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One of the beautiful things about golf is that, essentially, we are playing the very same game that our professional counterparts are playing. You can’t lace ‘em up and do what Tom Brady is doing; you can’t shake and bake and take it to the rim like Michael Jordan. Hell, at my age, I can barely bake and shaking is out of the question.
But I can stand over a shot to the 17th at Sawgrass and wonder if Jack felt the same trepidation I do as I stare at the miniature island green. It has always been one of the great charms of the sport, this intimate relationship between the average Joe and the greatest the sport has to offer. Just the very existence of the pro-am as a popular way for golfers of all abilities to play the same game together is part of the glue that holds the golfing community together.
That intimate relationship is being threatened to a degree by the very same major change in the game that has allowed more people to play well for a longer time than ever before. The incredible changes in golf equipment, from the newer and longer flighted balls, to the exotic metals used in creating springier clubfaces, to golf shafts that nobody ever envisioned has inspired many a golfer to paraphrase Bobby Jones when alluding to almost any professional; “he plays a game with which I am not familiar”.
There is a dilemma here for the avid golfer. While there has been a loss of identification with our professional brethren, the change in golf equipment has allowed golfers of all ages and abilities to play a difficult game with a bit more ease. This particularly true for older golfers who have benefited from improved equipment to such a degree that golf has more older players playing competitively than ever before. I can still play competitively mainly because equipment has allowed me to maintain some semblance of distance whereas forty years ago, with forged blades and balata balls, age took its toll on golfers much more severely than it does today. Sam Snead may have summed it up best when,at the age of 66 he talked about playing the ninth hole at Pinehurst #2, a 210 yard par three, slightly uphill to a green with a large shelf in the back portion. “Thirty years ago,” he said, “I hit a four wood to that green. Today I hit a five iron. What did I do, get stronger?”
Make no mistake; no sport has undergone as significant changes in its basic equipment as has golf. Football has changed equipment in order to protect the player but the violence of the game still presents challenges to equipment makers to keep the game safe. The beauty of baseball is the lack of change over the years and basketball’s biggest changes come from the increasing skill of the athletes.
Golf equipment changes have fueled the sport for many years as most of us, forom the time we first take up the game, want to hit it longer, straighter, and more accurately. The changes in equipment have been so many and varied that it’s hard to keep up, a fact not lost on the marketing wizards who work for equipment manufacturers. Picking out gear that is best for you has become the quest for the grail in golf. Golfers pay attention to shaft flex, lie angle, launch angles, shaft torque, grip size, gear effect, and a host of other factors when selecting clubs. Golfers choose from dozens of new configured golf balls all designed for a specific property one can take advantage of.
So while my sense of identification with my hero Jack has been diminished, the fact that a short, fat, sixty-six year old can still go out and enjoy the game with friends and competitors makes up for that loss. Excuse me, I gotta go play.