Going the Distance With Jack

Jack Nicklaus and I have had our differences about the ball going too far since the mid-seventies.

This is well referenced in the Foreword he wrote to my first book, Just Hit It, which for convenience is copied below.  There is a mutual respect and no matter our different positions on the distance the ball goes, as Jack says “there is a lot more we agree about than disagree.”

I can say with some degree of confidence that Jack would have won at least a couple more majors if he had played with a better ball in the mid-seventies. The distance and flight-test results of the balls I collected directly from his bag were atrocious even though they conformed.

My present concern is to make sure we tread lightly to prevent some dramatic stumble. I believe that those who are considering a roll back of the ball must come to their conclusions based on facts.

To this end, I pose a few questions which need sound, unequivocal answers based on irrefutable evidence. This information can then be made available to the governing bodies’ constituents to clearly explain the logic of the proposed solution and thus get their support – without which the governors lose their authority to govern.

Questions:

  • Is the problem that the ball is going too far, real or perceived? If perceived, then look for solutions to solve the perception

  • If the problem is real, can we clearly define the problem? Without a clear definition of the problem a solution cannot be found

  • What is the extent of the problem? – i.e.  What percentage of the golfing population are causing the problem?

  • If the percentage of the population causing the problem is very low, how will a universal solution to solve this problem affect the rest of the population?

  • What alternative solutions are there (unrelated to the ball or the club) which would not affect the major segment of the population?

  • Would solving the problem for only those causing the problem, but not affecting those who are not, lead to a disruption of the tenets of the game itself?

  • If bifurcation is an inevitable solution, and we can accept a deviation from the long-standing acceptance of The Statement of Principles, are we then prepared to find solutions to this new problem?

I present these questions — which are not complete but are general in nature — in the sincerest effort to ask for clear thinking while considering such an important subject. The facts are important.

I have a few Heroes, one of whom is Robin Hood and the other is my friend Jack who loves the game as I do.

Please help me help the game by adding to, or commenting on, my approach to a serious problem, by replying below and sharing your thoughts with other Frankly Friends.

Frank

Just Hit It

Foreword by Jack Nicklaus

Any time you are looking for a lively, well-informed conversation (or even good-spirited debate) about the game of golf, you might want to seek out Frank Thomas. Frank has been involved in so many aspects of golf — as an equipment innovator, a rules-maker and administrator, and as a passionate writer and commentator — that you’re likely to come away with some new knowledge and perspective on your long-held assumptions.

I first met Frank in the mid-1970s, when he was beginning his work as the Technical Director of the USGA. I was sitting in the locker room at Southern Hills during the U.S. Open, and he came up to me and asked me if he could have some of my golf balls. He was doing a broad spectrum of tests in those days to make sure that the balls we were competing with had the same specifications as the ones submitted to the USGA for approval. The balls I handed him passed their test, of course, but I’ll let him tell you about the other results he found — details he didn’t share with me for over twenty years.

It is ironic that our first conversation was about golf balls, because we’ve been arguing about the ball for years now. Simply put, I think today’s ball goes too far, and that it’s changed the way the game is played. If you look at who dominates the professional game today, it’s the “bombers.” A premium once placed on accuracy has now been placed on distance. It doesn’t make a difference where today’s players hit the ball, because they are getting so close to the greens, and left with such short approaches, that they can make birdie out of any rough. Thousands of golf courses and great championship venues have been rendered obsolete. I firmly believe that if something isn’t done about the ball, we’re going to have to make every golf course 8,000 or so yards in order to challenge the top players, and that’s going to cost millions of dollars in extra land and maintenance for the people who build, own, and manage the courses for tournaments. It’s absurd to spend that kind of money, when it would cost so little to rein in the ball, relatively speaking.

