Rubenstein: Yesterday's numbers are not today's numbers
Once there was a generation that made phone calls from an enclosed space called a telephone booth. Once there was a generation of golfers who thought a five-iron should go 160 yards. These are the facts. Things have changed, which doesn’t suggest they are better or worse.
In golf, of course, a five-iron today is supposed to travel oh, about 210 yards. A wedge might fly about 135 yards, or more. And that’s a “stock” wedge. This has been going on for some time, so long that it’s getting to seem positively silly to say something like, “Can you believe how far Tiger, or Dustin Johnson, or even Zach Johnson, hit that wedge?”
Today’s wedge is not yesterday’s wedge. Today’s par is not yesterday’s par. Golf Channel said on its Morning Drive show that the par-five 16th hole at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, site of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, is not really a par-five. It certainly isn’t. As Peter Jacobsen said, it played as a par-four. Just about every player was hitting an iron into it, and a middle iron or less at that. Tiger Woods hit a 154-yard wedge into the green after a 350-yard drive, and then made a 10-foot putt for an eagle on his way to an opening three-under 69, four shots behind leader Justin Rose.
The numbers of yesterday are not the numbers of today. This has been going on for some time. I recall Woods hitting a lob wedge into the, excuse me, par-five 18th hole at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont. The course will again be the venue for the RBC Canadian Open in July. I was chatting with Jack Nicklaus recently when he said the 18th green at the Abbey, which he designed, wasn’t meant to be a green for a par-four. Maybe not, but the hole isn’t the par-five it was when the Canadian Open was played there for the first time.
Some of you might remember those days of yore. The 18th at the Abbey was always a risk or reward hole. The reward for hitting a long iron or fairway wood into the green was a sure birdie and possible eagle. David Frost hit a 5-wood from 225 yards into the 18th green at the Abbey to set up a birdie and win the 1993 Canadian Open by one shot over Fred Couples. He took a big risk in trying the shot over the water that protects—or once protected—the green. And he came through and won Canada’s biggest tournament.
“It’s not a shot you want to have to win a golf tournament,” Frost said after he did have it, and made it, to win the tournament. “But once you’ve done it, once you’ve hit it, it’s a pretty big deal.”
That was then, 20 years ago, and this is now, when even Frost, a mid-length hitter, would at the same age (he was 34) hit a long iron or hybrid from 225 yards. Then again, the entire purse for the Canadian Open then was $1-million, and Frost won $180,000 for finishing first. This year’s purse is $5.6-million, and first prize will be $1.080-million.
Again, this is not to suggest that a five-iron shouldn’t go 210 yards or more, or that a drive shouldn’t carry a bunker 300 yards away. The times have changed, and that’s just the way it is. This does mean, however, that analysts who offer commentary on television should stop being surprised that a drive goes this far, an iron that far and a wedge this far.
Players such as Ryo Ishikawa and Harris English, to cite a couple of the very talented generation of golfers in their early 20s, probably never hit a persimmon-headed driver in competition. It’s likely that if they hit such an antique club—even if it’s not that long ago everybody was using wooden-headed drivers—it was for fun only, as if to say, “Can you believe people used this thing a while ago?” It’s normal for them to think a stock 5-iron should fly over 200 yards.
The ball doesn’t fly “so” far anymore. It flies as far as it flies today, and there’s little point in lamenting the fact. There is pressure on the powers-that-be to roll the ball back so that older courses won’t be rendered all but obsolete. Nicklaus has been leading the charge to roll the ball back. That could still happen, but it’s doubtful.
A 5-iron should fly at least 200 yards. A driver should get out to the 300-yard mark and beyond. Today’s golfer, or at least today’s skilled golfer, should be able to reach the par-five 16th hole at Bay Hill and the par-five 18th hole at Glen Abbey with a mid-iron, or even a short iron.
End of story.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein