David Howell: The New Year marks a new era for golf

Golf mirrors life in so many ways: It’s frustrating, it isn’t fair, it can give you great joy as well as real sorrow. It demands you to be accepting, calm and patient – all great values to help navigate your way through life.

Welcome to 2019 golfers of the world, and a new era of this great game. Way back, 100 years ago golf was played with hickory shafts and feathery balls, and they couldn’t mark a ball on the green and could stymie each other by blocking their opponent’s ball in its route to the hole.

Then the metal shafted club and a ball with an elasticised core revolutionised the game for a generation of golfers. The game became one of skill and touch. Hitting the ball from the centre of the clubface was the key component to good ball striking. The difference between a good and bad ball strike was huge, not only in gaining distance but also the direction of the ball. Ben Hogan dominated the game for a period, Arnold Palmer then revolutionised the game just as colour television hit our homes. It was then that Jack Nicklaus became the greatest ever professional golfer, mastering most aspects of this wonderful game on his way to amassing 18 Major championships.

The game became global and whilst its roots were in the United Kingdom, America had taken the game to heart and, for a while, their players and their Tour dominated the professional game. England’s Tony Jacklin was the first to shine from Europe, winning that all important US Open in 1970.

He led the way and others followed – Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle, Sir Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam. Our big five players dominated the Majors for a period through the 1980s and early 1990s along with one of the other truly great characters of our sport, Greg Norman, the Great White Shark. With a name like that you had better be good – and Greg was one of the best.

These players along with so many other great players carried the game until a certain Tiger Woods hit our consciousness, and boy did he make his mark. With a steel shafted driver and baggy clothing Tiger heralded the athletic era. Hitting the gym regularly became the norm, and sheer power more than anything else, was what intrigued people.

Why do I wander down Memory Lane? Well, the new Rules of Golf are in play, a very carefully considered set of changes to make the game more simple and much faster with the effect being that it would forever be just a little bit easier. Welcome to the crash-bang-wallop era, golfers.

Leave the pin in while you putt should you wish, play ready golf, and don’t worry about double hitting it. Oh, and tap down spike marks, too. In short, just play the game as you would if you’re having a casual round on your own. All these changes are sensible ones on their own, put them all together and much of the frustration that the game can throw at you is taken away. I can’t imagine many people felt that a one-shot penalty was worthy for a ball striking a player accidently – another useful omission in the new set of rules. But getting over the incredibly annoying putt that missed because of a spike mark left by someone else, was a part of the mental game that everyone up until now had to deal with.

Golf mirrors life in so many ways: It’s frustrating, it isn’t fair, it can give you great joy as well as real sorrow. It demands you to be accepting, calm and patient – all great values to help navigate your way through life. I’ve often thought that trying to master the mental side of the game of golf has helped me in life, too.

So whilst it’s a rather deep way of thinking, and whilst the next time I am standing over a tricky downhill, three-foot putt with a spike mark in my line, I may well be glad, for an instant, that I can repair the damage. I think, in the long run, I may learn to miss the harsh days of yesteryear when every little mistake made was punished so harshly that at times you could cry.

But that era has indeed gone. Golf now has to be more fun, and less penal – things that were deemed to be unfair have been now been legalised. The ball is easier to hit 300 yards by unskilled players (and those who are skilled now average 320 yards in the right conditions). The practice range has indeed been replaced by the gym and Gary Player’s long-held prediction that the more muscular, powerful athletes are coming and that 350 yard drives would become the norm has been proved right.

So, the game enters this New Year having modernised once again, just as it has throughout its history. The new rules have been set to try and encourage new golfers to get into the game, whilst holding on to the values that current players have been used to. Let’s all hope that the balance is right and that the new generation of golfers will still understand and value the old code, that golf sometimes asks of a person the toughest of questions in regard to self-rule and honesty.

The next challenge for the game is to truly make it a game for all, welcoming people from all walks of life and for all ages. The challenge as I see it, is for more established golf clubs to make the change to becoming family-friendly places, without alienating the long-standing members who have been the life blood of the game for so long.

Golf in the United States has adapted to the country club model and golf everywhere else needs to be able to cater for the youngsters better. If we can get this right, golf should be set fair for many years to come.

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