x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Golf has put power before panache

The world's richest competition left me feeling flat as so many skills have been sacrificed by a generation of golfers.

Phil Mickelson plays his second shot from the 17th fairway during the final round of the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.
Phil Mickelson plays his second shot from the 17th fairway during the final round of the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Georgia.

In the end, the FedEx Cup play-offs left us with no big surprises as Tiger Woods claimed golf's fattest pay cheque, Phil Mickelson re-emerged as the true world No 2, and Kenny Perry showed why a place in the game's record books could elude him. Mickelson's victory in the Tour Championship underlined the fact that he is the player best equipped to close the gap on Woods at the top of the world rankings.

But with so much money at stake these days, and Tiger ultimately pocketing the US$10million (Dh36.7m) bonus as the outright FedEx Cup winner, I felt a bit let down. Not that you could take anything away from Mickelson, who showed great mental toughness to match some great shot making after weeks of worry over the health of his wife and mother. And while still performing below his best, Tiger has continued to show what a remarkable competitor he is, having exceeded even his own expectations this year after an eight-month lay-off.

But I'm compelled to say that, for all their great play, the best two players in the game also throw in a surprisingly high number of very poor shots, highlighting how accuracy has been sacrificed for power in the modern game. Tiger's main goal is to eclipse Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 victories in the four majors. At his best, Nicklaus played near flawless golf. Like one of his great old sparring partners at the time, Lee Trevino, he rarely hit bad shots.

It was a similar story with another previous world No 1, my former Welsh teammate Ian Woosnam. I recall a Dunhill Cup practice round with Woosie and Mark Mouland at St Andrews in 1989 which highlights the standard he set. At the time Woosie was well on his way to becoming the best player in the world, and Mark and I challenged him to try to beat our betterball score that day. When we walked off the 16th green Mark and I were 10-under par, but we had just lost 3&2. Every tee shot Woosie hit that day drew about 10ft. Every approach shot he hit started just right of the flag and drew in to it, leaving him with a short putt.

Most of the time he was just tapping in. It was a fantastic standard, but that's what took Woosie to the No 1 spot. By comparison, Woods and Mickelson hit an unusual amount of poor shots, and this may help to explain why Kenny Perry at the age of 49, and Tom Watson at 59, could go so close to winning some of the game's biggest events this year. I cannot believe that Perry is a better player now than he was at 29 or 39. Generally, the top players these days hit an awful lot of poor shots compared to the best golfers of the Nicklaus, Trevino, Greg Norman, Woosnam, Nick Faldo eras.

Basically, power has gone to the players' heads. They slash away with the driver to get extra distance, knowing that even if they end up in deep rough the square grooves on their wedges will allow them to find spin and stop the ball on the green. The old wooden drivers had much smaller sweet spots while the balata balls spun a lot more. So if you connected anywhere near the toe or the heel, the ball could go sideways, and from the thick rough you had no chance of getting any spin.

It meant you had to be much more precise with your shot making, and choice of shot. New technology has changed all that, narrowing the gap between the best golfers and average players. Metal drivers have huge sweet spots and are more forgiving, while modern golf balls fly straighter. The result is players who would not have hit the ball far enough, or consistently enough, to make it on Tour can now find the extra length and accuracy to compete.

So much skill has been lost by a generation of golfers, and while new regulations next year covering the design of golf clubs will make a difference, I do not believe it will change a great deal. Whether there will be any change at the top remains to be seen. Mickelson has it in him to put the pressure on Woods, especially if he finds his old magic on the greens. It took a lesson from former two-times major winner Dave Stockton to remind him he putted best as a younger player when he positioned the ball further back at address and widened his stance a little.

The tip worked last weekend and if it continues to work, if Ernie Els produces more of his best golf next year, and if Sergio Garcia resolves his own putting problems, Tiger could find it tougher to win, and Nicklaus's majors record will start to look a little safer. Mickelson's success on Sunday showed Tiger he cannot expect to be handed tournaments on a plate for much longer. But the Woods swing is improving and if he resists the temptation to slash at the ball with his driver he will soon be close to playing his best golf again. After blowing it at the Masters, where he would have become the oldest major winner, Perry let another big chance slip at the Tour Championship.

He normally aims right and plays with a big draw, but on Sunday he lined up at the target and started hooking the ball left, and it was disappointing that he could not work out what was going wrong. While the format for the FedEx Cup play-offs was far from right for the first two years, and there is still plenty of room for improvement, the good thing is that it brings the world's best players together over five weeks and is exciting.

Whatever changes are brought in next year, it will be compelling viewing again. Former Tour player Philip Parkin is a TV commentator for BBC in the UK and Golf Channel in the US pparkin@thenational.ae