After a decade of staggering technological advancement in golf equipment, creating drivers that hit the ball out of sight, irons that make shots go straight and balls that will do pretty much whatever you want them to, you would think that golfers would have improved. You would be right. Statistics show that the average player is better than he or she was in 2000.
By one stroke.
No, the typical golfer is not flirting with scores in the 50s, the way pros and elite amateurs are (PGA Tour pro Stuart Appleby shot 59 and Alabama teen Bobby Wyatt had 57 in separate tournaments last week). The titanium in those massive driver heads has not turned us into a nation of par shooters. According to the U.S. Golf Association, which receives information from the GHIN handicap computation service, the national average handicap index for male golfers last year was 14.5, down from 15.7 in 2000. There was a similar improvement for women, from 28.5 to 27.3.
Golf experts have different ways to read this, and there are some who believe it represents significant progress. But even though most golfers are hitting shots farther than they ever did, about half of the official handicaps of male golfers are higher than 15. And that doesn't include the casual golfers who don't bother to register and report their scores. It all means that, despite a decade of high-tech breakthroughs, breaking 100 still is a big deal.
"The hole hasn't gotten any bigger," said one teaching pro who has not seen across-the-board improvements during the technology boom. Putting actually has become more difficult for the rank-and-file because of agronomy methods that have made greens much faster.
Also, there are some things that a fancy graphite shaft or sparkling hybrid clubface cannot cure. "A lot of people don't take lessons," Garden City Golf Club pro Bob Rittberger said. "The equipment side of it has made things easier, but the club can't swing itself."
Sean Farren, the head pro at The Creek in Locust Valley, said, "You and I probably don't spend any more time on the game than we did 10 years ago. But it has become such a big business that the better players are spending more time on fitness and becoming sharper all around. The technology has helped a little bit."
On the other hand, maybe weekend players have advanced more than we realize. Jay Mottola is executive director of the Metropolitan Golf Association, which administers the local handicapping system, and has been involved with charting scores and handicaps for 40 years. He noticed that, since GHIN began compiling figures in 1991, the average handicap has gone down by two shots.
"That actually is a lot. As golfers know, it's not that easy to move two strokes," Mottola said. "If you go back prior to that, there was very little movement." He cited better clubs and balls, sophisticated club-fitting techniques and more nuanced instruction.
Scores and handicaps are likely to go even lower, he said, adding, "The level of junior golf is definitely at a higher level than it has ever been in my 30 years at the MGA. You can just tell by where kids are hitting the ball."
Still, a typical day on a typical course doesn't feel much different now than during the Clinton administration. Michael Hebron, director of golf at Smithtown Landing and a PGA of America Hall of Famer, said the culture of golf still is too consumed with, "What did you shoot?"
He said there isn't enough emphasis on the "play" in playing golf, or on using poor shots as learning tools. "What golfers don't realize is that the putt they miss is three times more valuable than the putt they make," said Hebron, who presented the Florence P. Hebron Trophy (in honor of his late mother) this week to David Jankowski, winner of the Long Island Golf Association's inaugural Michael Hebron Amateur Championship.
"A major reason why people are not improving as much as they'd like is that the way they're trying to improve isn't compatible with the way the brain works," Hebron said.
Maybe, though, the industry is moving just fine. Perhaps it is good that golfers are improving just enough to keep them coming back and to keep equipment manufacturers humming - while not getting so good that their favorite courses are obsolete.
"With elite players, it is a challenge to make a course long enough and tough enough," Mottola said. "But for the average club player, the great old courses are holding up well."