Members of the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA) – who were gathered in Portmarnock, Ireland, for their annual general meeting – took the opportunity to play several holes of the Portmarnock Links golf course, built in the 1990s by architect Stan Eby and signature designer Bernhard Langer, using hickory-shafted clubs from the 1920s and earlier and reproduction vintage golf balls.
Gavin Bottrell of Timewarp Golf provided the hickory clubs. “I think the EIGCA members found it an interesting experience,” he said. “Different players react in different ways to vintage clubs – some find them very stiff, to others they are very whippy. I believe this is because all of these clubs were tailor-made for individual golfers. But I do try to match the clubs to the ability of each player.”
Bottrell reckons playing extensively with hickory clubs has helped him realise that, although the best golfers could hit the ball considerable distance with old equipment, the lack of forgiveness the clubs provide is the biggest difference. “Better players play well with hickories – I have seen professionals break par on difficult courses using them,” he said.
EIGCA member Tom Mackenzie echoes Bottrell’s view. For Mackenzie, who the day after won the Institute’s President’s Cup golf tournament, it was his first experience of vintage equipment, although he felt having grown up before the era of big-headed drivers and forgiving irons gave him some inkling as to how the clubs would feel. “I really enjoyed playing with the hickories, but you have to swing the clubs completely differently,” he said. “You can’t be so eager to get at the ball. For some of the young guys who play the modern game of just swinging as hard as possible then it was a much bigger culture shock.”
“I typically carry the ball between 185-190 yards with a hickory driver,” said Gavin Bottrell. “But the ball flies much lower, and when the ground is firm – as it was at Portmarnock – then the extra roll you get means a good shot can travel quite a long way.” Mackenzie agrees, but is quick to point out the other side of the coin. “Poor shots go absolutely nowhere!” he said.
Golfers Not Much Longer, Architects Told
Despite all the headlines about long driving on the professional tour, average golfers are not hitting the ball much further now than they were ten years ago, R&A director of research and testing Steve Otto told EIGCA members.
Otto, who attended the annual general meeting with his testing equipment, warned the assembled architects that driving distance for amateur golfers has typically increased by only a yard a year over the last decade, with the average golfer now normally driving the ball 210 yards rather than 200 yards before the technology explosion of recent years.
“It’s true that amateur golfers hit fewer really bad shots with the new equipment, but their normal shots don’t actually go much further,” said Otto. “I think it’s important for golf course architects – and everyone else in the game – to understand this fact, because the media is full of stories about professional players hitting the ball miles, and lots of golf courses are being lengthened as a result.”
Otto reckons the quest for longer golf courses is often a knee-jerk reaction to anecdotal evidence of increased distance that isn’t backed up by scientific research. “Our research tends to suggest that golfers generally think they hit the ball much further than they actually do, focussing on their best shots” he said. “I was pleased to be able to share some of these figures and get some feedback from the architects.”
While at the conference, Otto took the opportunity to test the EIGCA members’ own shots, using both modern equipment and vintage hickory-shafted clubs. He was, he says, surprised by the results. “For shots from the centre of the club, there seemed only to be a slight loss of distance,” he said. “It’s not all that scientific, but I did some quick calculations, and good shots with the hickory clubs were only around 12-13 yards shorter than with modern clubs.”
European Institute of Golf Course Architects www.eigca.org