One of golf’s so-called dirty secrets is that nobody gets better. The initial descent in scoring is thrilling, but the bottom is long and flat.
Any tiny dips we tend to misidentify as progress, and the tiny bumps, particularly for golfers of a certain vintage, often mean you’re getting worse. Luckily, most of us share something like the same evolutionary quirk that prompted the first ostrich to bury its head in the sand. Blind optimism keeps the game fun. Next hole, next round, next season: That’s when we’re really going to put it all together.
When I was a teenager, I spent some time in a shop with a head pro who, if we were alone, would gaze out the window toward the first tee and provide commentary in a monotone and despondent voice. He would predict the shots: a pop-up slice to the opposite fairway, a ground hook O.B., etc. When he really nailed one, he didn’t show a trace of smugness or satisfaction.
“Why do they bother, Max? What keeps them going?” It was rhetorically understood I wasn’t to answer.
All these years later, I think I have an answer, and it’s that reports of golfer stagnancy have been grossly exaggerated.
Not until 2020 did the USGA consolidate all the state handicapping systems into a central database. It now updates in real time, and the last I checked, the average handicap for a male was 14.1 and 28.0 for a female. That’s down from 16.3 and 29.4, respectively, in 1996, which was that summer I was hanging in the golf shop.
Of course, about one in five golfers keeps an official handicap, so these stats are worth only so much. Let’s consider the U.S. Mid Amateur, the championship for everybody over age 25 who isn’t a pro. The idea, as you might know, is to keep out the college kids to make it a true competition among those who have jobs, families, and presumably the other distractions of well-balanced lives. The average 18-hole score to qualify for this national event dropped from 71.2 in 2002 to 68.6 in 2022. In the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, the two-player team event that honours the mistake- and gloryridden “best-ball” format many of us play on weekends, the average score to qualify in 2022 was 63.6(!), down from 65.2 in its inaugural year of 2014. As a regular contributor of entry fees across roughly this same span, I can assure you the course setups are not getting easier. Total entries are up, as is the amount of grousing about the number of reinstated amateurs—or “reconstituted” as one of my regular golf buds calls anyone who had a cup of coffee on a pro mini tour—but this is besides the main point.
We’re getting better. And why shouldn’t we be? It’s what humans do. Today’s golfers are athletes whose performance is supported by intelligence that’s becoming harder to recognise as artificial. Smarter technology is built into our clubs, watches, simulators, on-course decision making, and more. The kids know what’s up. In the U.S. Girls Junior Amateur, the average score to qualify has plummeted from 76.2 to 72.2 in two decades.
If you’re a low-net guy, you might be saying, “Who cares?” These “elite” amateur tournaments, filled with spindly high schoolers gunning for college scholarships and too-tan insurance brokers, are for a sliver of the golf population. But golf shifts as a unit. If the pinnacles of recreational play have become this much more competitive, it reasons that so has your club championship, and so has the next flight down, all the way to the ninth flight and beyond. As a populace, we’re getting better.
That there are more good players among us is something to celebrate! But, and please forgive an awkward transition, the new proposal to make some golf balls fly shorter will spoil an important layer of the cake.
Now, there’s a fairly high arrogance quotient among scratch golfers. They ride your tail when they want to play through, whine about their putting as they’re taking your money, and never seem to get ketchup on their shirts. But like them or not, the best players you know at your course allow for extrapolation and appreciation of just how incredible the pros on TV are. Although the proposed rule isn’t really intended to target the distance of amateurs—there are plenty of successful ones who popcorn it 250 yards all day—messing with their world is to mess with everyone’s.
Combining men’s and women’s, last year more than 10,000 dreamers entered U.S. Open qualifying. On their applications, no doubt many cited handicaps based on scores recorded playing alongside beginner buddies in Wednesday beer leagues. With two different golf balls, will people of varying abilities play together as much or as easily? Remember, golf shifts as a unit.
Although you’ll encounter a rigid hierarchy of levels in many sports, any given golfer’s schedule is a jumbled and happy matrix. A mediocre Division III college player is as likely to get paired with a future major champ in a state am as he is to get whupped by a grandmother in a mixed member-guest.
There is no athletic experience quite like a PGA Tour pro-am on a storied course. I enjoy playing with Delusional Dan the Dentist who talks about joining the senior tour when he turns 50. But the mere awareness of two different balls, to say nothing of the potential divergence in club technologies to optimise each ball, would tarnish all these games. It’s fun to see how one stacks up, and from wild cross-pollination our game derives much health. Even if most of us have no plans to reach the clouds, it’s nice that there’s no ceiling blocking the view.
Sure, we could find a way to sort the handicaps derived from different equipment standards. Pro baseball has wood bats, and Little League and college play with aluminum. But golf is not adult softball.
I sympathise with the great predicament the governing bodies face. Par 5s are not meant to be reached with wedges, shot-shaping is a dying art, and building increasingly longer courses defies environmental and financial logic, but a unified set of rules is critical to the soul of golf.
The USGA has asked for comments, and this is mine. If you’re passionate about the game, send an email to [email protected].
I caught up with my old friend the pro, who’s now a general manager gazing out a different window. He reminded me of all the tour pros who never played salable balls, instead insisting on special models or models from past years, so incredible was their feel and skill. He still doesn’t like the proposal. As only he could summarise in his perfectly moribund way: “That we all play the same game is a really special idea, even if it’s not true.”