As the pro tour moved through the pines and red clay of the Greater Greensboro Open last week and on to the Masters at Augusta National, there was more and more talk among the players about a subtle but steady change in the demands of professional golf—the increasing need for power. Just days before, big Jack Nicklaus had spelled out the advantage the power hitter has at the Masters (SI, April 6). But what happens to the short hitter at Augusta—where there has been no intentional effort to make length an advantage—is nothing, some pros are saying, compared to what happens at many tour courses which have been built, or rebuilt, to put a premium on power. The short hitter is finding that many of the new courses are too long, that the penalty for error is too severe and that he does not have a real chance to win a tournament unless he plays four perfect rounds. Where power was once a luxury it is now a necessity, and those exquisite talents for finesse and technique, which created such heroes as Henry Picard and Horton Smith, have dwindled in importance beside the ability to hit a golf ball so far that the march between shots would exhaust a forest ranger.
A player's size itself is not, of course, the determining factor. Little men like Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez can be champions by lashing at the ball with controlled overswings that use every fiber of muscle to drive as far as their larger opponents. But golf's graceful short hitters, who may be a vanishing breed on the tour, resent the fact that golf course architects, caught up in the rush toward power, have all but designed them out of the game.
Perhaps the best known of the short hitters is former PGA Champion Jerry Barber. At 5 feet 5 and 137 pounds, Barber is weary of facing par-4 holes he can barely reach with two wood shots and a free throw. Outspoken and waspish about what he considers an unfair situation, he says: "Golf course architects, drunk with sand, length and big undulating greens, are running the little man right out of the game. They're not changing the size of tennis courts, they're not putting the baskets any higher, and football fields are still the same. But they feel they have to make changes in golf courses.
"What is happening," Barber continues, "is they are building courses so long and putting in so many ponds and bunkers that the short hitter has to play a defensive game. He suffers tremendously, because he has to be so careful to avoid the hazards that he doesn't dare hit the ball with all his strength. Today a golf architect doesn't think he has built a good course unless at least three of the par-3s require wood shots. They put water in front of the greens on two-thirds of the par-5 holes, so the short hitter has to lay up with a four-wood and come in with a 100-yard approach. Most of the par-4 greens are closed off with water or bunkers, so if you can't fly the ball onto the putting surface you can't score. The short hitter has to work so hard that when he finishes a tournament he thinks he doesn't know anything about golf at all."
Harsh talk, to be sure, but when a lot of pro golf's smooth, short hitters sit down in the locker room after playing well and finishing 20th in tournaments on courses like Firestone at Akron, Colonial at Fort Worth and Warwick Hills at Grand Blanc, Mich., they are saying to themselves just what Barber is saying aloud.
Consider Billy Maxwell, an affable red-haired Texan who has made a nice living on the tour, not because he can hit the ball very far but because he seldom hits it where he cannot find it. Maxwell's nice living, significantly, does not include many championships. Thirteen years ago he was the U.S. Amateur champion and he was thought to have a brilliant future in pro golf. But in the last three years he has ranked 10th, 11th and 28th on the money winners' list. He does not have enough power, and he sees things getting progressively worse for his kind of golfer.
"The game itself is changing," Maxwell said last week. "When I was growing up they would tell you not to worry about distance, just to concentrate on keeping the ball straight and in play. It's not that way anymore. The guys are going for power. In 1955, my first year on the tour, Paul Harney was the third longest hitter in golf, behind Mike Souchak and George Bayer. Harney has become a much more polished player than he was then, but he is now up against 50 guys on the tour who can hit the ball at least as far as he can. It doesn't matter anymore if you swing pretty, like the old Scotchmen wanted to. But it matters a lot how far the ball goes. It used to be that some of the longer hitters were not so good around the greens, so their power didn't give them enough of an advantage. Now most of the big hitters can chip and putt, too. The only chance us short hitters have is never to get in trouble."
