A few months ago I shared a round of golf with former tour pro-turned Australian golf-course architect Mike Clayton.
Clayton, one arm of the busy design quartet Ogilvy Clayton Cocking Mead, was in his element strolling around The Lakes Golf Club, a layout he left his fingerprints on after a heavily critiqued redesign in 2009.
Clayton, 60, is a golf traditionalist through and through. Equipped with an ancient, brown Sunday pencil bag and outdated clubs, he effortlessly played his way around the Sydney layout like a man who was still plying his trade on the seniors tour. It was in stark contrast to yours truly, whose arsenal included shiny, oversized metal woods and irons fitted with X-flex shafts, a jumbo spaceship-looking mallet putter and a swing speed that comes with just one guarantee – a very fine margin for error.
Among the topics of conversation, when I did hit a fairway alongside “Clayts”, were Australia’s Top 100 golf courses – or how they should be ranked – and modern-day equipment.
When we got to the 13th, a short, 280-metre par 4 with water on the right and a perched, narrow green up ahead, the topic of equipment inevitably arose again. Clayton tackled the hole exactly how he intended it to be played – an iron down the right side of middle, leaving a short iron and ideal angle in. Two putts later and he walked off with a faultless par.
I grabbed driver and went hell for leather – landing my ball in the sand trap directly behind the green. Although impressive, I would be penalised on my next shot as the green complex slopes back towards the front of the green, severely. With little to no green to work with, I landed my bunker shot right where I wanted to, on the fringe of the green, only to watch it sail 30 feet past the hole, well outside Clayton’s old-school approach. Two more putts and it was a disappointing par for someone who was no further than 30 feet from the pin after my tee shot.
“Great hole! I won’t hit driver here again,” I told Clayton, praising the clever design that will remain relevant for as long as it remains tempting to the game’s big hitters. He took great satisfaction in my assessment but I could sense my tee shot still irked him.
As things panned out, it wouldn’t be the last time we exchanged opinions on how equipment is gravely impacting golf-course architecture. We teed it up again a few weeks later, this time on Twitter where we let our keyboards do the talking instead of our clubs.
Clayton, like a cast of thousands, firmly believes the golf ball should be rolled back to preserve the great golf courses of the world. I’m somewhat on the fence, seeking more measurable data to be convinced this is the quick fix to end all our problems. Do the 13 other supercharged, spin-reducing, launch-increasing clubs in the bag not deserve equal attention?
“Your side has merit. Athletics changed the javelin because it was being thrown too far and endangered others within the stadium; swimming canned Thorpie’s (Ian Thorpe) bodysuit because world records were being smashed,” I told my sparring partner in a private exchange away from golf’s Twittersphere. “It’s a monumental decision that will be every bit as political as it is practical.”
“All debate is good,” replied Clayton. “I think my view is reasoned – but it’s the intractability on both sides which is the problem.”
Here’s how we came to that gentlemanly ceasefire.
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BradCliffoGolfDigest:Two sides to the distance debate: Those who can see both sides of the argument but want more measurable data to sanction change; and those that insist on pushing their one-eyed views on everyone through the emotional lens of golf course architecture. Let’s find the happy medium
Michael Clayton: More measured data? The evidence of top class play over the last 18 years isn’t enough? The fact PGA Tour driving stats have increased 20-30 yards isn’t enough.Architects in favour of rollback shouldn’t be accused of being “emotional” Why not accuse Nicklaus & Woods of “wisdom”
BradCliffoGolfDigest: If we’re going to roll back anything it needs to be the entire bag. The golf ball argument sailed into the sunset when we left the wound ball. #brainwashed
Michael Clayton: You’re saying Tiger and Nicklaus are “brainwashed”?
