Here’s another one of those debates you could have the next time you’re walking down the fairway with the rest of your foursome:
Which advancement has been more important to golf in the last 50 years?
The equipment …
… Or the physical ability of the players.
The reflexive answer is equipment. That’s all we ever hear about. The ball flies farther. The clubs are more lethal. Combine the two, and you’ve got an incredible difference.
But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I wonder if it’s an even bigger deal, literally as well as figuratively, that there are so many muscled-up players at the upper levels of our great game.
It all started with Tiger Woods, of course. He was the first to really hit the weights and show off chiseled abs.
Before Tiger came along, the typical good golfer was short, supple and sometimes just plain fat. It often was said that golfers shouldn’t lift weights, lest they get too muscle-bound and lose their feel for the game. Watching exactly that happen to a roommate kept me out of the weight room for years.
Not every golfer is as chiseled as Brooks Koepka, who made news recently when he posed in the buff for ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. But there sure are more like him than not.
That has had a trickle-down effect. Young players see guys like Koepka and Dustin Johnson pounding the ball and read up on their fitness routines, then strive to do the same thing.
You see it on The Golf Channel all the time. The fitness of the people in the long-drive contests is incredible – they’re basically body-builders who play golf. Everyone talks about swing speed and torque and all the other factors that make the ball go real far.
I was reminded of all this yet again today. I was in a group with another one of those hard-hitting young guys whose shots seem to hang in the air for an extra two or three seconds. It was humbling. It was fascinating. And it made me reminisce.
Even in my younger days, when I was called “Kong” and moved the ball a long way, I never hit it like that. Never. Not close.
Yes, the equipment was different. The woods were actually made of wood. The clubheads were much smaller. The ball didn’t fly as far. We didn’t have any of these modern advantages.
But I know for a fact that even though I practically swung out of my shoes, I still didn’t swing as hard as young players today – and they make it look so effortless.
Which leads me to another declaration: I would suggest that most of the top players around 1969 simply couldn’t compete with today’s best pros.
I have no doubt that Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino could hang in there with them. But I think if the 50 best pros today played the top 50 in those days, the current generation would take about 45 of the first 50 spots – maybe more.
This is true of so many sports. Look at how much the records in track and field have dropped over the years. (Remember how it used to be a big deal to run a four-minute mile? Now that’s slow.) Look at how much bigger and stronger football and basketball players are.
Every single sport has better equipment. Every single one. But every single one also has better nutrition and training, and that makes an even bigger difference.
At least that’s my contention. Sure, the equipment can make you feel like Superman. But the pros are playing 530-yard par-4s now because many of them ARE like Superman.