The move toward longer and tougher courses began in the mid-'50s, when the pros started scoring in the 60s with regularity. Club members were embarrassed by the way the touring legions tore their courses apart. When new courses were built, OF when architects were called in for renovation jobs, the order was to get tough.
In theory, it is wonderful for a man to belong to a club known around the country for the stern quality of its golf course. The member, however, is liable to get punchy trying to walk 7,100 yards of fairway or fight his way through sand traps that would have bogged down the Afrika Korps. While old golf courses are being lengthened and toughened, new ones are being made long to begin with—sometimes for a purely commercial reason, the pros point out.
"Most new courses are built in real estate subdivisions," explains Maxwell. "Everybody wants to live on the fairway. So you get long, long fairways, and you have more fairway lots to sell. Some of these new courses are ridiculous. They look like they want to eliminate the short hitter. They're not golf courses. They're just distance. A course doesn't have to be 7,200 yards to be a test of golf. Some of them are really overdone. You take that Doral course, where we played two weeks ago. It looks like the Mojave Desert with those long holes and all that sand."
The pros who are faced with the problem claim the new trend in courses also deprives the gallery of seeing what is often the most dramatic shot in golf, the recovery. You can't hit recovery shots from a water hazard or an out-of-bounds petunia bed in some club member's front lawn.
"But recovery shots are the ones everybody remembers," says Jim Ferrier, who has been on the tour for 20 years, "the ones you hit out of something, over something and onto the green. Now when you get off line you are probably in a place nobody could get out of. The margin for error is very small, and the chance for recovery has disappeared.
"At most new courses in this country if you hit the ball off line you have to drop another one. The architects have gone water-crazy. They must have spent too much time watching Sea Hunt on television."
Barber, who depends on a delicate touch to make up for his lack of power, agrees that golf is a game of misses and recoveries.
"If you hit three or four really good shots in a round, it is a good round," Barber says. "Most golf shots are mishit but turn out well. You should not have to know courses so well that you know where to miss the ball. That is strictly defense. I've seen shots go an inch too far and roll 30 to 40 yards past the green because the architect banked the green so sharply. Courses are not built like that in Canada or England. There's one in Went-worth, England they call the Burma Road, but it's not half as hard as Firestone, where the rough is heavy, the fairways are slanted toward the bunkers and the tees are back at 7,165 yards for a par 70.
"In 1935," says Barber, "Oakland Hills [in Detroit] was one of the finest golf courses I had ever played. In 1961 at the U.S. Open I hardly recognized the place. They had added more than 60 bunkers. They had made it fit the modern pattern: everything has to be bigger and better, especially bigger."
The architects have also made putting more difficult. The touring pros say the greens now have breaks and counter-breaks that are impossible to read without special knowledge of the course.
"There are so many breaks now on short putts it will have an overall shortening effect on the careers of many fine players," says Barber, long known as one of the tour's very best putters. "The nervous strain of holing three- to six-foot putts that have almost complete breaks before they get to the hole will drive some excellent players out of the game early. The greens should be smaller, intelligently bunkered and fair. If a good reader of greens has to guess where the break will be, the architect has used trickery to keep him from scoring."
To combat the problem of longer courses, Barber has for two years been doing exercises in which he places his hands on one chair and his feet on another and sits in mid-air, raising and lowering himself rather like a man whose boat drifted away from the dock as he was stepping into it. By exercising, Barber hopes that age—he is 47—will not cost him distance off the tee. He has an accomplished short game, but any lessening of his drives—combined with the lengthening of courses—might force him to leave the tour.
The final word on the status of golf on the new power courses, though, belongs to Dutch Harrison, who was winning tournaments when bamboo shafts were the latest thing. From the vantage point of his 54 years, Harrison views the problem of the power trend realistically—and sadly for golf's short-hitting stylists. "If you can't hit the ball 260 to 280 yards off the tee and you ain't a helluva putter." says Harrison, "stay home."