Technology on the ball with subpar scores Two-piece ball has field in uncharted territory

April 07, 2001|By John Eisenberg

AUGUSTA, Ga. - You knew this was coming. Given how golfers using a radical new ball have obliterated scoring records this year, you knew Augusta National would get pummeled at the Masters as long as a blizzard or some other, troubling conditions didn't arise.

Even the more aggressive predictions have been surpassed in the first two rounds, however, as 560 birdies have fallen and more than a third of the field has played under par. What is this, the Tucson Open? No, just another week with the new, two-piece ball, which has altered golf unlike any technological advancement since steel-shafted woods.

The PGA Tour records for the lowest 72-hole score and lowest 90-hole score already have fallen this year, and Tiger Woods' Masters record of 18-under par could get dunked this weekend if the field continues to humble Augusta National. Warm, dry weather is expected to harden the putting surfaces and make things tougher, but if the final 36 holes even remotely match the first 36, average scores could still resemble the Nasdaq's straight-drop decline of the past year.

Yes, factors other than the new ball have contributed to the "extreme golf" environment of 2001, with scores dropping to levels previously considered unreachable. Conditioning techniques and knowledge of the swing dynamic have advanced. Woods has raised the skill-level bar with his awesome performances. Big-headed drivers have added length off the tee. The golf boom Woods precipitated has expanded the talent pool. Pro golf is just a longer and tougher place than it was five years ago.

Still, it's mostly the ball, stupid. Clearly, it's the ball.

A year ago, when no one had heard of the two-piece ball, 46 subpar rounds were shot on Thursday and Friday at the Masters. This year, with many golfers using the ball, 73 subpar rounds were shot Thursday and yesterday. That's more subpar scores than were shot in all four rounds of the Masters in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

Putting it another way, 25 percent of the more than 500 individual rounds shot at the Masters from 1996-2000 resulted in subpar scores, and the number is up staggeringly to 40 percent through two rounds this year.

The trend is unmistakable, as is the new ball's impact.

"Guys are just flying [shots] so much better [with it]," said defending Masters champion Vijay Singh, who has yet to shoot an over-par round in any tournament this year.

"I feel like I'm a whole different player," added Phil Mickelson, who shot 69 yesterday to go with his first-round 67.

Until last year, most golfers used a long-accepted ball with a liquid center wound by thread and a soft cover. It subtracted some length but added accuracy around the greens. Then Woods started winning with a new ball composed of two parts, a solid core and a harder cover. Nike sold that one as the Tour Accuracy TW. Not to be outdone, Titleist quickly came out with its version, the Pro V1. The revolution was under way.

Titleist's ball seems to be the most popular a year later, but all of the solid-core balls add length without sacrificing accuracy, and there is powerful supporting evidence - 11 of the first 14 winners on the PGA Tour in 2001 have used a new ball. What's the advantage? There's a long (no pun intended) explanation about spin and wind, from which we'll mercifully refrain; all you need to know is that the golfers now talk about "launching" drives rather than hitting them.

A backlash was inevitable, and it was hardly a surprise when Masters chairman Hootie Johnson announced Wednesday that Augusta National would undergo significant changes before the 2002 event, with "four or five" of the par-4 holes lengthened. Could you blame him? Change ordinarily comes at a glacial pace at Augusta, but the playing field needs leveling.

"Pretty soon we'll be teeing off from downtown somewhere," Jack Nicklaus grumbled. "But you have to do it before every hole is [reduced to] a driver and a wedge."

Nicklaus, a top course designer, has lobbied for many years to have the United States Golf Association put limits on how far balls can go "before every course becomes obsolete," he said, estimating that average distances advanced about a yard per year for 15 years until they jumped 5 yards for a couple of years and now 15 yards in the past year.

"Somebody has got to stand up to this," Nicklaus said. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with Augusta National. It's one of our great courses. To have it diminished by a ball because the manufacturers can't stand to have their ball go shorter, and because the USGA can't stand up because it is afraid of being sued to death - and I don't blame them - where do you go?"

Simple. You go onward, upward and farther, for better or worse. It probably would be best if distances were limited, but there's no turning back once the evolutionary wheel spins, particularly when that spins produces a profit somewhere. Besides, fans love to see monster drives and miracle shots, and the new balls will produce more.

"It's had the greatest impact, more than any other piece of equipment in history," Mickelson said.

The first two rounds of the 2001 Masters are just the latest piece of evidence.

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