Golf is a Gold Fish
Goldfish typically grow to fit their environment. Buy one at the pet shop, bring it home, stick it in a bowl, it’ll stay pretty small. However, toss it in a tank, it’s grow larger. The growth also depends on the quality of water and nutrients, which shouldn’t really surprise anyone. Feed a goldfish well, put it in a large tank, you’ll get something that looks like Bryson DeChambeau.
Golf is indeed a goldfish.
Well, the environment the game is now played in is becoming bigger and bigger for the best players in the world. The courses in the men’s game have grown over the last 23 years since Tiger uttered those famous words: “Hello, World.”
The difference in length at the four majors isn’t astronomical after I looked at some of the numbers. They averaged 7051 yards in 1997 and 7347.5 yards in 2020 (that’s about 16 yards a whole on average). The premium on distance and the technology built to hit the ball farther has also changed. The ball spins less, thus, it’s flies farther and straighter than it used to.
This is nothing new if you watch golf every week, or even just watch the four majors. Guys are trying to hit the ball as far as possible. Even Rory is posting ball speed videos and pictures on Instagram this week. The new father that says he doesn’t care that superficial stuff is either doing this tongue-in-cheek or making a point his diminutive size doesn’t require months of weight training and high caloric intake (although, who knows with Rory’s new Dominoes habit… it’s a tough one to kick, Rory…).
Okay, back the the goldfish. The courses are the fishbowl, and the professional golfer has been put in a massive tank with endless oxygen and nutrient rich water. They are growing to fit the space that has been provided for them with technology that allows them to do it faster. They are, in fact, outgrowing the fishbowl.
Even the women’s pro game is beginning the transition from kitchen counter bowl to aquatic tank. This season, the four women’s majors are all stretching to touch 6800 yards. Aronimink is hosting the Women’s PGA this weekend at a whopping 6831 yards (The 1997 Masters was playing at 6925 yards). Aronimink is known as a big golf course, and I am interested to see the winning score and how the winner gets there.
Looking way down the line at the amateur golfer, we’re not seeing the same kinds of gains because, well, we can’t afford to add incredible length to our games (it’s expensive to find 15 extra yards…). This past week, I played Butternut Farms, which is a tree lined nightmare for any claustrophobic, inaccurate golfer. It was uncomfortable and challenging in a way I wasn’t used to. Trees loomed large off the tee, and the holes didn’t open up after 150 yards either, they hugged the fairway like scared child. The course took driver out of my hands, and when I did hit it, I had to aim it more than swing hard. During that afternoon at Butternut, I felt like a large goldfish shoved into a tiny bowl looking for a pair of pruning shears.
The interesting question here is what if we kept the pros in the same tank for the next ten years? What if courses didn’t add tee boxes for the sake of the scorecard and intimidation and cache? What if for 10 years the majors all aimed at having roughly the same length. I know they go to new venues, but imagine if pros knew that the majors would all fall between 7300 and 7400 yards until 2030. That falls right in the 7347 average for the 2020 majors. You might think that nothing would change, but I think it would make a huge difference. I think the distance chase would slow down after a couple years because the playing field is going to even out. And when that happens, guys have to find new ways to differentiate their game to stand out, compete, and win.
If there was a set length to the course, it would also create more intrigue in how it might be set-up. Long rough and narrow fairways clearly aren’t doing the trick (see: Bryson at Winged Foot). Less rough around the greens? Yes, please. Cross bunkering? Sure!
In the NBA there’s been discussion around widening the court and moving the 3-point line back. The 3 point line been moved in the past, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to move again in the near future. The three pointer is important in basketball, and the Golden State Warriors broke the calculus in the middle of the last decade. But shooting the three a ton of times doesn’t win you an NBA title, just ask the Houston Rockets. At some point, the advantage of the three pointer runs out. It usually happens in the playoffs, unless you have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on your team. But even then, it’s not a mortal lock (just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers… well ask any of them except Kyrie…). The three point line sat on NBA courts for decades before someone looked at it and said, “huh, maybe we should try more shots from behind this line.” Right now, the growing pains are tough and people say the game all looks the same. However, the game will look different again as teams look for new ways to be efficient on offense.
Imagine if the three point line was actually moved. Is it going to deter Brooke Lopez and Aaron Baynes and Joel Embiid from hucking up three or four 3FG a game? I bet not. It’s just going to embolden them to keep trying and the game, likely, would get worse because of it. That’s conjecture, I know, but chicks dig the long ball and if you walk into any gym in the world and that arc is the ultimate siren song. Everyone wants to shoot from behind it. No matter how many bricks it takes.
Responding to the three point barrage by backing up the three point line with just make guys want to shoot from farther away. Adding distance to golf courses has shown that guys are just going to chase distance. I fear we’re heading towards courses that stretch to 8000+ yards in these tournaments and we’ll watch guys lash away with 48 inch drivers. If they don’t have the space in the tank to swing that club they won’t. And if they do, the playing field will catch up if courses don’t grow longer.
While amateur golf might not feel like it’s impacted by the size of the tank, just ask yourself a few questions. How long have your rounds become in the last 10 years? How much of your tee choice is based on a peak at the scorecard to see how long the back tees are? If an amateur golfer played the forward tees or even the second set of forward tees for a month, they would begin to realize that whacking driver as far as possible isn’t always the greatest plan and the strategy would change. Players would consider different clubs off tees, trying to find spots on the course to score instead of banging it down near the green and hoping for the best. The fish tank has become bigger for the amateur, we just don’t notice it as much until we walk off the course after 5 hours and wonder what took so long.
The tank shouldn’t be upgraded. This might mean a bit of a lag in the development of the game, however, in a few years, guys will find new ways to score, superintendents will find new types of defense, and Bryson won’t be on the back of the range breaking windows. Okay, maybe he will, but it won’t matter as much.