Frank disagrees. Frank disagrees with a lot of what’s become conventional wisdom about the game. That’s fine. He and I have had some very direct conversations about these things, and while I know what I see, Frank approaches things differently — from the perspective of the lab and the test range. He says the Overall Distance Standard, with just a little tweaking, will do enough to control the explosion of distance in the game. I don’t know about that; I don’t think it is working. When I mentioned to him in a conversation a few years ago that I was sure that today’s players were overpowering the golf course in ways we could never do during the majority of my career, he pointed out that I won a long-drive contest in 1963 by hitting the ball 341 yards, with a wound ball and a persimmon driver. (Actually, in this case, he’s wrong: I hit it 341 yards and 17 inches.)

As always, our conversation was amicable and thought-provoking. This book is the product of Frank’s many years of studying, testing, and, perhaps most important, simply thinking. Reading his book is just like engaging him in a discussion, with the words, ideas, and passion flowing freely. There are few people I know more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of the game of golf, and very few more passionate about the need for integrity and vision in all aspects of the game. Like me, Frank loves the game. He loves the experience of it, and wants to keep it healthy and strong so that it can be enjoyed by everyone for many future generations. In that respect, there is a lot more that Frank and I agree about than disagree. — Jack Nicklaus

 

 To read more of Frank’s recent articles about distance click here

15 thoughts on “Going the Distance With Jack

  1. It seems to me that the easiest fix to this problem is to have a special “tour” ball for the professional golfer. The USGA will give each player balls that he /she must play during the match much like the NFL provides footballs to each team on game day. Yes, I am sure this presents other problems that I’m not educated enough to see but this fix does not effect the vast majority of us weekend hackers who honestly hit our driver 190 yards on a good day. And all the other issues seem to be addressed in a positive way as well. Ball manufactures still sell a million balls. Golf course developers don’t go broke with an 8,000 yard course. Old courses come back into play for tour events.

  2. Thank you for your comments. As you say the distance debate is relevant to a very small percentage of golfers. For me the issue is that with the course length of the major tournament courses somewhat fixed and the increased distance the ball goes, are we identifying the best golfer who is the most skilled. Are the courses the complete test they used to be or should be. But this has been an old question.

    Thank you again

    Hank Holt

  3. I believe the more efficient solution to be found in dialing back to sane levels the “trampoline effect” built into all clubs from drivers to wedges; drivers particularly.

  4. Dear Frank:
    I played college golf 1959-63 and played in 1962 NCAA at Duke U. Course. I wanted to see Jack there, but he married and turned Pro that Spring. Jack is the golf-person that I most admire for all the reasons we know. On this question, however, Having a scientific background, I side with the way you are presenting the question to the governing bodies. Routing, pinched landing areas, length of roughs, plus some strategically placed deep bunkers , and hard fast greens will make the “bombers” have to throttle down in Majors. Because, let’s face it, we ARE talking about the Majors, no doubt. Because, really, nobody cares if the winning score at the John Deere Classic is -25. In short, I’m with you on this one Frank.
    As a long Putter user ( due to a neurological disorder, and not due to “yips”, as Mr. Player te all argued against anchoring) I would have expected that the governing bodies would have proceeded along the logical path you mention in this note before banning anchoring. Hopefully, someday this ban on anchoring the Putter will be abandoned ( Billy Casper, Mr. Palmer, and others anchored the Putter for their entire career and nobody argued that they were good Putters as a result of the anchoring. This whole subject was not handled well because the correct questions were not asked to “solve a perceived problem” that turned out not to be a problem after all that was argued. O.K. I have said enough. Keep up the great work that you do.

  5. When I started playing years ago the rule for the ball was bifurcated; the R&A ball was smaller than the USGA ball. It did not harm the game.

  6. Like Frank, Jack Nicklaus is one of my heroes. Two treasured possessions are a putter that is basically a replica of Jack’s George Low and a full length video of the 1986 Masters final round. I even had a dog named “Nicklaus”.

