Our Town: New game of golf threatens Winged Foot

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"What happens to golf when the great courses become obsolete?"

The world may be in perpetual pause but not so for golf, especially major golf. Despite the lack of crowd roars, the USGA managed to serve up a narrative unlike any seen in recent history. This weekend we had the year’s most important major, the U.S. Open, being played at historic Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and like a script right out of central casting we had a chance to watch two players who could not have been more opposite in style of play or in demeanor.

On stage right enters Patrick Reed, who has been variously referred to as “Houdini,” “The Natural,” “Captain America” and “the Magician.” Leading golf gurus refer to his swing as having the best transition in the game and those in the know watch him carefully as he warms up on the range, hoping to pick up a little magic. He is called “The Natural” because his swing looks anything but manufactured. He is said to possess the best pair of hands in golf. He is called “Captain America” because like a true American he is independent, thrives under pressure and has a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to the game. He is called “The Magician” because no matter what kind of lie he has in the rough he can get up and down from any spot he is in.

And who should enter on stage left but golf’s newest boy wonder, Bryson James Aldrich DeChambeau. DeChambeau is the ultimate science guy, applying a variety of analytics to help improve his game. He employs every means of technology, including biomechanical experts to understand optimal swing speeds and dietary and medical experts in order to transform his body from a tall slender man into a version of hulk. Golf has never seen the likes of this kind of muscle. He makes the fitness fanaticism of Tiger Woods look like the laziness of a couch potato.

As the week unfolded and Saturday rolled around, the head-to-head battle between Patrick ”The Natural” Reed vs. Bryson “The Machine” DeChambeau” came to a head as DeChambeau began to make an embarrassment of famed Winged Foot. DeChambeau’s strategy was to power over every bunker and tree on the grounds in order to have baby flip wedges into short par fours.

DeChambeau’s unique strategy paid off in the end and he went on to dominate the course and the field and won by 6. True there were no adoring fans to applaud him, but that may be for the best. How could a crowd manage to avoid being smacked in the head by one of his missiles falling from the heavens.

There were no cheers created by DeChambeau, but in the place of applause came the ultimate black swan event for professional golf. And this DeChambeau crisis was both predictable and problematic.

Way back in 1904 Henry Adams wrote the famous essay “A Law of Acceleration” in which he said that the increasingly rapid growth in technology and in mechanical advances coupled with human ingenuity was like a speeding comet which could not be stopped and which humans could not escape from riding on. And this is just what we see in this U.S. Open and Winged Foot.

By employing every possible means of technology to improve,  DeChambeau has managed to single-handedly create a crisis for golf. The simple fact is that these famous golf courses are set in nature and no matter how the USGA tries to modify or toughen up things, the course is the course is the course. The great courses in the world were designed more than 100 years ago and they largely remain the way they were first designed. And if you think you can do much to improve upon their design, that’s like saying “Well, the Mona Lisa seems kind of outdated so let’s bring in a new painter and spruce her up a bit.” Ugh!

Bryson Aldrich DeChambeau has escalated a crisis that has been many years in the making. Technological improvements in equipment coupled with analytics, fitness and diet have threatened the way golf is played on the best courses in the world. Thus the USGA has a big crisis on its hands.

For too long the world of golf liked to scapegoat Patrick Reed for being too brash, too funny with his shushing gestures and too independent. But seemingly overnight golf has found itself with another bad boy or should I say “Big Boy.” And this “Big Boy” has just presented the world of golf with a crisis that is not going away. As Henry Adam said over 100 years ago, we cannot stop progress from speeding along. And no one is going to be able to slow down DeChambeau’s club head speed either.

So now the powers that be must hunker down and try to figure out what to do about all this and if they don’t, not only will the character of the game be destroyed but so will the priceless playing fields such as Winged Foot, Shinnecock Hills and Augusta National. And that scenario is a nasty one to entertain.

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