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As critics take aim, shots fly in ball debate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is only one point upon which both sides of the Great Golf Ball Debate can agree: A very difficult game has been made easier, and more enjoyable, to a greater number of players.

From players who could barely break 100 to Tiger Woods, the overall skill level from the PGA Tour down to member-guest events at local country clubs has improved markedly.

The answer is easily found: the number of high-tech, albeit high-priced, golf balls that have flooded the market in the past year alone. If they all could have one motto, it would be: longer, straighter - and lower scores.

"The focus of every golfer was always trying to maximize and optimize their own distance," said Ed Abrain, president of Titleist. "I don't understand those who want to scale back the distance. Is hitting the ball out of Fenway Park suddenly going to become an out?"

Abrain, whose company's Pro V1 ball has become the hottest seller on a hot market, was responding to a statement made by legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus during and again after this year's Masters. Nicklaus has called for the PGA Tour or the U.S. Golf Association to cut back the distance balls travel by about 10 percent.

But Nicklaus said it should be done only on the professional level.

"The game for the average golfer is meant to be pleasurable," Nicklaus said. "He's not out there to beat the world. You can always move back to the next tee. For the professional golfer, where does he go when the golf course is playing shorter?"

It has led to interesting discussions among designers trying to figure out how to make their courses challenging enough, not only for tournament players but also for low-handicap players and scratch golfers whose games have outgrown the typical 6,500-yard layouts.

At the annual meeting of the Society of Golf Course Architects this year in Columbus, Ohio, Nicklaus recalled "our biggest conversations all week had to do with technology."

In fact, one of the architects Nicklaus works with, Lyle Anderson, recently called him to say that courses they had built together in the past 15 years were quickly becoming obsolete.

Phil Haas, who owns a golf equipment store in Bethesda and is host of a weekly radio show at WTEM in Rockville, said the improvement in technology has been a boon to the sport because "it allows the recreational player to get to a level of proficiency very quickly."

That's if he or she can get his hands on the right equipment. Just as the big-headed drivers-du-jour were often difficult to find when those clubs were first being distributed, the Pro VI and the other $50-a-dozen balls often sell out as fast as they hit the shelf.

Not that the new, soft-covered golf balls are good for everyone. The softer the cover, the easier it will be to ding and dent by not hitting perfect shots. (There's also the possibility of losing them, which makes it a lot easier when slicing a tee shot with a $2 ball into the woods.)

Noted golf course designer Rees Jones has made his reputation in turning older, more traditional courses into modern major championship venues, such as the Atlanta Athletic Club for this year's PGA Championship and the Black Course at Bethpage State Park on New York's Long Island for next year's U.S. Open.

"If the golf course can be set up with a little rough and a little transition [undulation or tiering] in the greens, you shouldn't have to worry about length," Jones said. "This isn't new. Even back when my dad [Robert Trent Jones Sr.] was doing Open courses, people were talking about this. It has been a concern since the advent of golf."

Many courses are now being built with multiple tee boxes, as many as five to give players who want the challenge of a 7,000-yard course the opportunity to play from the back tees and those who want a less difficult 6,300-yard format from the front.

"If you are playing from the correct tees, and you're hitting good shots, it can be a very rewarding game," Haas said. "Golf is easier to pick up than it was 10 years ago."

Jones said that equipment can go only so far.

"Most recreational players are still going to hit it crooked," he said. "And you still have to get a very small ball into a very tiny hole."

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