Dustin Johnson’s massive drive was heroic, but is it what we want golf to be?

The reaction to Dustin Johnson’s gargantuan drive in the playoff of The Northen Trust on Sunday was not exactly what I thought it would be. Sure, you had the “I think I just woke the children up” screams from folks like me and others, but there was a more ominous, Nick Saban-like vibe from some within the golf world.

Is this what we want golf to be?

At first glance, of course. Paul Bunyan-like heroes sending missiles into the New York sky for large sums of money. It passes the initial smell test for sports in the 21st century. But it is also an indictment of how the sport has evolved and a warning about where it is going.

The sport has a dimple-faced issue that is going to come to a head at some point. Jack Nicklaus has been pounding the table about this for a while and now people are starting to listen. As players get stronger and stronger and technology gets better, many courses are becoming, if not obsolete, then at least buckling under the weight of distance in 2017.

It is why many have opined that new Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley’s biggest task as one of the lords of the sport is the future of course architecture combined with potential bifurcation at the highest level.

This is a debate that has raged and will rage on for many year, and I have no true answers. I come only with strong (and good) points on both sides (as you’ll see below). D.J. hitting 341-yard drives is thrilling, but is it beautiful? And more importantly, is it even golf?

Some golf media folks I share a group text with said decided on Sunday that what D.J. did at Glen Oaks is not golf. A flip wedge into a 475-yard par 4 is more of a mockery than anything. I do understand that, and it really highlights one of the biggest issues in all of this which is that many courses were not built with the idea that anyone would ever hit drives 280 yards on the regular, much less 340.

It’s why Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated recently suggested that the only way to solve any of this (short of pulling back the equipment) is to start building 9,000-yard golf courses.

Every sport evolves, and golf has done so rapidly this century, which began with the solid-core ball revolution. In response to my original tweet a few folks pointed out that basketball players have grown bigger and stronger and more skilled but the NBA hasn’t raised the rims. That’s because those bigger, stronger players also play defense, keeping the game in balance. The only defense golf courses have today is the weather, with all of its capriciousness, or extreme setups, with all of their flaws. The equivalent of 6’11” point guard is a 9,000-yard golf course. Like it or not, the time has come.

With that, though, you get into the issue of retrofitting tracks like Augusta National and others. There are no great solutions, but Johnson’s drive on Sunday provided a background for this entire discussion. Ian Poulter and Wesley Bryan agreed that the final hole on Sunday was less a test of the best golfer and more a test of the biggest hitter.

Is that so bad, though? Isn’t hitting the golf ball accurately and far sort of the point? The real issue on Sunday is that the fairway where Johnson was aimed was 100 yards wide, as Bryan pointed out. There was little (if any) risk associated with his missile launch.

“The wind kind of died down there when we were finishing, so it wasn’t really blowing,” explained Johnson, who had not tried to cover the water in regulation and nearly missed the playoff because of it.

“It’s only 300 carry. I can cover that. I told [my caddie] A.J., I was like, ‘If we go into a playoff, there’s no way I’m going to the right again. Unless the wind is in the face; the right, it’s actually a hard drive for me to go down the right side.”

Are you aware how wild it sounds to the ordinary golfer when you say 300 yards is no problem to cover?

“No, I mean, because I’m used to it, so …”

There are currently 42 players on the PGA Tour who average 300 or more yards off the tee. In 2000, there was one (John Daly). The increase in distance is undeniable, but whether it’s good or bad for the game is still up for debate.

I talked to Rory McIlroy (currently No. 1 on the PGA Tour in driving distance at just over 316 yards) about this idea earlier in the year, and he pointed out something interesting. Distance is a talent, he noted. It’s a skill. In the same way that you wouldn’t try and punish Aaron Baddeley simply because he’s putting too well, long drivers shouldn’t have their skill mitigated.

I agree with this from a philosophical standpoint as it relates to the way golfers play against one another. But again, golfers aren’t playing against one another. They’re playing courses. McIlroy and Johnson would still maintain their edge if the ball was rolled back. But courses would be less vulnerable as well. That’s probably ultimately a good thing.

It would take someone more architecturally savvy than myself to properly assess this but maybe narrowing fairways and adding hazards further down fairways is a potential answer for the future (although this is expensive and mitigates the skill of distance). That could have solved the problem on Sunday at Glen Oaks. Distance plus accuracy is a skill, not just bludgeoning the golf ball. If you can hit a 20-yard wide fairway 350 yards away, then God bless you and your riches. I don’t know.

Anyway, I’m all right with the distance thing for now because there is usually at least some strategy in trying to cut corners like Johnson did and some penalty for not succeeding. That the 18th hole at Glen Oaks is not one of those seems to be an unfortunate coincidence.

“When I saw his ball, where he was lined up, I was hoping he was not going to notice that [the wind had died down],” said Spieth after the loss. “I was hoping that he would line up down the middl,e and he almost can’t hold the fairway lining up down the middle.

“But when he lined up over there and hit the drive, I was — at that point, I have to try and make par best I can, and I’m just hoping; I’m at such a disadvantage.”

Of course he’s at a disadvantage. He’s facing quite possibly the greatest driver of the golf ball in history. And this gets at the true heart of the debate. Is golf about angles, shot shaping and course management, or is it about pummeling your ball as far as possible and hitting wedges from there?

And, most importantly, can it be about both?

Source: CBS Golf Feed

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