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Original Issue

State of the Game

SI's panel of experts discusses the bone-dry '04 Open and a host of other hot

Executive director of the U.S. Golf Association
Fay, 55, is a member of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and Newport Country Club.

PGA Tour player
Faxon, 43, is a 22-year Tour veteran and a former member of the PGA Tour policy board. He is paid to endorse Titleist products.

Senior vice president, global press and PR at Callaway Golf
Dorman, 54, formerly covered golf for The New York Times and other newspapers. Callaway would support a rolled-back ball for elite players only.

Author, fledgling course architect
Shackelford, 33, wrote The Future of Golf: How Golf Lost Its Way and How to Get It Back (Sasquatch Books, April 2005).


Golf, it seems, is much more complex outside the ropes than inside them these days. Just when we got comfortable with terms like coefficient of restitution, along comes optimization and bifurcation. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recently assembled a foursome of diverse voices at Rhode Island Country Club to discuss the issues confronting the game.

SI: At last year's U.S. Open the course became an issue. David, what did the USGA learn from that experience?

FAY: What happened last year, particularly on Sunday, was a mistake and not done by design.

SI: What happened?

FAY: I wasn't happy on Friday night because a lot of people--not only USGA people--were saying, 'This isn't the same course we saw in 1986 and '95.' The rough wasn't exacting any penalty, and the course was playing too soft. But when the wind picked up on Saturday evening and into early Sunday, we should've gotten out there at five o'clock in the morning and thrown on the entire [irrigation] system for about 20 minutes--put a little water on the course to take out some of the heat.

FAXON: On Monday, when I played a practice round, Shinnecock was the best-conditioned course I had ever seen. On Tuesday, [former USGA president] Grant Spaeth walked with us as we played and I noticed that the greens were changing. Moisture definitely was coming out of the greens. I thought, Boy, this is not what we saw yesterday. They're losing them already. I said something to Grant, and he kind of shook his head.

FAY: You don't want 66 of the best players in the world averaging close to 80 on a day when, if we were [a few miles away] at the National Golf Links, we would've said, 'What a great day to play golf!' You look at the 7th hole and ask, 'Why did this hole play so much differently in 2004 than it did in '86 or '95?' It wasn't simply the firmness of the green. It was this desire--and we have to rethink this--to create chipping areas. They work in some places, but not everywhere. At 7 there was no place for the ball to stop. Shinnecock was a very fast course in every respect--too fast. Maybe we have learned from that.

SHACKELFORD [to Fay]: You mentioned Friday night. What exactly was the problem? The leader board was outstanding. Six of the top 10 players in the world were right there.

FAY: Vijay Singh took a look at the course and decided that he didn't have to hit it in the fairway. He felt he could bomb it as far as he could and have a short iron in.

FAXON: This year I played with Tiger Woods at Doral, and if there were 14 holes where you could hit driver, he used his on 12. He hit five fairways the first day, seven the second and won the tournament. There's something wrong with that.

FAY: There's no correlation, it seems, between putting the ball in the fairway and how you perform. Now, one could ask, Does there need to be? But we want to make sure that hitting the fairway is important, to the point that going forward we're going to modify the height of the rough. For example, next year at the 320-yard 6th hole at Winged Foot West, I'd like to see the rough eight inches high.

SHACKELFORD: But isn't the USGA bothered by low scoring? Jeff Maggert said last year that he knew the USGA would 'panic' after the first two rounds because 17 players were at or below par. Today's courses, players and equipment are better. Naturally scores should evolve.

FAY: They have evolved. Look at Ben Hogan. He won two of his four U.S. Opens at seven over par. We're not clinging to par, but we want par to have meaning.

SHACKELFORD: I was watching on television when you came on and said that, by mistake, the 7th green had been rolled, and NBC had a shot of the green being double-cut. To anyone watching, it seemed as if things were out of control.

FAY: That's in the eye of the beholder. The course was out of control, but in our minds not that far out of control. The U.S. Open has always been a very punishing examination. That's the Open's imprimatur--it's the hardest tournament. There's more strain on the faces of the players. It feels as if they've been in a fistfight. Believe me, we did not want to see what we saw on Sunday, but a lot of people are saying, 'Man, I loved that.' Everyone focused on the 7th green. I was just as concerned about the 1st.