    Like Frank, I also disagree with Mr. Nicklaus over rolling back the ball. I just don’t think it is a problem. Personally, I could use more distance, but I am satisfied with the current premium balls. I definitely do not need LESS distance!! As far as the pros, as Frank has illustrated many times, the distance has not crept up that much in the last few years. I don’t think it is necessary to build 8,000 yard courses; case in point last week’s Honda had a winning score of -8. I realize a par 70 course, but it seemed challenging enough for all in competition. I think that course setup can be adjusted for professionals, and like Frank has said many times, there is only a very small fraction of a percent of golfers that drive the ball “too far”.

    I could agree with limiting the ball to the current standard of performance of premium balls (ProV1. Bridgestone B series, and the several others in use on tour). Of course there are many that might give a few more yards for hackers like me, but those are not really in use on tour.

    In summary, I would think that limiting distance to its current standard might be a good thing, but not reducing it.

  7. It is NOT the ball Jack!! The game of golf has evolved, as have many other sports (we now have snowboarding in the Olympics remember!). The ability of computer analysis to be used to engineer better equipment and athletes (clubs, balls, clothing, bags, range finders, people, etc.) has affected the game more than the ball by itself. The players are more athletic, the equipment more robust, the courses in better condition, and everything is moving forward. It is crazy to think that changing the ball will have a major impact on play except to make it more frustrating for the average handicap player who is trying to enjoy a round with friends or family. I think this discussion needs to consider the average player more than the handful of touring professionals who can bomb it over 300 yards. History is in the past…innovation is the future!!

  8. it is hard for me to tell if the ball goes further. when i played balata i had a swing speed of about 90mpg. now it is 73 and i need everyone of those yard i get from the solid core balls . maybe the answer is for the tournamaents to water fairways more to slow the bounce and roll. whatever is decided do not harm the club/ public player who wants to have fun. that would truly hurt the game. alan oppenheim

  9. I believe you should make the ball less forgiving for the pros . Back in the day the Balata I believe was less forgiving. Frank your the numbers man, is this true. If true bombers might think twice about a ball that is not 5 yrds. off target but 15yrds.

    • The problem with the Overall Distance Standard is that it says nothing about spin rates. If it had been legislated that the ball must spin to a certain degree when struck in a specific manner, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Today’s ball goes further (and straighter) because it spins so mush less than the balata ball of the past. I would bet that Mr. Thomas never thought it was possible that professionals would accept a ball that spins so much less than it used to, but that is where the failure lies.
      I have written this before, but it bears repeating. The problem with the professional game (and it is only a problem in the professional game) is the ball. The distances being produced have nothing to do with players being stronger. If it did, you wouldn’t see the gains across the board as we do with the Champions Tour and the LPGA Tour. It is impossible for everyone to have gotten stronger at the same rate, yet everyone, regardless of age or size, has experienced these gains in distance. It’s the ball, and nothing but the ball, and specifically the lower spin rate of the modern ball.

      • Dear Shallowface,
        To the best of my knowledge no ball on the conforming list exceeds the Overall Distance Standard (ODS).
        Every ball for a specific launch velocity has an optimum spin rate and launch angle to achieve maximum carry distance. The roll calculation is based on turf impact conditions which includes turf hardness. The Overall Distance Standard launches the balls very close to their optimum launch conditions. The only way it can be better is if it specified launching the ball at its optimum launch conditions for a specific ball velocity. This is called optimization of the Overall Distance Standard, which I proposed a number of years ago, while at the USGA, which is a tweak to the ODS.
        Hope this helps,
        Frank

