In age of the long hitters, small can be beautiful

Ancient and modern: Rulers will take their time to tackle technology issue
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Tiger Woods, after another final round that was below par in everything but the critical matter of his score, said he had once played with Todd Hamilton but he couldn't remember where or when. One thing is for sure. It wasn't at Royal Troon.

Tiger Woods, after another final round that was below par in everything but the critical matter of his score, said he had once played with Todd Hamilton but he couldn't remember where or when. One thing is for sure. It wasn't at Royal Troon.

During the course of what developed into a vintage contest for the Claret Jug at The 133rd Open Championship, Woods and Ernie Els, ranked first and second in the world, had discussions with the Royal & Ancient. They weren't complaining about the way the golf course was set up - far from it - but about the effect on the game of modern equipment.

"For the first time the leading players of the day are saying something has to be done,'' Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R & A, said after Troon had been returned to its members. It had been a talking point among former champions, but not the contemporary élite.

"They feel the gap between the great players and the good players is not as big as it was with the older equipment,'' Dawson reported. "Equipment may play its part, but the fact is there are more players at the top level than ever before and they are working harder at their games.''

Serial winners of The Open have become a thing of the past unless, of course, Mr Hamilton conjures a resounding encore at St Andrews in 12 months' time, by which point he will be immeasurably richer and looking forward to his 40th birthday. The received wisdom is that the Old Course at the spiritual home of golf is particularly vulnerable to space-age technology (the modern stuff has probably moved on from the by-products of Nasa) in the absence of a healthy breeze. Any old R & A blazer will tell you that a links without wind is like a tonic without half a bottle of Gordon's and angostura bitters.

In that sense Troon came with a large aperitif, and was all the more fortified for it. Yet, in the light of Hamilton's tenacious victory, it was not the best week for Woods and Els to point out that modern technology was a great leveller.

Hamilton did not so much hammer his way round Troon as tiptoe over the course with a play-safe strategy that was brilliantly conceived and executed. It was not his long game that enabled him to defy Troon and then Els in a four-hole play-off but a magnificent short game. Hamilton, a journeyman who caught up with the gravy train, said he was not a great ball-striker but he knew how to play smart.

At the first play-off hole he hit a mid-iron off the tee and found himself a considerable distance behind Els, who had smashed a huge drive which finished just short of the green. Advantage Els, but the hole was shared in regulation fours. It was at the par-three 17th that Els made his fatal error, missing the green left and missing his putt for par.

It is the example of Troon's most famous short hole, the 123-yard Postage Stamp - where Els had a hole in one in the first round - that should concentrate the minds of the governing bodies and the course designers. Small can be beautiful. Some defenders of the faith, such as Pat Ruddy, who designed and runs the European Club in Ireland, an impressive addition to the links collection, accuse the R & A of dereliction of duty in failing to control the revolution in hi-tech clubs and balls. In the absence of new rules - the R & A and the USGA are understandably wary of getting bogged down in possible legal action with the club manufacturers - championships are now invariably played on courses that get longer and longer.

Initially it was a knee-jerk reaction to Tiger's disdainful treatment of some of the finest playgrounds, but the effect is that the game has gone from a stylish saloon to a stretch limo. With more and more land required, the worry is that established courses are in danger of becoming obsolete. The change from wooden clubs to steel, carbon, titanium or even Kevlar was inevitable. Wood has the same density throughout, with a small centre of gravity. Metal allows the manufacturers much more scope, particularly in enlarging the club face, providing a wider "sweet spot''.

Arnold Palmer, who has designed courses all over the world, is not opposed to modern clubs but says the authorities should look at the design of golf balls. "The increased strength and stature of today's generation has made length a controversial focus,'' Palmer said. "Great concern has been expressed that many courses aren't long enough to test all sides of the players' games. I have no problem with club technology because it makes it more enjoyable for all golfers, not just professionals. Why shouldn't we employ new methods to make it easier for the average players? The length problem can be solved by putting restrictions on balls, so that no matter what is done with the clubs, the balls cannot be hit as far as the best Tour players hit them today. I've been lobbying the ruling bodies to mandate this before things get out of hand.''

In an attempt to defend the reputation of Shinnecock Hills at the US Open, the USGA left themselves open to ridicule when a combination of conditions and pin placements made putting a lottery and there were very few ticket-holders. Royal Troon, on the other hand, was regarded as scrupulously fair, although the winning score of 10 under par was two strokes worse than Justin Leonard's aggregate seven years ago. On that occasion, Troon was becalmed. Also, last week the pin positions were more severe.

After listening to the arguments of Woods and Els (the South African is more concerned about tackling the issue of long putters), Dawson remains cautious. "Modern equipment is something we need to pay attention to, but getting it right is more important than rushing to judgement. We only get one chance at this. We can't go on tinkering for ever.''

In the meantime, golf should be looking to open a first-class book of Postage Stamps.