Set-fair ways of a different ball game

Peter Corrigan hears a golf legend advocate action to limit ball technology
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The meanly narrow fairways and magnetic rough of Royal Troon have offered naught for the comfort of the golfers competing for the 126th Open but Peter Thomson, who was champion on five occasions, still feels that the trend is tilting dangerously towards making the game less of a test than it was.

A bit of a tiger himself in the 1950s - he won three successive Opens before he was 27 years old - Thomson is also inclined to apportion part of the blame on the players. "When you allow professionals to influence the management of the game, they will instinctively elect to make things more comfortable for themselves," he says.

Thomson, now 67 and part of the BBC TV commentary team at Troon, would not be the first sporting veteran to harp on about how much harder things were in his day but he has long been a strong and influential presence in the game and is a founder member of a growing faction who believe that action should be taken to rein back the distances the pros are hitting the ball. He believes that the answer lies in ordering a change in ball technology and ceasing the search for perfection in fairway turf.

"I've been coming to The Open for 46 years and only such a person can see by how much things have changed," he said. "For instance, the modern ball is hardly affected by the wind. The smaller version that we used to play with was very difficult to control when the wind blew and a great deal more skill was needed. In those days the courses were at the mercy of the weather and the condition of the fairways varied considerably; now they're approaching the time when every shot will be hit from a perfect lie."

Thomson forsees the development of a tournament ball that is different from the balls used by club golfers. Designed to strict specifications, it would probably weigh less and have a different dimple pattern. Liable to be more affected by the wind it would not travel as far as the modern ball and be less easy to control.

"We had assumed that the existing restrictions would be enough to prevent improvements in the distance the ball travels. But technology has advanced so fast the modern balls are aero-dynamically perfect. You can use the same knowledge to reverse that trend."

The race to perfect fairway turf also ran counter to the hopes that scores would remain constant. Course conditions are becoming incomparable to those of the past. "Modern players would faint if they had to play from some of the fairway lies we faced," he said. "An essential part of my practice was to throw 20 balls across a fairway and play them as they lay. Each shot would be different and I learned to recognise which lies would lose me distance. It was vital to develop that skill.

"These days they hit 200 balls on the practice range, all from the same lush lies and they can be sure that they'll get similar lies on the fairways. Obviously, that allows them to achieve more perfection with their shots and the authorities have to find other ways to make it difficult.

"Course dimensions have been distorted, fairways have been made ridiculously narrow, the targets made smaller and the cups hidden away. That didn't used to be necessary when the fairways were of a poorer grade because it was an accomplishment to get it on the green at all."

Thomson's remedy will not cheer the army of aggronomists who are now engaged in improving the condition of fairways. He feels there should be less deliberate cultivation, allowing nature to be more of an influence on the quality of the turf. "It shouldn't be allowed to get so bad it would be detrimental to the game but neither should it be so good it offers no challenge," he said.

Thomson is an accomplished journalist and writing for newspapers and magazines helped to pay his way when he was a professional golfer at a time when lucrative tournaments were far fewer in number. He also became a successful golf architect and he is involved in 20 course projects under way around the world. He has also branched out into urban development and his company is at present engaged in creating a satellite city on 10,000 acres in Jakarta in Indonesia.

One aspect of past Opens that Thomson does not recommend was the Championship structure that kept the same order of play for each round. A player out early on the first day would keep that time and, weather patterns being what they are on the coast, could play the entire tournament in the rain while someone out later could have far more pleasant conditions. They also played the final two rounds on the same day.

Today's professionals would have no doubt that things have changed for the better.