SHACKELFORD: That's where Ernie Els gave up, according to Tom Meeks.

FAY: That doesn't warrant a response.

SI: Some say technology took over tennis. Now numbers are down.

FAY: What really happened was that tennis lost 16 million players it never had. Tennis's equivalent of the National Golf Foundation wildly exaggerated the number of players and the demand. The tennis industry responded to those irresponsible numbers.

FAXON: I would argue, too, that the big serve has always been as important as the big drive. The best players--Laver, McEnroe, Sampras--all had great serves. Guys like Agassi and Federer can return those serves, so I don't think the game is ruined.

DORMAN: The tennis analogy has been worn out by [USGA senior technical director] Dick Rugge, who is constantly comparing tennis to golf. It's not an apt analogy. Another one is that if golf becomes too easy, people will stop playing. I defy Dick Rugge--I challenge him--to find a single person who has quit golf because it was too easy.

SHACKELFORD: What you're saying, Larry, is that golf is more fun if you buy the latest equipment.

DORMAN: No, I'm not.

SHACKELFORD: You're saying that if things are taken away from golfers the game will be less fun. Nobody's talked about taking things away from golfers.

DORMAN: That has been discussed at the highest levels--that things are going to be taken out of the bag. There's a lot of conversation now about the ball. But my point is, some equipment has been designed for people who do not dig it out of the dirt, but still like to play a couple of times a month. They don't have time for lessons or practice and might not be physically fit enough to ever hope to be really good players. They would like to have a little help, and I don't see what's wrong with giving it to them.

SHACKELFORD: The equipment doesn't help the average guy as much as some people think. The point Rugge needs to make is that golf, like tennis, is less interesting to watch than it used to be.

FAY: I violently disagree.

FAXON: That makes three of us.

FAY: A person's view of the health of today's game is directly related to the number on his birth certificate. There's a reason why [five-time British Open champion] Peter Thomson walks around with a golf ball in his hand saying, This is the solution to the game's problems. He's not carrying a ball from 1920, 1930 or 1940. He has a ball from 1960, which happens to be the time when he was at his best.

SHACKELFORD: How does that explain Ernie Els and Tiger Woods?

FAY [to Shackelford]: What would you like to see happen?

SHACKELFORD: I'd like to see the ball rolled back slightly, to again emphasize power by players who are naturally gifted. What's disturbing is that we're seeing the equipment dictate who can succeed at the professional level.

FAY: I disagree, because golf has always been two games--the long game and the short game. If you're not hitting on both cylinders, you're not going to succeed.

FAXON: I remember Tiger playing in the '96 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, when he was still an amateur. I happened to be walking to the range with Tom Weiskopf right after Tiger had hit a drive and a four-iron at the par-5 12th. I had hit driver, four-iron and a full wedge. I went, 'Ooohh! Did you see that?' Weiskopf said, 'The game is ruined.' And he went into this rant. I'm like, 'Why is it ruined?' He said, 'The equipment is changing everything.' I said, 'Tom, you're wrong.' There I was, telling Tom Weiskopf, a superstar, that Tiger swings harder than Jack Nicklaus ever did. I could've also said that golf has now become a cool sport. When I was in high school, you played football, basketball and basketball, or you were a nerd. I was a total nerd. But now the kids have been concentrating on golf since they were five or six and have been trained to hit the ball as far as they can. Corey Pavin, on the other hand, can have all the new equipment in the world, and he's not going to play that way because that's not the way he learned.

SI: Why is everybody talking about the ball? Deane Beman, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player--they all say the ball needs to be rolled back in the pro game.

FAXON: If Jack Nicklaus had a successful ball, he would never say another word. But he's never sold a ball that's made a dime. There are so many other, more important things to worry about. Like allowing the putter to touch a part of your body other than your hands....

SHACKELFORD: Because we have an infrastructure of courses that are being changed--whether it's necessary or not.

