb. Which means we have lost the giddy fun of the curveball. Back In My Day golfers routinely achieved parabolas that just aren’t accessible with today’s dumbed-down projectiles. The draws, fades, and right-angle hooks and slices of yesteryear were thrilling or terrifying to behold. And while the old ball didn’t go as far, it was ultimately more controllable. Well-struck irons held greens as if you’d thrown a wet sponge. When the spin shots were intentional, and successful, the golfer felt like an artist, if not a god. 

I keep a hundred reminders of the good old days in a bag by the door. The long-forsaken Maxflis and Titleists came to me, with thanks for a job well done, after I’d cleaned out a storage unit jointly held by Dallas golf stalwarts Chip Stewart (the 1992 Texas Amateur Champion) and former USGA official Win Padgett. These relics from when Reagan was president are worthless, however, except to collectors or lifers like me.

It’s a ball—heh—to expose the vintage pills to the air and to bat ’em around. Unlike with today’s one-piece construction, underneath their covers the oldies had a tiny inner ball wrapped with a long rubber band, like yarn wound around a marble. The acoustics of a hit on a 1982 Maxfli Elite are startling, more a hushed splat than the high-pitched snick of modernity. The far-better feel of the old ball also can’t be missed, probably because it’s softer and therefore stays on the clubface a fraction of a second longer. And the spin, OMFG, the spin. 

Last year, golf’s ruling bodies—the USGA and the R&A in Scotland—finally agreed to rein in the annual distance expansion, but the reining in will be way too little and much too late. We’ll still be stuck with a stupid golf ball. 

One More Thing: Ditch The Cart

As I handed over my credit card on a recent sunny Sunday at Bear Creek, the venerable golf facility in Irving, I told the young man in the pro shop that I’d have no need of a golf cart. “I’m a walker,” I said. I got the look the waiter gives you—I assume—when you order the rib-eye at a vegan restaurant. “Sorry, sir,” my new enemy explained, “everyone must take a cart. Our policy.” I rode but didn’t say: for 500 years, golf was not a motor sport.

Carts were introduced to the Greatest Game only about 60 years ago. Defenders of the status quo asked, rhetorically, should batters now be allowed to ride a Harley to first base? How about roller skates for defensive backs? Where golf was invented, in Scotland, England, and Ireland, the very idea of riding across the greensward was laughable. Golf was made for walking, and getting tired near the end had always been part of it. Lots of courses Over There still don’t offer carts. But in our great country, the gradual and now universal embrace of buggies is the biggest change in the sport since the advent of steel shafts—they used to be wood—and the cart girl.

Listen, we get it. It’s hot. You had a tough week. You want someone or something to carry your boombox, beer, and clubs. To that we reply: get your kid to caddie, attach a speaker to your belt if Afroman puts music in your swing, and fill up a flask. (And maybe stop listening to Afroman. It’s 2024.)

The point is, it’s more fun to walk. And you need the exercise.

This story originally appeared in the April issue of D Magazine with the headline “The Slices of Life.” Write to [email protected].