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Chicks Dig the Long Ball, But Are Courses Getting Carried Away?

By Shane Sharp, Contributor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The war between golf courses and golf equipment, if you haven't noticed, is on.

"Design me a 7400-yard golf course," says the golf course owner to the golf course architect.

"Design me a 500 cubic centimeter, world beater driver," says the CEO of a golf club manufacturer to the head of his research department.

"Cease fire!" cries the United States Golf Association and the Sierra Club, but the noise from the battle drowns out these meek cries for equipment regulation and land preservation.

Did you notice during the Buick Invitational a couple weeks ago that Torrey Pines had been stretched out to 7400 yards? You'll also notice in a few weeks that Augusta National, which has had more alterations than Madonna's image, has been lengthened, too.

But what's a course to do? Nike claims that David Duval hits the ball 20 yards longer with its new forged driver. Duval could already jack it 300 plus yards, so this, in effect, is like telling Barry Bonds he's perfectly welcome to cork his bat. Tom Watson regularly hits the ball 300 yards now, and he's on the Senior Circuit. Some senior, huh?

It's a tiresome game of cause and effect, this golf course vs. equipment battle, but many in the golf industry think the war will continue on until some regulations are put into place.

"The equipment thing is probably not going to end, and the only way you'll be able to make it end is with lawsuits," says Florida based golf course architect Ron Garl. "The USGA didn't have any success with suing Ping, or regulating Nike. And at the professional level the PGA Tour needs to be the leader, but they are not."

Garl, who recently designed two new courses in Florida that weigh in around 7000 yards, believes that the length game will come to an end eventually. The majority of golf course projects involve real estate, and the more land that is used for the course, the less land is available for building homes, he points out. Garl also thinks that environmental restrictions in water starved states like Florida and Arizona will come into play, but he says that doesn't mean some developers won't keep forging ahead.

"We have not topped out on how long golf courses are going to be," he says. "How long is it before someone designs an 8000-yard golf course? It won't be me, but someone might do it for publicity. For the most part, we can only add so much, even in remodels, to the length of the golf course. Our primary responsibility is to protect par, and I think we'll have to continue to do that by narrowing landing areas the further you get from the tee."

Let's face it: nine out of 10 recreational golfers couldn't place a 300-yard drive in the middle of the fairway in 100 tries. So when it comes to the course vs. equipment war, we are really talking about two different battle fronts.

The first involves professional golfers who have the skills to slaughter a golf course when handed the keys to toaster oven sized woods and unlimited access to golf balls that fly further than migrating birds, and spin like a top on speed.

The second involves recreational golfers, who when handed a new golf ball with 20 extra yards of distance, will probably proceed to deposit it 40 yards deeper into the woods (20 yards from the ball, and 20 yards from the new 500 cc driver).

"I don't know how much longer they are, but they sure feel longer," says recreational golfer Jeff Lackey after polishing off 18 holes at True Blue Golf Course in Pawleys Island, S.C.

Try a few hundred yards, Jeff. In a sampling of courses that opened in Myrtle Beach over the past ten years, the average length from the back tees was 6850 yards, and a number of courses featured tees set beyond 7000 yards. Courses that opened before 1980 averaged 6715 yards from the back of the bus, and a number of pre-1970 courses stretched no further than 6600 yards.

These numbers also discount the fact that most older courses have been remodeled, at some point, and the layouts expanded from the back tees in order to stay competitive with the newer "championship" tracts.

"Courses are getting longer here, you just need to look at the new ones to see that," says Robert Spangler, head professional at the Tradition Golf Club in Pawleys Island. "But some of this equipment could actually backfire on the average player. It will make their bad shots even worse."

Spangler is one of the few insiders that actually thinks the end of the ever-expanding golf course era is approaching.

"I think we've topped out on how long golf courses are going to be, and even though we have all this new, advanced equipment, most golfers are not going to get better," he says.

Another key factor that could limit course length in the future is maintenance costs. More golf course, more turf; more turf, more mowers; more mowers, more employees and so on and so forth.

On the equipment front, however, one needs only visit the local golf shop to see that there is no end in sight. If golf courses are slowly making their way towards 7,500 yards, then golf balls and clubs are sprinting away and pushing the envelope on a yearly basis. Garl, for one, believes that improvements in equipment, unlike gains in golf course length, have an upside.

"Now, there are pluses to the technology side, and we have to recognize that," Garl says. "It has made the game more enjoyable for people and the more they enjoy it, the more they play. The more they play, the better off we all are. And most importantly, it has kept the senior golfer in the game. We advertise this as a game for a lifetime, and nothing is making that more possible than equipment."

Talk Back: Are golf courses getting too long, and is the equipment industry forging ahead unchecked? Send Senior Editor Shane Sharp your take at charlottebureau@yahoo.com, and we'll post it next week as part of our reader mailbag.

Shane SharpShane Sharp, Contributor

Shane Sharp is vice president of Buffalo Communications, a golf and lifestyle media agency. He was a writer, senior writer and managing editor of TravelGolf.com from 1997 to 2003.

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