      • Thank you for your reply, sir. I didn’t mean to imply that any ball exceeds the ODS for velocity. However, is it not true that if two golf balls are launched at the same velocity, the ball that spins the most is going to go a shorter distance? The higher spinning ball also has the potential to fly more off line given a certain impact condition versus a ball that spins less. The professionals in particular have optimized the ability to initially launch this low spinning ball very high immediately, maximizing distance. They benefit as much as “we” do if not more from the straighter flight. When I took up the game as a kid in the 1970s, I played two piece rocks because that was all I could afford, and thought I hit them pretty well. Then I would find a wound balata ball, put the same swing on it and slice it 40 yards off line. Iron shots were suddenly at least a club shorter. I could do tricks with the balata ball around the greens, but it was possible to stop the rocks with trajectory since they pop high off the clubface very quickly so I felt it was a wash when it came to the short game. I knew back then the wound ball would someday disappear.
        The point I was trying to make was if spin rate had been legislated into the ball when the ODS was originally conceived (and I realize that it probably wasn’t possible then and at that time it was inconceivable to most that professionals would ever choose to play low spinning distance balls), the line on distance could have been more easily held.
        The other factor is that even if the USGA changed the rules back to the gutta percha era, the PGA Tour and everyone else for that matter could simply choose to ignore it. The USGA only has the authority any individual, foursome, tournament or tour chooses to grant it. Which means they have virtually no authority at all.

  10. I believe bifurcation is inevitable. The pros, whatever infinitesimal percentage they represent of the golfing world, hit the phenomenal distances due to the ball, equipment advances and being better and fitter than ever before. However, the rest of us, while holding our own maybe) are paying for it. Because “championship” courses being built are 7000+ yards (never mind that they will never host a real championship the pros will play in) it costs the course much more to maintain. Subsequently the golfer pays more. These longer courses are also much more difficult for the average golfer to play because of the length and forced carries.
    Let the tours have their ball and let the amateurs have theirs. It will benefit both and hopefully lead to more common sense in course building.
    And I have Just Hit It and it is an interesting and informative read.

  11. There has been bifurcation of the rules before-specifically the different time frame for groove rule enforcement and the TV call ins for un-noticeable rule violations. One way the long ball contributes to slow play is by waiting for the green to clear on par fives before some play their second shot and this also applies to drivable par fours. Ultimately, designers will have to recognize that all golf courses can’t be championship venues and design most courses for club golfers. The ball rules for professionals should be left to the professionals to decide and I don’t believe the USGA should venture into this. The USGA must come to recognize that their main constituents are their members and their golf clubs both private and public and they should govern accordingly. The main concerns of club golfers are etiquette, pace of play, rules clarity and cost. The USGA should be proactive in those areas and stop worrying about the sanctity of par and driving distances which are concerns of the tiny group of elite players. I might add that I have been a low to mid-single digit player for almost 70 yrs. and although I belong to two private clubs, I dropped my USGA membership and won’t rejoin until the USGA becomes responsive to the 99% plus of their constituency. I play with professionals frequently and fully appreciate that they play a different game than all but a small elite group of amateurs with plus and above handicaps. One analogy to this is why youngsters and middle age men play half-court basketball but use the same ball. One welcome change to some courses has been the advent of 5 or more sets of tees including championship, long hitting amateurs, average amateurs, senior , long women, women and family tees. Another local rule that’s frequently used, particularly on desert courses, is playing lost ball and OB as lateral hazards and conceding putts less than two feet using a measuring tape placed on putters. This does improve pace of play and should be used more frequently even though it’s in conflict with USGA rules. The bottom line is whether the elites should subsidize the lengthening of their venues or whether they should limit golf ball distance. I’m sure that if they have to pay, they’ll decide to change the ball. I obviously haven’t clarified the discussion but made it even more obtuse.

  12. The ball controversy might never end. It’s unconscionable to consider lengthening courses to 8000 yard–that’s a financial penalty course owners may never recover. Frank’s criteria for the discussion are inspired, putting the onus on the microfraction of golfers who can hit a driver over 250 yards AND who make their living in the game. There are just too few of them to spoil the game for the vast majority. Bifurcation is not necessary; conditions of play for each course or each tournament can manage the differences. The pros don’t play traditional golf, they play a different game than the rest of us. So give us back the long putter, and make the pros play with 9 clubs. Give us a 6 inch cup and leave the pros with the small one.

    And let the Thomas-Nicklaus discussion be an example of how two intelligent individuals can have a significant difference of opinion and yet maintain a friendship in a civil atmosphere. That might be the true lesson of this discussion and it goes far beyond golf.

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