Ivan Morris – How one ball changed golf forever

Ivan Morris

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Ivan Morris

Ivan Morris – How one ball changed golf forever

A 15th Anniversary isn't usually one to get all that excited about. 15 years ago, golf was changed forever when the Pro-V1 ball was launched.

In my 55 year's experience the arrival of the Pro V1 was, in one stroke, the most dramatic shift in the way the game is played.

In my heart of hearts I am convinced that the integrity of the game was compromised there and then but it does not stop me from being a hypocrite and playing with a Pro-V1.

Staying in step with the competition (within the rules) has always been paramount in my mind. One has to do one's best to stay competitive with a new generation that doesn't care one whit about the past.

The blame rests fairly and squarely with the USGA and The R&A whose lack of action in the intervening years means turning back the clock has become less and less likely, which is a pity if not a tragedy.

Since the PING grooves Issue of the 1990s, the authorities have consistently 'bottled it' and abdicated in their duty to protect the game. ‬

Until 1920 a golf ball could be any size and weight. Then, it was standardised to be no less than 1.62 inches in diameter and not more than 1.62 ounces.

In 1924, there was an experimental ball - 1.68 inches in diameter and no more than 1.55 ounces.The ladies liked it because it sat up better on the turf making it easier to hit with fairway woods but male golfers didn’t like the lighter ball because they could not control it, especially in wind.

Frank Thomas, was the USGA’s technical director for 26-years. He was the man in charge of testing all golf balls used in competition. Periodically, Thomas collected sleeves of balls from all of the players, including Jack Nicklaus, and put those balls through the testing regime on his Iron Byron machine at the USGA’s HQ.

He tells a story of collecting balls from Nicklaus at the 1977 U.S. Open at Tulsa’s Southern Hills Country Club and being shocked that Jack's MacGregor Tourney balls veered as much as 15-yards off target.

Having never before seen such an inconsistent ball flight, Thomas stopped the test thinking that something was wrong with his machine. But Iron Byron had operated perfectly.

Following Thomas’s retirement, he revealed to Nicklaus the results of the ’77 test. Nicklaus told him he wasn’t surprised. He knew that he was playing with a 'not very good golf ball.'

It just shows how good Nicklaus was. I have no doubt that if Jack had had the use of the velocity and stability of a Pro V-1, he would have won 25-majors.

Who can say for certain that if the challenges of the game had remained focused on skill and finesse rather than distance and power, more people would be playing and enjoying golf today?

The advantage always lay with the longer hitter and rightly so but when those long hits are equalized due to technology rather than ability, it is not right.

If I play with my 1920s hickory clubs and a 2015 ball versus my 2015 clubs and a 1920s golf ball guess which combination wins? The 2015 ball wins every time.

Anyone who learned to play golf prior to 1990 swung in a different way and is now too old to learn the power game even if capable of it.

Conversely, if you asked a teenager or twenty-something to play with a pre-1995 balata ball and woodenheaded, steel-shafted driver, he would struggle and cry 'foul.'

Balata was my favourite ball although it could look like an egg after 18-holes. Knife one and it would smile broadly at you! That's one good thing about today's ball - it lasts longer.

My biggest gripe is that the distance a golf ball flies today compromises golf courses and slows down the game because it takes too long to walk around these 'artificially stretched' golf courses.

Excessive length also means excessive maintenance costs and an excessive amount of time to play 18-holes. Who would approve of changing footballs and sliotars so they could travel faster and further?

Can you imagine goalkeepers scoring points from puck outs or the playing surface at Croke Park being ripped up and expanded every 10-years to lengthen the pitch?

Call it evolution if you like and say that the game isn't any easier for you but the formula for golfing success today is to hit your driver as hard as you can and as far as you can, take a wedge, hit it onto the green and make the putt! I have seen too many industries put out of business during my lifetime due to 'new technology' and I fear that it will be the fate of the game that I love within two generations.

From day one golf balls have been evolving but I can't help thinking that 'progress' was allowed to go too far. It could result in it being 'killed off' too.

Unless 'air' is let out of the ball, the best golf can hope for is an inching back to being a niche pastime for the wealthy.

 

Words of the Wise

How often have I seen a good, golf course ruined in the attempt to extend it to what is generally considered championship length - Alister Mackenzie