BradCliffoGolfDigest: Not at all. But I will note they are now course architects
Michael Clayton: Stop accusing course architects. Every one of them arguing it care about the game and what’s happened. As @IanAndrewGolf pointed out we all profit from adding distance to golf courses
BradCliffoGolfDigest: The pro-golf ball roll back argument would have more legs if the main reasoning wasn’t just because the ball is “the easy fix”. Would you not agree part of the beauty of the game was watching guys construct shots with shafts and heads not much bigger than the pill? Pure artistry
Michael Clayton: Of course – but the ball is the easiest – and best IMO – fix. Imagine how hard the argument would be to take away the clubs. And we know rolling back the ball works – we’ve done it before
BradCliffoGolfDigest: I’ve said it before, if you think rolling the ball back 20 percent won’t be neutralised by further advances in club technology then I’d like to see that data. Roll back the entire bag or nothing at all. The integrity of golf deserves more than a half-arsed solution, IMO
Michael Clayton: Well I guess the manufacturers would love to sell new sets to every player in the game. That’ll increase participation. And you’re suggesting if it’s not rolled back there are more increases to come – which I agree with. It’s unsustainable madness
BradCliffoGolfDigest: For what it’s worth, cricket had a similar problem with players hitting the ball too far with huge clumps of willow. The solution? They put restrictions on the bat – particularly the edges – not the ball…
Michael Clayton: Clearly a different situation. Have you ever seen an ad for a cricket ball suggesting it will fly further – and further and further?
BradCliffoGolfDigest: No. But I’ve never seen an ad for a driver or iron that doesn’t!
Michael Clayton: Yep. Mostly all they sell is hope
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BradCliffoGolfDigest: Attended a manufacturer’s trade talk today. A new feature on their driver helps aerodynamics of the head and picks up 3-yards from previous model – the exact amount the tours gained this past year that we’re all up in arms about. The ball? Or incremental gains in hardware?
Michael Clayton: The debate is about the gains post Pro V1. The last 3 years are irrelevant. The horse bolted years ago
BradCliffoGolfDigest: It sure did. And it’s left us debating a short-term fix
Michael Clayton: Not sure why it’s short term. And it’s better than no fix at all
BradCliffoGolfDigest: Keep tabs on the driving distances over the next few years if anything actually happens (roll back decision). Frying-pan heads, space-age materials, thinner faces, MOI limits stretched farther, more advanced shafts, all promoting next to no spin/higher launch… That 20% will be clawed back in no time
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BradCliffoGolfDigest: The USGA is on record as saying it does not want to bifurcate the rules. That would mean any action would apply to all, which presents a problem for our ageing golf population. #JustSayin
Michael Clayton: Going to the big ball didn’t seem to present too much of a problem to the aging population of 1983? All the old guys I knew just moved on. Then again, they had all lived through the second war so losing a few yards wasn’t such a big deal
BradCliffoGolfDigest: It’s an emotional issue for designers, I get that. But, as the USGA has shown with its US Open set-up, if the integrity of par is upheld, and scoring averages as a whole have remained unchanged across the tours, more ammo is needed for change than the bastardisation
Michael Clayton: So in Australia we utterly ruin the design concepts of width, angles, strategy and not relying on penal rough by narrowing fairways & growing rough at The Lakes (18 Open) RM (PC19) and LK (Perth Int) just to uphold scores? Scores are a complete distraction to how the holes play
BradCliffoGolfDigest: It’s a tough one. Because green space is extremely limited it makes the solution a head scratcher. Question: Does it upset you, as a designer, more when an amateur bombs it past bunkers placed there 50 years ago, or when Dustin Johnson does it?
Michael Clayton: I don’t care who does it – and it doesn’t upset me so much as a designer. It upsets me as a golfer who loves and respects the intent of the great architects and how much it’s been distorted since 2000 by the equipment
BradCliffoGolfDigest: It’s tugging at your heartstrings as a designer, Mike, and that’s perfectly OK. Your work is becoming redundant on an increasingly limited canvas. Print media, as an example, faces challenges with innovation. The answer lies in how you adapt. Blaming one portion isn’t it
Michael Clayton: Stop confusing the designer in me with the golfer who cares about how the great courses play. My view would be exactly the same if I wasn’t a designer. I don’t think our work is redundant. It’s not for 95% of people who play it but much of our work is at championship courses
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Michael Clayton: Here’s what upsets me. @LukasJMichel [above] driving it 320m down 6 at Victoria in pennant match leaving 80m left. 280 and 120 would be more interesting? It upsets Lukas too – who also cares about how courses play
BradCliffoGolfDigest: Devil’s advocate again, you could argue 3/4 swing to play 80m shot is more testing than 120m full wedge. Requires creativity, not a robotic swing to an exact yardage pros hit day in, day out. But I agree, it’s a traditionalist’s nightmare
Michael Clayton: Just a flip lob wedge to ten feet. No problem. @MarkBroadie will tell you the closer to the green the closer on average you pitch the ball. With 60 degree wedge short pitch shots are easy
BradCliffoGolfDigest: Can you teach me, please?
Michael Clayton: If you can find me 30 more yards :)
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