FAXON: It's not simply a function of yardage. A great example is Harbour Town. The second highest winning score we've had all year was on the shortest course. There are holes there where you have to hit a three-wood or a two-iron. If I'm going to compete against Tiger and Vijay and Ernie, I need courses like that.

SHACKELFORD: That's my point. Golf's most interesting when there's choice, and those choices are gone.

FAXON: What does that have to do with the ball?

SHACKELFORD: The ball is the easiest thing to regulate, to bring shotmaking back into the game.

FAY: Who are shotmakers? Is Tiger not creative?

SHACKELFORD: Tiger himself has said that his equipment lessens his ability to work the ball.

FAXON [to Shackelford]: How can you not like watching Jim Furyk? The guy is a craftsman and certainly doesn't hit it a long way by today's standards. He's on everybody's top 10 list to win the Open this year.

SHACKELFORD: I don't see him getting on the tee and saying, 'O.K., the pin's back right. I have to hit it down the left side.'

FAXON: I do. I see that.

FAY: Shotmaking is still part of the game. I hear, 'These guys can't curve the ball.' The most exciting shot I saw at Olympia Fields in 2003 was on the 7th hole, where Tiger sliced a three-wood 50 yards.

FAXON: I love Andy North, but when I first came on Tour, he used to say things like, 'Boy, could this guy play. Boy, he was the best shotmaker I've ever seen.' I'm never going to get to his age and tell Kevin Na how great the guys I used to play with were. I mean, I don't think Bob Cousy could guard Steve Nash.

DORMAN: Exactly.

FAXON: If we had the old clubs and the old balls, Tiger, Ernie and Vijay would still be the best players.

FAY: That's the key. I first met Byron Nelson in 1979. I was really young and eager and had all these questions. I said, 'How do you think you'd do today against the very best?' He said something that applies to boxing, tennis, construction, writing, whatever. 'You can only be the best of your time, and I'm convinced I could be among the best of my time if I were playing today.' That's how most athletes would feel. You can only be the best of your time.

SI: Brad, so you don't believe there should be a tournament ball?

FAXON: Absolutely no way. It's a pipe dream. No amateur I've played with is going to buy a ball that goes 20 yards shorter, so they wouldn't use the same product as the pros. Bifurcation would never work.

DORMAN: I have a slightly different view. If the rulemakers mandate that there be a tour ball, then what would happen is that some people would want to test themselves and say, 'Maybe I can play as well as Faxon,' or 'I can hit a shot like Tiger,' and there would be a limited market for such a product.

FAY: There was a fallacy years ago that the so-called game-improvement clubs would help the less skilled and that the more skilled players would probably stay away from them. The biggest difference I perceive in the game today is not power, it's the ability to score, the play on and around the green. There's nothing new about distance. Go back every century and there have been stories about the ball.

SHACKELFORD: But in the last few years there has been a significant increase in distance. Suddenly equipment is becoming as vital as skill.

FAY: I don't agree with that. For the sake of argument, let's say that you have a different ball, or a different sized club, or V-grooves rather than square grooves, at a certain level. Do you think more people are going to say, 'You know, golf's an interesting sport. I'm going to watch it on TV'? Or, 'Golf's an interesting sport, I'm going take it up'?

SHACKELFORD: People could relate to the game again. A lot of people who play can't relate to a tour pro's game.

FAY: Someone who is 75 years old probably can't relate. Chuck Bednarik probably thinks all NFL players are wimps because they don't play offense and defense. The sport has changed, but all healthy sports change.

SHACKELFORD: So why are more people quitting the game?

FAY: There is a sport that hasn't changed in 500 years. It's not tennis. It's called court tennis. You have about 100 people who play it, and the equipment is still the same. Why are people giving up golf? Not because it's uninteresting but because of lifestyle. People have more choices and, unfortunately, we live in a 24/7 world that's Blackberry-driven, iPod-driven. Every sport is going to get pushed a bit.

FAXON: Pre-9/11, pre-stock market crash, we didn't have a thought in the world that the game was going south. We were building courses like crazy. Things have changed. People are thinking twice about spending $500 on a driver. The growth of the game has slowed, but I don't think golf is worse off because of it.

