Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Rick Cleveland: The changing nature of golf.

Do you remember when a 7,000-yard golf course was considered a ridiculously long monstrosity? Do you remember when a 300-yard drive was considered prodigious? Do you remember when golf pros hit 7-irons 150-yards and wedges about 100?

Do you remember when many of the world's greatest golfers cut a figure that looked more like the Pillsbury doughboy than NFL safeties? And when there were five, maybe 10, golfers who really had a decent chance to win a major championship? Do you remember when even par was a score that could win the U.S. Open on a golf course that played less than 7,000 yards from the championship tees?

If so – if you remember all that – then you know the most recent U.S. Open, played last week at Erin Hills in Wisconsin – seemed, by comparison, almost a different sport entirely. Thirty-two players shot even par or better on a course that stretched to 7,800 yards and had fairways that were guarded by thigh-deep hay.

Brooks Koepka, ranked the 22nd best golfer in the world beforehand, won by four shots with a record 16-under par score. Built like Superman, Koepka won by hitting 375-yard drives and 170-yard pitching wedges and by sometimes flying a 3-wood over sand traps more than 300 yards in the distance.

He also won by sinking most every putt he stood over. At least that much hasn't changed about golf. The guy who makes the most putts usually wins, and Koepka made a slew of them.

Still, all in all, this U.S. Open, more than any other, showed us that golf has evolved into an almost unrecognizable sport when played by today's pros. Let's put it this way a modern day Rip Van Winkle, awakening after a 40-year hibernation, would watch these guys play golf and say, “What happened to gravity?”

Jonathan Randolph, who grew up in the Jackson area and played college golf at Ole Miss, shot rounds of 71-71-73-75 for a 290 total. That's a two-over par score and would have won the U.S. Open as recently as 2007. In fact, two-over would have won the Open nine times between 1950 and 1970.

Randolph finished tied for 42nd, 18 shots behind Koepka.

It's a different game. There are more world class players from more places, who are bigger, stronger, more limber than golfers of yesteryear. The days of a pudgy golfer, puffing an unfiltered cigarette and exhaling smoke to test the wind at a U.S. Open, are gone. Instead of heading to the 19th hole after finishing, these guys head to the gym so they can become a little stronger, a little more limber and hit their 7-irons 210 yards instead of 200.

Yes, the equipment has much to do with the changes in the game. The space-aged clubs are more forgiving and can be swung at greater speeds. The golf balls fly further and straighter. But, you ask me, the golfers have changed more than the equipment. You could still put your average 8-handicap weekend player out on the the course at Erin Hills and make him play from the back tees, and he would need a calculator instead of a pencil to total his score.

And here's the deal: There are so many more of these wunderkind golfers on the way. While Koepka was winning at Erin Hills, current Ole Miss prodigy Braden Thornberry of Olive Branch was winning the Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament of Champions in Pennsylvania. On a tremendously difficult golf course, Thornberry shot 13-under par over 72 holes and then won a three-hole playoff.

Playing the same quality of golf, he would have been high on the leaderboard at Erin Hills. He will be in the future.

When Jack Nicklaus won The Masters in 1965 the great Bobby Jones said of Nicklaus, “He plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

These days, it seems, they all do.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

Kingfish note: Come on, Rick.  Major Ole Miss recruiting scandal story and no commentary or analysis? 

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brooks Koepka is Charl Schwartzel. One and done on majors. He'll knock around the Tour for the next two decades, making far more money than any of us, but never be a real contender. There are young golfers like Spieth and Watson and McIlroy who will dominate the sport, but I don't see Koepka being anything more than a footnote in PGA history.

Cue the "He's done so much more than YOU could!" comments from overweight weekend duffers in 3..2..

Anonymous said...

Koepka is Schwartzel? You could name 50 more guys who have done the same thing. It's called a career. The ones who do it more than once are called Hall of Famers.

Watson? You mean the guy at the end of his career who can only win when the conditions (weather and course) are exactly perfect? He would absolutely zero majors if Augusta wasn't Augusta. It was made for him. If he could putt and/or had any discipline, he would win there every year by 5. Sorry, but naming Watson as a young dominant player is just flat out ignorant.

Spieth caught lightening in a bottle in 2015. He will win a few more majors for sure, but he will finish in that 5-6 range if he is lucky.

Rory doesn't care enough to become dominant. He is about golfed out. It tends to happen to guys who had his type of junior and early career. They burn out when they figure out there is life beyond the driving range.

The last 7 majors have been won by 7 different first time major winners. It is the most competitive professional sport. We will never see dominance like Tiger or Jack, because of the never ending supply of young, hot talent. These kids hit the tour ready to win. The junior competition is so good and so important now, by the time these kids get through college, the cream that makes it to the tour has been traveling and playing high pressure events for 10-15 years.

