Technology isn't necessarily progress, and progress isn't always good. Examples abound: The "new" Coke, the DeLorean, paperless ballots and golf.
You can be anti-technology when it comes to golf, without being one of those uncompromising purists who thinks we should go back to hickory shafts. Which of us doesn't long for the days when a par 4 was supposed to be played . . . in four strokes? Now, thanks to megabrute drivers designed to maximize something called the "co-efficient of restitution," and jumped-up balls made with the aid of computer launch monitors, a par on the PGA Tour is 21/2 strokes. Spin rates have taken some of the "sport" out of the sport, and made it a little less human and revealing.
At the Western Open this week, organizers have finally given up and knocked par down from 72 to 71. Why? Because there is just no point in pretending anymore. The field consistently slays the 7,073-yard course at Cog Hill Golf Club -- witness Tiger Woods's victory there last year at 21 under. The par-5 fifth hole was practically a gimme eagle. So here's what they've done. They've shortened the hole to 480 yards, and they're calling it a par 4. This is what's termed "protecting" the golf course.
If you want to watch golf as it's meant to be played, you'll have to watch the U.S. Women's Open. Who didn't feel a rush of nostalgia seeing Laura Davies hit driver, 3-iron on the 16th hole at The Orchards in Thursday's opening round? You got the feeling, watching women hit into that 439-yard par 4 at The Orchards, a gorgeous antique of a course designed by Donald Ross in 1922, that originally-intended mathematical values had been restored. Who says it's supposed to be easy to reach every par 4 in two?
It certainly was at the 18th hole at Shinnecock: In 1995, Corey Pavin needed a 4-wood to reach the green and win the men's U.S. Open. This year, Woods was pitching there.
(No wonder some spectators hooted with delight when they saw players putting into bunkers on the hardened, sun-baked par-3 seventh hole at Shinnecock during the final round. It wasn't that those spectators were sadists. It was that they desired to see the game rehumanized -- why shouldn't players, who earn millions of dollars put up by other people, suffer and struggle a bit?)
It's too convenient, and it's wrong, to blame the evils of science. Technology can be a marvelous and ingenious thing: Lickless stamps prove that. As Steven Infanti, vice president of public affairs at Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University, points out, innovations from federal labs make their way into the sports world all the time and make it better.
Just a few examples: NASCAR is both faster and safer thanks to space flight. A high-performance lubricant developed for the Shuttle launch pad has been used in NASCAR cars. Polarized lenses originally meant for space helmets help drivers see better. In 1968 NASA scientists began work on a padding concept for airplane seats, and came up with a foam material that's now used in wheelchairs, X-ray exam table pads, off road vehicle seats, ski boots and football helmets.
(Then there are those inventions that could be argued either way. Like Global Positioning systems in rental cars. "I'd kind of like to have one of those," my friend David says. "A voice in the car that is not whining, screaming or saying, 'I have to tinkle.' ")
The real problem with golf is not science itself, but that it's been applied to the game so rampantly by equipment companies interested only in selling the "newest" clubs and balls for ever higher prices. They don't care if Augusta is stretched to the point of ruin, or if a 480-yard hole has to be turned into a par 4. They just want to move product.
In no other sport are the equipment manufacturers so influential when it comes to how the game is played. Spalding and Nike don't control basketball. But the equipment companies in golf have enormous sway via advertising and sponsorship dollars, and they are the chief obstacle to reform. A prime example is the golf ball. Even 7-irons now fly 190 yards, thanks to the juiced-up golf ball, and every player knows it, most notably Jack Nicklaus, who for years has advocated more rigid standards and specifications.
It's not anti-progress to say unfettered technology can harm a sport. No one suggests Major League Baseball allow aluminum bats. But suggest that there should be one set of equipment rules for pro golfers and one set for amateurs, and the manufacturers go crazy. Why? Because they profit on the layman's desire to buy what the pros use. And should the USGA try to force them to reform, they can threaten to sue.
But clearly, the governing bodies of golf are going to have to step in. The organizers of the Masters tournament have already threatened to. In 2002, Augusta National underwent a renovation that stretched it from 6,985 yards to 7,290 yards, and it's stretched out. As a result, Augusta may develop its own deadened golf ball. A source at the club told Ron Sirak of Golf World in a recent magazine article that Augusta wants to identify a "threshold" of appropriate distance and roll back the technology. Every player that wants to enter the Masters would have to use the same ball.
We've reached a point where advances in design are not enhancing the game, but diminishing it and stripping it of subtlety. Ironically, for all of their "advances," the equipment companies are being short-sighted. "How entertaining will a driver-wedge tour be?" Sirak asks. Answer: not very.