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The changing face of golf

Amazing how time flies. A year ago Ernie Els surprised us all by winning the The Open at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s and in a blink the traditional “third weekend in July” set aside for golf’s oldest championship is upon us again.

This time the great and the good of the game will descend on Muirfield, just up the Firth of Forth coastline from Edinburgh.

Els will be a double defender in that he is the most recent winner of the Claret Jug and also the winner when The Open was last staged at Muirfield.

Els, having recently won the BMW International Open in impressive fashion in Germany, will be one of the favourites and an unavoidable side issue will be the putter he uses.

When Els last year holed a 5-meter birdie putt on the 18th green to win The Open at age 42 he became the third Major champion using a belly putter, joining Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson. In addition the man Els vanquished, Adam Scott, was wielding an even longer broomstick putter.

Significantly, the day after Els’ triumph R&A secretary Peter Dawson and USGA executive director Mike Davis were in the news discussing what golf’s governing bodies were going to do about long putters by introducing Rule 14-1b prohibiting the use of anchored strokes.

The administrators were adamant that Els’ win had not precipitated the debate but soon a 90-day comment period was in place for objections against the outlawing of anchored putters to be lodged, and on May 21, 2013, just days after Adam Scott had swept the greens at Augusta with his long putter to win the US Masters, Rule 14-1b was approved and adopted to take effect on 1 January 2016.

Golfers will be able to continue to use belly length and long putters, provided they do so without anchoring the club. A wide variety of gripping styles, putter types and swing methods will remain permissible but as the rule makers pointed out it was imperative “to preserve one of the important traditions and challenges of the game – that the player freely swing the entire club.”

The Open, being so closely associated with the history of golf, tends to focus attention on underlying issues within the game and this will not be the first time a question of equipment draws attention.

The 1902 Open was the second staged at Royal Liverpool (Hoylake) and won by Sandy Herd, but the real significance was that Herd used a Haskell or rubber-cored ball.

Walter Travis had used one of Coburn Haskell’s “Bounding Billies”, a ball with an outer plastic cover over wound strips of elastic, to win the 1901 US Amateur, but Herd's victory while using a Haskell marked the first victory in (what are now known as) a Major with what is now recognised as the first modern golf ball.

In a short time, the Haskell ball drove the previous generation's gutta-percha ball (fashioned out of the rubbery sap from trees found in Malaysia) out of the game and complaints that Herd had had an unfair advantage because of the greater consistency and distance he achieved evaporated.

The wound ball would hold sway until 2000 when Tiger Woods was a runaway winner of the US Open at Pebble Beach using a solid ball constructed of latex.

The Open was also the scene of the introduction of a club today known as a sandwedge.

Club designers had been struggling for years to come up with a club that would work out of sand. Solutions like concave faces that could scoop the ball out and extremely deep and wide grooves that would impart spin when the ball was picked clean were quickly ruled illegal.

Enter Gene Sarazen who, inspired by the way a boat's bow plowed through water, soldered a flange to the bottom of a niblick (an iron used for pitching) to create a heavier club with what is now known as “bounce.”

The club changed forever the technique for hitting shots from sand. Nearly three quarters of a century later, the most popular sandwedges in the game are essentially the same design.

Sarazen, the man who struck “the shot that was heard around the world” when he made an albatross two at the 15th at Augusta en route to winning the US Masters in 1935 and the first to register a “Grand Slam” of all four major championships, put the club into play (while keeping it secret during preliminary practice rounds) at the British Open at Prince’s Golf Club in 1932 and went on to win the championship. He called it his “sand iron.”

But for all the changes in equipment and efforts to contain them by lengthening the course, Muirfield will in essence still be the same nondescript, wind-swept piece of links-land that has challenged and baffled golfers since 1892 when Harold Hilton won what was then the first 72-hole Open championship.

The one thing you can bank on is that once again it will produce a worthy “champion golfer of the year.”

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