FAY: I'm not trying to bash the USGA of old, but a lot of people--how does George Straight put it?--are in love with an image time is bound to see through.

DORMAN: First time I've heard George Straight quoted.

SI: Why aren't the scores changing?

SHACKELFORD: It gets back to Shinnecock. The courses are being asked to address the situation.

FAXON: What's wrong with that?

SHACKELFORD: Because golf has the largest, most complicated venues in sports. It's irresponsible to ask them to adjust so that Wall Street can continue to see earnings growth.

FAY: It's not as if the length of courses has expanded dramatically. Write down these numbers: In 1925 the U.S. Open was played at Worcester Country Club. It was 6,400 yards, par 71. Forty years later, 1965, the Open was at Bellerive. It was 7,181 yards, par 70. In 2003 we went to Olympia Fields. It was 7,180 yards, par 70. One yard less. The reality is that there are very few championship courses beyond 7,200 yards. If you had taken as a mathematical exercise what happened in the '20s and kept adding distance, one could argue that today's championship course should be 7,600 yards, par 75. That hasn't happened.

SI: The subtitle to Geoff's book is How Golf Lost Its Way. Has it really?

FAY: Golf hasn't lost its way.

SHACKELFORD: [Laughing] Things have never been better!

FAY: The variety of courses, the variety of equipment, the amount of golf on TV, the periodicals devoted to the game--those are all pluses.

DORMAN: There are people who say that music sounded richer, warmer, better on 33-rpm albums. Wax. Today the same people are carrying around iPods listening to digital music. Music, the way you listen to it, has changed. Golf has changed somewhat, but it has retained all of its elemental challenges. I am sometimes taken aback by certain things--the overcommercialization at events, and I'm in commerce--but overall, I think the game is in good shape.

SHACKELFORD: Everything that's going on in the game is driving up the cost. Golf is becoming more elitist. Why isn't everyone concerned?

FAY: How can you say golf is more elitist? Everything argues against that. Before any of us came along, the game was private. It's completely different now.

SHACKELFORD: The average greens fee at a top 100 course is almost $200. It's obscene what people spend.

FAY: On everything. Americans would say it's obscene that we have gas at $2 and rising. Yes, golf is expensive, but so is every other leisure experience.

SI: Suggestions for improving the game?

SHACKELFORD: Caddying is essential. We need to get kids caddying again. That way they'll be watching, learning and making money. They'd also be getting exercise and meeting people.

DORMAN: I met a fellow from Oregon who had a fantastic idea, to my way of thinking. He thinks we should develop a nationwide mentoring program whereby people who are members of clubs mentor kids from the 20/20 program. You bring them to your club to learn about the game. They soak in things that they wouldn't ordinarily see.

FAXON: PGA Tour players are accused of having no personality. I would love to find a way to get the guys to show their personalities more as they play. They're just normal guys and a lot of fun. Yes, it's competition and your livelihood. But it's also entertainment.

FAY: We're talking about how to get more people involved in the game. That wasn't even on the radar screen 30 years ago.

I was watching on television when [Fay] came on and said that, by mistake, the 7th green had been rolled. To anyone watching, it seemed as if things were out of control. -SHACKELFORD

I love Andy North, but when I first came on Tour, he used to say things like, 'Boy, could this guy play. Boy, he was the best shotmaker I've ever seen.' -FAXON

We want to make sure that hitting the fairway is important. For example, next year at the 6th hole at Winged Foot West, I'd like to see the rough eight inches high. -FAY

The tennis analogy has been worn out by [USGA senior technical director] Dick Rugge, who is constantly comparing tennis to golf. It's not an apt analogy.  -DORMAN


Photographs by STEPHEN WILKES




Shinnecock Hills had to be watered during the final round last year.




North, the '78 Open champ, said players used to be more complete.




The USGA deplored Singh's '04 driver-wedge strategy.




Critics liken power golf to Sampras's game: It's dull.


Photographs by STEPHEN WILKES