With the current competition and the competition that is working every day to take their job (thousands of them of all ages), a tour pro will be lucky to ever sniff a major, much less win one.

No, I won't compare any of them with you and tell you that it is more than you can do. It is more than what most tour pros will ever do. That would be like comparing the wright brothers flight with the moon landing.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying your wrong, and I'm not saying "He's done so much more than YOU could!" But if you pay attention to golf, I don't think you could believe what you typed.

Koepka has stayed around the leaderboard for quite sometime now. Has had a good bit of top 5's in Majors and other events in the last 2 years. I'm not saying he'll win 4-5 majors in his time, but I'm not saying its a stretch that he wins 2, possibly 3 during his career.

If I'm not mistaken Koepka winning the US Open was the 7th straight first time Major winner. So no individual is dominating the majors by any means right now.

Lastly, I want to agree with you, honestly I do, but Bubba Watson is lucky to even make a cut these days. He finished top 5 at The Memorial and that is his best finish in a LONGGGGGGGGGG time. Bubba didn't even make the Ryder Cup team last year, and isn't on pace to make the Presidents Cup this year. I'm a big Bubba fan, but he isn't a top player on tour anymore.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you @ 9:48am. I think Koepka will have a career like Steve Smith who won the US Open in 1995.

Anonymous said...

Braden Thornberry ain't exactly svelte.

PittPanther said...

Bubba is 38. That's not "young" in golf age. He's not at the end of his career, but he can see it coming.

Anonymous said...

Who the hell is Steve Smith? Pavin won '95 with that 4 wood shot on 18....yet another Norman second place finish.

Anonymous said...

11:20am....yep, Rick named two MS golfers and both look more like the golfers of the 70's and 80's than the typical golfer of today.

Anonymous said...

Steve Jones 1996 winner...

Anonymous said...

Jones... Smith... '95...'96...

Nobody cares.

Anonymous said...

Only on this blog could commenters find something to debate about over pro golf. No chance to hurl insults will be missed.

Anonymous said...

Bubba Watson isn't the point (yeah, he's past it). The truth is that Koepka is one of these guys who gets a lot of attention after a major win, especially if he's not a "name", and everyone predicts great things for him, then he fades away to be a middle-of-the-packer.

Charl Schwartzel, Danny Willett, Webb Simpson, Rich Beem, etc.

And give Nike, Titleist, Srixon, Callaway, etc. their due. I'm not convinced Rick Cleveland's "new breed" of golfers could so easily tear up a course with a set of 1968 MacGregor clubs.

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of snots. Take a look at the raw arrogance evident in all of those posts. Probably all wear white shoes and matching belts to work down at the bank or law firm.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree on the equipment thing with one caveat....a great swing knows no club head. The vast majority would be just fine. They just wouldn't hit it as far and the courses would still be the same length they use to be.

Erin Hills, no matter how many times they tell us it is, IS NOT a US Open course. They need to stick with the traditional and give us a tourney where even is good. That is the what the US Open is supposed to be all about.

PittPanther said...

The "flavor of the month" golf winner is just a clear example that Golf. Is. Hard.

Swinging a club as hard as you can, while expecting the club to hit a ball in exactly the same spot every Time, is hard. A quarter of an inch miss means you lose the tourney.

Consistent winners like Tiger and Jack Nicklaus are once in a generation phenoms. Maybe we will see another 20 years from now.

Juggles His Balls said...

4:12; Your suggestion is nonsense. Golf will not even be allowed in the Socialist Republic of Amerika 20 years from now.

Billy Baroo said...

I agree that a good swing is a good swing, and Bubba Watson using 1960s era sticks would beat the crap outta some local yokel scratch golfer using the latest Callaway graphite clubs.

You can't buy a game, no matter what they tell you at Nevada Bob's.

However, modern equipment in the hands of a pro makes all the difference, and has to be given significant credit for all these long shots and precise placements. Skill is still the paramount requirement, but the strides equipment manufacturers have made have impacted the game a ton.

That's the fact, Jack.

Anonymous said...

Who cares what you think uncle rick!

Anonymous said...

Rick is right about the evolution of the game. But it's a simple matter of money and exposure. Real athletes are now turning to golf. Back in the 60's and 70's the only kids playing golf were the ones who couldn't survive football or maybe basketball. Many tended to be less than athletic at best. Why not. Only a handful of lucky stiffs who had money in their families could make a living playing golf. Not so in the age of Tiger Woods. A good athlete can do just fine if he is number 100 on the tour. But now, young men and women know they've got to get in great shape to play, not just hang out with the country club set. Same thing with tennis. Now the women are better athletes than the men were 30 years ago. Now there's plenty of incentive for an athlete who might have run track or played basketball to try tennis or golf. Truth be told, Tiger, Martina, and Serena have made a bigger impact on their sports than they will ever get credit for.

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