Op-Ed: the lies golf technology tells us

A former pro tells us to stop crowing over tee shots and how to truly love the game.

On Thursday, top golfers will tee up to compete in the PGA Championships, held this year at the Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey. Before the stats and scores start rolling in, Simon Walsh, a Tampa-based former professional golfer and England International Captain, reflects on the golf's art—and artifice.

“Drive for show, putt for dough” is one of the oldest sayings in golf. It refers to the long drives that draw cheers from the crowds, juxtaposed with the fact that purses are won and lost on a player’s short game. But the sport has not remained static. Over the past several years, players are posting record drives and seem to find the fairway with greater ease. Some of this can be attributed to skill and fitness. But the real credit goes to the equipment.

No sport is immune to technological advancements. But the tools of golf—particularly the clubs and balls—have improved so much as to give even weekend warriors the impression that they're Tour material.

Without question, the biggest advancements have come with the driver and ball. Look at the components of a modern-day driver: Usually made up of a composite metal head, a graphite shaft and a rubber grip, these clubs are built with lighter, faster and stronger materials than those of decades past and benefit from access to state-of-the-art testing and millions of research and development dollars. Maybe the golf ball has come even further; whilst the cover of the ball hasn’t changed too much over the years (other than to be more scuff resistant), its core has changed drastically. Using new materials such as polymer mantles and different rubber compounds, manufactures deliver to us a wide variety of balls that fly straighter and further, regardless of ability.

The combination of the two has forced drastic changes at some of history’s most famous and iconic golf courses, making them longer and more difficult. In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first of 14 major championships at Augusta National Golf Club. This was, in some ways, the birth of golf as a sport. Tiger decimated not only the entire field that week, but overtook the course with his obscene length off the tee, forcing Augusta National and many other courses to ‘Tiger-proof’ their links. Back then, Augusta National measured 6,905 yards in combined distance. Today it measures 7,435 yards.

Owing to these course updates, statistically speaking, the scores on the PGA Tour haven’t changed that much over the past 25 years. What’s the point of this technological arms race? It’s more entertaining and exhilarating for the average golfer, sure. Ultimately, however, the longer courses have served as a counterbalance to ever-progressing technology. Aren’t we going around in circles?

Manufacturers hook us in with glossy ads for advancements that guarantee ever-increasing distance. We buy into it and, in the process, stroke our ego just enough for us to think that this new, magic club has changed our ability because all of a sudden we hit the ball further. Pundits will say we are playing a different game now than 30 years ago (and from a scientific standpoint, they’re right). But when it really comes down to the art of the game, not much has changed. It's something you see playing out on the PGA Tour. For instance, Jason Kokrak is the 6-feet-4-inch player who pounds the ball 310-plus yards off the tee and straight most the time, yet still plays second-fiddle to guys like Jordan Spieth, who averages closer to 290 yards off the tee, but notches up victories.

The reason is simple: “Putt for dough.”

Putting is the true art of the game, one that science cannot touch. The green is nearly technology-free. This is the true beauty of golf and why we love the game. Not only do we find ourselves grateful for the opportunity to walk some of the most beautiful real estate in the world, but continually humbled by a game that offers us more frustration than jubilation, and yet somehow always keeps us coming back for more.

If you really want to become a better golfer, ignore the noise. Take four balls to a quiet corner of a putting green. Practice putting from 3 feet around the hole and repeat until you make 100 in a row. Then move the ball 2 feet further and repeat. This small but powerful—and completely analog—drill, repeated consistently, might well be the answer to lower scores and genuine skill that you’d been searching for all along.