For whatever reason people think I’m a technology guy. Because I work with the Internet? Yeah, well, I’m not a tech guy. But I am a golfer. And not a great one. I’m OK, I suppose. An 11 handicap which will make me zero money in my life, only cost me lots of money, anxiety, and heartache. A terrible habit.
So today I’m going to talk about golf technology. This topic came to me on a whim when, caught with a few free hours this weekend at my wife’s family’s cabin on the North Shore, I decided to head to Superior National Golf Course, a great and beautiful track. I’ve played it nearly more than any course in MN. This weekend, however, I hadn’t brought my clubs so I went down into the dungy basement of the old house and found a set of Ben Hogan blades and Persimmon woods. To the uninitiated this is like saying I found a Model T and decided to take it on 394 during rush hour.
First a little background as to why I thought this to be a good idea. A good friend of mine J Matt Keil is a natural golfer and athlete. We golf a couple of times a year, and he consistently kicks my butt even though he probably plays a quarter of the golf I play. In his bag is an old – and I mean OLD – Persimmon 5-Wood. It looks so out of place with a game so good. But every time he hits it it’s pure and beautiful, and the ball flight is old school – low with a slight draw. I’m envious.
Today I played golf with those types of clubs. A whole bag full. On the first tee I decide to hit the Persimmon 3-wood. The face is tiny, proving to me that the old pros are better ball strikers than current pros. There’s no forgiveness. I get lucky and hit a sweet-spot shot and the ball floats low down the right hand of the fairway and gently bends to the left, roughly 210 yards, right to the middle of the fairway. Now grant you this drive is shorter than my typical drive on a Par 4, but the ball flight is something I have dreams about. I can’t hit that shot with my current technology. I’m hooked. I can’t wait to hit that club every time I get the chance.
Next shot I’m a good 170 yards from the pin. Typically I would hit a 6-iron. With these old clubs I grab a 4-iron. I hit it pure enough, but it ends up a little short. If I were playing with typical d-bag golfers they’d laugh at a 4-iron from 170.
And then it dawns on me, what should ego have to do with the game of golf? Who cares how far the ball goes? Who cares if one pulls a 9 iron and pushes it 20 yard west of the hole, where the person who pulls the 7-iron and sticks it tight to the hole? Isn’t that what the game is about?
I think ego – particularly the male ego -- is driving golf technology innovations. “Hit it further.” “Go long.” “The Longest Ball in Golf.” Great golf courses all over the world have “gone long” and have essentially been ruined. Great golfers rarely can compete at the U.S. Open simply because they can barely get their drives to the fairways simply because of length. It’s ridiculous.
In my dreams, I’d love to see a PGA tournament that puts Augusta’s tees back to 1960’s era length, then give the guys era-specific clubs and play a tournament. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if we spotted them a couple of generations of golf balls and gave them some 80s era Balata balls. It would be a fascinating exposition. The fact that 59-year old Tom Watson, a five-time British Open Champion, came within a putt of winning the 2009 British Open means this type of tournament would be priceless.
(The British Open awards great shot-making, one reason why Tiger Woods missed the cut. The assistant golf pro at Superior told me after I told him what clubs I was playing, “Andrew, Tiger Woods wouldn’t compete in yesterday’s game.” That’s a shocking statement. Tiger Woods? Seriously? But wouldn’t that be an incredible experiment? Give Tiger six months with 60s or 70s era clubs and balls and have him play some traditional courses from the same tees as the old pros. Wonder what would happen?)
There’s great debate in the golf world as to whether golf technology has ruined the game much as steroids is ruining baseball or doping is ruining cycling. I think it’s a legitimate argument. And, yet, I look at my own golf “career” and can tell you that my best rounds in my entire life – a pair of 75s – were achieved using hack equipment and Top Flite XL golf balls, aka the “Rocks.” I have never matched those scores, even though I’m guilty as most golfers to falling prey to buying new (or slightly used in my case) clubs, drivers, and $50/dozen golfballs. No matter what I do, I remain an 11 handicap. I always shoot low- to mid-80s, no matter what.
Falling prey to new technology is what modern golf is all about. Even retailer Second Swing’s slogan is at least sly about it, tongue firmly planted in cheek: “It’s not you. It’s your clubs.”
That’s why we’ll never see a 60s era exhibition with Tiger Woods. The manufacturers would never do it. The USGA would love it. The fans would love it. But not the multi-billion dollar golf industry. No way. And it’s too bad. It would bring an interesting perspective to The Game, not just to the celebrity of individual players. All sports should be pure in my mind. Soccer seems like one of the purest of all. It’s a ball, position players, and a net. Baseball, equipment-wise, is but steroids – male ego – have tarnished it. Basketball is now a game of giants. Modern tennis racquets harbor so much power it makes the old Jack Kramer wood racquets – the racquet of champions – look downright Playskool.
I decided today that I’m no longer bringing my own modern clubs up north to the cabin. I found today’s round to be extraordinarily enjoyable, challenging, and charming. I can’t wait to pick up that Persimmon 3-wood. It was perhaps the sweetest feeling, most satisfying club I’ve ever hit.
Finally, I have accomplished something Tiger Woods may never achieve.