Ross Fisher is still buzzing five days after the round that put him into the record books and reopened a can of worms. Depending on your stance, the Englishman’s 61 at St Andrews was a mesmerising feat of parameter- pushing or proof that golf’s grand old courses are now pushovers.
The Royal & Ancient and USGA, the sport’s ruling bodies, published a report in February that suggested big-hitting is not bludgeoning history to death. Fisher says that the reaction to his course record during the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship has been “awesome”, but Gary Player, the nine-times major winner, fears for the future and called the round “a wake-up call”.
The only way to save the old courses that host our majors, and maybe even the game of golf, is to limit how far the ball can go.
Fisher is not alone in posting a remarkable score this year. Branden Grace’s round of 62 at this year’s Open was a record for the majors and golf’s equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile barrier. In January, Justin Thomas became only the seventh man in PGA Tour history to break 60 while, two days before Fisher’s round, Tommy Fleetwood posted a course-record 63 at the notoriously difficult Carnoustie.
Player told The Times that Fisher’s round was an “outstanding achievement” and “generally good for golf”, but feared for the Old Course, which was lengthened in 2005 and features tees beyond the old boundaries. So is technology killing the game?
“I have answered this time and again and been ridiculed for it,” Player said. “Very soon we will have athletes that hit a driver 400 yards while being accurate. The only way to save the old courses that host our majors, and maybe even the game of golf, is to limit how far the ball can go for the professionals. Golf is a game of traditions and history. If we try to move past playing the most cherished venues because equipment has made them obsolete, it will be a crying shame.”
Fisher, ranked 45th in driving distance on the European Tour, had plenty going for him besides modern times. St Andrews was unusually still, with barely a breath of wind, and he took advantage of generous pin positions with his short game and putting. With golf subject to hand-wringing about participation and audience numbers, he also pointed out that people liked to see players scoring well.
“What would people at home rather be watching — us going out and getting birdies and eagles or do they want to see us struggle to break 80 like at a US Open?” Fisher said. “Personally, I’d rather see lots of birdies than someone get a horrible lie and make a double bogey to lose a tournament. To me that is not exciting. You want to see low scores.
“The way I look at it is you have to go out there and shoot the scores and that’s easier said than done. There have been thousands and thousands of rounds on the Old Course and no one broke 62. If it was that easy, then a lot of people would have been shooting 62 and 63 on Sunday. The game has changed. People are hitting it farther, and there is more equipment choice and variety, but it has just been a year where there have been phenomenal performances. Tommy got going round Carnoustie and, yes it was benign, but that is a tough golf course. The greens aren’t big and you have to step up and hit quality golf shots.”
The R&A’s stated aim is for “skill not technology to be the primary determinant of success”. They studied 285,000 drives per year before concluding in February that average driving distance on five tours, including the PGA Tour and European Tour, had increased by only 0.2 yards a year since 2003. Scores on the PGA Tour have dropped by an average of about 1.4 strokes since 1980. A new report is due next February.
At Royal Birkdale in July some questioned whether the R&A had consciously fuelled the debate by knocking 129 yards off the course length for the Open. Player does not buy the conspiracy theory, but said: “One thing is for sure — the debate over equipment hurting the pro game is front and centre now and will continue to rage until the powers-that-be take action.”
All sports, whether football, rugby or tennis, are at their best when there is volatility in the scoring.
The answer could be bifurcation — different technical rules and equipment for pros and amateurs. Suggestions have included lighter and bigger balls to reduce distance. “Cut the ball back 50 yards [for the pros],” Player said. “Give the amateurs and weekend golfers the best ball and all the new technology to improve their game. Change is the price of survival.”
Paul McGinley, the 2014 Europe Ryder Cup captain, is also coming round to the idea of bifurcation. “It’s a big leap of faith and it’s a big change of direction that will take strong leadership,” he said.
McGinley was staggered that 65 out of 68 players posted under-par rounds at St Andrews on Sunday. “All sports, whether football, rugby or tennis, are at their best when there is volatility in the scoring,” he said. “I’m not in favour of 62 to win a tournament and 67 to hold your position. That’s just front-foot golf. Golf is best when there is ebb and flow, with guys dropping shots and others making eagles.”
Was Fisher’s round the greatest at St Andrews? “Impressive but not even close,” Player said. “No wind or weather, today’s ball and equipment. Bobby Jones shooting a 285 at the Old Course in 1927, playing with those clubs and ball, was far more remarkable.”
Fisher’s effort was undeniably special, although he wonders whether anyone will mark his achievement. “There are a lot of plaques so maybe they could have one by the 18th — ‘This is where he was going for 59’, or maybe ‘This is where he missed the 60’.” As it was, he barely made his 7.30pm flight home, where he put his son on the toilet and gave his sleeping daughter a kiss. Low score, high life, the debate will probably still be unresolved when St Andrews hosts the Open in 2021.
Article courtesy of The Times