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Editor's letter: Golf’s most controversial topic takes ironic twist - Australian Golf Digest Editor's letter: Golf’s most controversial topic takes ironic twist - Australian Golf Digest

Phil Mickelson was somewhat nonchalant when asked about the R&A and USGA’s controversial Distance Insights Report in February last year. In hindsight, such insouciance made perfect sense.

The report, which determined distance needs to be curtailed for the good of the game, sparked heated debate, particularly among folk on the PGA Tour, with a number of pros feeling the need to speak out in defence of a crime they felt they hadn’t committed.

Those expecting a similar take from ‘Phil The Thrill’ were left bitterly disappointed.

“I didn’t really read anything tangible from the report; I only saw that they didn’t want each generation to continue getting longer and longer,” was Mickelson’s response.

Lefty’s take wasn’t wrong. Tour driving-distance averages have increased substantially with the passing of time, with the under-30s generation now the face of the sport’s newfound need for speed. But what if generations past were the real benefactors in all this hoo-ha about longer drives? What if, as Bryson continued doing Bryson things off the tee, senior statesmen like Mickelson were secretly employing an ‘If we can’t beat them, join them’ approach to their own training? 

What if, perish the thought, we said a 50-year-old Phil Mickelson would not only win a Major championship in 2021, but bomb a 340-metre (366 yard) drive on the third-last hole to claim bragging rights over a beefed-up Bryson and runner-up Brooks Koepka?

Such fanciful storylines are now a reality of the modern-day pro tour. Galaxy-piercing tee shots are no longer exclusive to the young ‘athletes’ of the sport. Take 47-year-old veteran Greg Chalmers, for example. The two-time Australian Open champion would be the first to admit he’s no athlete. Managing a long-term battle with arthritis in several joints of his lower spine, it’s a minor miracle Chalmers is still swinging a club at all, let alone competitively. Retirement was well and truly in his plans. Until the game, as he knew it, changed. 

“I can now get up to 300 yards of carry with my driver in testing,” Chalmers reveals. 

What? Greg Chalmers, that little, old fella with one leg shorter than the other, hits it THREE HUNDRED YARDS! Tell me you’re joking?

“It’s more like 285-290 on the course when it matters, but it’s something I’ve been working at for three years. Strength workouts, speed drills… I’m just trying to slow down the ageing process as much as possible so it gives me more options on the Champions tour.

“There’s no question in my mind the technology in today’s clubs is what’s helping the older guys like me stick around and remain competitive for longer, provided we can keep our strength and mobility levels up, like Phil clearly does.”

Greg Norman is widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers of the golf ball in history. Now 66, he couldn’t possibly be hitting it further than in his heyday, right? 

“Wrong. I would say I am anywhere from 25 to 38 yards longer with the driver now than I was in my prime,” Norman tells us. “Of course, that depends on whether I have hit a few balls and loosened up, and I’m playing a serious, concentrated round. But I’m significantly longer these days, no question.”

Which brings us back to that other senior citizen, Mickelson, and his incredible clubhead speed and launch data. Asked if Lefty’s numbers were a sign that things had now gone too far with technology, Norman was unequivocal in his response: “They need to
dial back.

“I bet PM’s driver is one of the longest on tour, creating more speed and therefore more distance, right?”

After a quick check we can confirm the Shark is correct. In the space of a few years, Mickelson has gone from using a 45-inch driver to a 46-inch driver. Then, right before his PGA Tour Champions debut last year, he asked Callaway to make him a 47.5-inch driver, set between 5 and 6 degrees of loft.

The result? A club that pushes the R&A and USGA limits to the extreme and most certainly one of the longest on tour.

“It’s like working with one of the long-drive competitors, getting a club at 5 degrees loft at 47.5 inches,” says Gerrit Pon, club performance specialist for Callaway.

Such fine-tuning is sure to ruffle a few more feathers of those seeking an equipment ceasefire. But Chalmers doesn’t think we’ll see any significant changes. 

“I love seeing 50-year-olds winning on tour,” he says. “Phil winning the PGA Championship is just a great story. As for the proposed dialling back of technology, I’m starting to think the R&D of manufacturers are well in front of the governing bodies, and that there’s a good chance any ‘dial back’ won’t really see much change at all.”

Whatever happens, it’s posed quite the conundrum for the older brigade, many of whom have made no secret they are in favour of dialling back the tech. Stop the distance and, in theory, stop our chances of competing? Or continue to not blink twice when 50-somethings are driving the two-shot par 4s
of yesteryear?

For Norman, the answer comes back to the roots of the sport: the masses who play it for love, not money.

“The vast majority of amateurs still cannot extract the technology in their games anyway, [so why have it?]” he says. “They still take too many shots to get a small white ball in a stationary, round hole.”

Sheesh! Thanks for noticing, Greg!

Feature image by Omar cruz