Golf is a unique sport.
Though I’m often tempted to make comparisons between golf and other sports, it’s important to denote the distinctive characteristics that separates golf from everything else. Golf is not the only individual sport, but it is one of the few major sports in which individuals compete against their opponents indirectly. That is, participants compete against their peers through a common opponent, the golf course. From that perspective, golf is more like swimming than it is like tennis. Golf courses and pools are unable to counter the moves made by athletes.
This distinction is relevant when considering the ways in which respective sports evolve over time. As tennis athletes improve, the same opportunity for improvement is afforded to the person on the other side of the net. If, through either technological advancements or sheer athleticism, tennis players evolved to the point where their serves were so powerful that their opponents could never return even a single serve, tennis governing bodies would intervene. Without intervention, athletes would succeed merely by mastering the serve and never needing to round out their skill set. The sport would become less complex and engaging.
Across many major sports, advancements in athleticism and technology lead to more complexity. NFL quarterbacks and wide receivers are faster and stronger than they have ever been before, but the sport has not become less complex as a result. Rather, the game has become more complex. To meet the challenges imposed by ever-evolving offensive athletes and playing styles, defensive players have adapted. Versatile defenders have countered the trend towards mobility at the quarterback position. Defensive coordinators armed with analytics updated their philosophies to contend with offensive trends. On the heels of a long period of steady year-over-year increases in scoring, scoring actually dropped in the NFL last season.
The cat-and-mouse, evolutionary nature of the NFL is engaging. This summer, I’ve listened to a bunch of NFL podcasts on playcalling, shifting trends, positional value, etc. It’s incredible engaging with a game that is always becoming more complex. To have success in the modern NFL, you need more tools in your toolkit than in the NFL of previous decades.
Golf is the rare, unfortunate example of a sport that has become less complex over time. Specifically, hitting driver is much easier and more fargiving than it used to be. This week, the PGA Tour posted a video of Rory McIlroy hitting both a persimmon driver and a modern driver at the Genesis Scottish Open. His shot with the persimmon driver flew 60 yards shorter than his shot with the modern driver. Asked about the experience, McIlroy said “I must say hitting a persimmon wood, you can’t swing as hard at it as a 460cc because you need to hit it in the middle of the clubface…” Adam Scott said something similar on Smylie Kaufman’s podcast. And Billy Horschel recently shared the same sentiment on the No Laying Up podcast.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 12, 2023
I am not going to argue that professional golf should rewind back to the days of persimmon drivers. However, I will argue that golf has become less complex over time, which is problematic. Driving, the most reliable attribute in the sport, requires significantly less skill today than it used to require.
While golf has deskilled, other sports have flown past it on the complexity scale. More points are being scored in a modern NBA game than in Michael Jordan’s NBA, but it has not become easier for basketball players to score. The typical sixth man in the NBA of the 1990s is not getting buckets in 2023. He isn’t athletic or skilled enough to score like today’s sixth men. Today’s NBA has more scoring, but it is not easier to score.
Within the modern professional golf game, less skill is required to score than it used to require. Hitting a 310-yard drive down the middle of the fairway is much easier today than it used to be. Your head has to be pretty far up a Titleist-branded golf bag to ignore that.
Golf is unique and must be governed accordingly. Modernizing and regulating a sport are not competing priorities. The sooner stakeholders realize that regulating equipment will lead to a more complex, skillful version of golf, the sooner the game will become more entertaining.
When your only solution for challenging players is moving tee markers backwards, you’re hardly moving the sport forward.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.