Did you catch any of the final day’s play on the Old Course last Sunday? It was the denouement of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and while I was delighted that Frenchman Victor Perez procured his maiden professional win it was the pro-am team competition that really captured the imagination. The McIlroys, Rory and Dad Gerry, were in hot pursuit of Tommy Fleetwood and his amateur partner Ogden Phipps who set the clubhouse lead at 39 under par. Rory finished with six consecutive birdies, finally providing the support to Gerry’s stellar play, to tie the leaders. Family McIlroy had to settle for second, however, as the tiebreak was decided by the better professional score and Tommy had finished at 19 under to Rory’s 15.Still, it was a lovely 60th birthday present for Gerry. My interest was piqued, however, when Sky Sports’ Tim Barter asked Rory if the duo would play next year for Gerry’s 61st birthday. “I don’t have any real ambition to play again. I’m happy enough with what we’ve done,” came the reply.
I found that a little puzzling until I read later of the Ulsterman’s criticism of the European Tour course set-ups as being too easy. He stated: “…if the European Tour want to put forth a really good product the golf courses and set-ups need to be tougher.” He added: “There are no penalties for bad shots” and “I don’t feel like good golf is regarded as well as it could be.” He summed up his frustrations with this: “I’m honestly sick of coming back over to the European Tour, shooting 15 under par and finishing 30th.”
Well said, Rory! But I’d go further. It’s not the set-up of the courses that needs to change first. Rather, it’s time for a serious reining in of the equipment and time, I think, for a tournament ball for professional play. That’d be a good start. Why can’t each manufacturing company be charged with producing a ball that is defined by rigorous conditions which would primarily limit distance? That way the great courses can still be played as their designers intended without the need for adding ridiculous length.
It’s the prodigious distances that the modern professional hits the ball and the fact that many tournament venues require nothing more than a 9-iron second shot at par 4s that make many of the tests too easy. The artificial “tricking up” of some of our great venues, purely to increase the difficulties for the professionals, is not the answer.
So, that leads us to a word much reviled by the powers-that-be – bifurcation. This would mean accepting two sets of rules, one for the pros and one for the amateurs. Allow the amateurs to take advantage of all the technological advances there are with clubs and balls – but not the professionals. The advancement of today’s equipment makes it difficult for the really top players to separate themselves from the pack.
The supreme skills required to be a really good long-iron player or to have the ability to move the ball both ways are dying out due to the test the pros face on a weekly basis. The current recipe for success is hit it as hard and far as you can, be a good wedge player and have a good short game. That’s fine, but what happened to the skills of playing mid- and long-irons into par 4s and sometimes from straggly rough that gives the player a sporting chance? More searching than bomb-and-gouge from ankle deep stuff.
Strategy will play a bigger part too. The modern game is becoming boring to watch and rounds are taking forever, not least because of the courses being stretched to their limits. Rein back the equipment, limit the ball and the skills required will subtly alter, making the sport multi-dimensional and watchable again and our great courses will remain relevant. Bifurcation is not a dirty word, it’s a beautiful word.
Changing tack slightly, my great pal Mary McKenna and I were guests of Mo Richmond at her Ladies’ Captain’s Day and Dinner last week at Royal Liverpool. I didn’t realise that they had actually partnered each other in Curtis Cup foursomes many moons ago but I always knew they were two of the best amateurs that these islands have ever produced. They could each have made a success in the professional ranks but chose to follow other career paths and, according to them both, without any regrets whatsoever.
We were royally entertained and had a lovely evening swapping golfing stories and experiences with a very vibrant, jolly membership, some of whom we’d known for decades and some of whom we met for the first time that evening. I think I speak for everyone present when I say we could listen all night to Mary Mc, whose passion for the game is undimmed. These get-togethers are to be treasured and once again I found myself silently sending thanks to Mum and Dad for introducing me to the greatest game of all.