No professional sport has changed the nature of the game, and the conditioning of the athletes that excel at it, quite as dramatically as men’s golf.
Let’s start with the latter point. I know this aspect well because I’m a beneficiary of the fact that 40 years ago, when I was having a modicum of success in the sport, none of the guys whom I competed against would be anxious to rip off their shirts at a co-ed beach party. The guys in my peer group of golfers were either rail thin, as I was, or had a clear layer of flab overhanging the waistlines of their double-knit beltless slacks.
Think of many of the champion golfers of the 1960s and these names come to mind: “Fat Jack” Nicklaus, “Buffalo Billy” Casper, Orville Moody, Lee Trevino. The list goes on of guys who would never be considered for underwear commercials.
Part of the reason that Arnold Palmer had such a huge fan base is because he looked athletic, and he was manly. He ripped out chest hair to test the wind. Gary Player was the only star golfer of that era who advocated weight training. Conventional wisdom back then was that bench-pressing heavy weights would ruin a golfer’s flexibility and slow down his clubhead speed. That myth has been debunked.
Today’s biggest names all look like they’ve been pressing serious iron and are auditioning for ESPN Magazine’s annual Body Issue: i.e. Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Gary Woodland, Rory McIlroy. Or if they don’t have bulging biceps or trapezius muscles, they have 32-inch waists and don’t go near a Dunkin’ Donuts: i.e. Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day.
A large reason why Funky Winkerbeans like myself were able to earn golf scholarships at major universities was that the truly gifted athletes of my generation were occupied with the three glamour sports: football, basketball and baseball. I would have played those sports too if my ribs weren’t easily counted through my shirt and my 100-yard dash time wasn’t measured by a sundial.
Never once — not one single time — was a popular girl drawn to me because I broke par in a high school golf match. The only one who cared about my scorecard was my father, and later on, a handful of college golf coaches.
Savvy fathers nowadays, employing long-range thinking for their sons, realize that having their boy play football, with its inevitable knee and shoulder injuries and the possibility of head trauma from too many concussions, offers too many risks.
Oh, there’s a chance a young man can suffer injury on a golf course, but it’s more likely from someone in a following group failing to yell “Fore,” or from rolling a golf cart on Cinco de Mayo after 3-1 margarita specials left a driver glassy-eyed.
Golf also promises lifetime recreation, whereas I don’t know a single college football player who is still dodging tackles when his competitive days are over.
As for the evolving nature of golf at the highest level, I watch tournaments on TV these days with a sense of wonder. The top pros average driving the ball 330 yards, hit eight-irons from 195, and any shot under 160 yards requires only a wedge to the pin.
In my competitive days, a good drive went 270 yards, a five-iron 175, and a wedge was used only near the green, not from the next zip code. That’s because the materials used in driving clubs and irons today is devised by NASA engineers, and the golf balls have plutonium inserts. Forty years ago we used wooden drivers and balata golf balls. If you hit a drive 300 yards in Oregon, it landed on an asphalt cart path.
When I played at the U of O, the ninth hole at Eugene Country Club was a 480-yard par-four, and only on those rare dry days could we reach the green in two shots. When current Las Vegas resident Aaron Wise won the NCAA individual and team championship for the Ducks in 2016, he hit wedge for his second shot on that hole in every round.
Golf is a totally different game today. But don’t think for a minute I’m complaining here. If scrawny nerds like myself hadn’t been given an opportunity to excel years ago, I’d still be face-timing my old pals in the high school science club, inquiring about the date of the next solar eclipse.
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