Geoff Shackelford’s “The Future of Golf” — Book Review, Installment 1 (or, Tiger vs. Firestone)

Reviewing this book the week of the WGC at Firestone is well-timed, as Shackelford has a thought-provoking section on the Firestone Country Club South Course — site of this week’s tournament — which is well worth discussion.

In fact, Firestone South is far and away the main topic of this installment of the book review. (I’ll review the book more generally in Installment 2.)

First a brag: This is the first book I have ever read that was written by one of my Twitter followers. As I have only seven Twitter followers, the odds of that happening are pretty staggering. Why, you ask, would Mr. Shackelford follow me on Twitter? Suffice it to say it was recent and surely had to do with Blood Sport, Hank Haney, and Golf Digest.

I take particular pride in the fact that Mr. Shackelford followed me one week to the day after I wrote a piece (“Reality Vs. Wishful Thinking: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson“) wherein I called him a liar. (“When I saw Geoff Shackelford was the author, I wanted to vomit.  Shackelford is one of the few golf writers I respect.  But this?  It isn’t just a case of deception and misdirection, it is outright lying.“)  A little embarrassing now, but, hey, what can I say?  I call them as I see them. For the record, I am a tremendous fan of Shackelford — this book was ordered well before the Twitter follow — and that disparaging comment may be the only negative thing I’ve ever written about him.

Getting your hands on a copy of this book isn’t easy. Well, I guess it’s easy enough, but it isn’t cheap. The cover price is $21.95, but the book is currently out of print; a used copy at Amazon will set you back $35-$40 including shipping. Even at that, it is well worth the price. (If you insist, you can get a new copy for a mere $240.) This book was published ten years ago, so the high prices are a compliment to its quality and continuing relevance.

Okay, after that novella-length intro, let’s get to Firestone.

Shackelford starts the section on Firestone (“Succumbing to Dumbing”) with a Tiger Woods comment made after the first round of the 2003 version of WGC-Bridgestone (the event being played this week). Woods praised Firestone South for being so open, with everything laid out right in front of you.

Before proceeding, I should point out that Shackelford is an expert on golf course design and an admirer of classic courses, and he thinks the USGA has been negligent (to put it mildly) in regulating equipment. Their negligence has allowed distance balls and clubs to distort the game, obsoleting many classic courses and forcing gimmicky setups. I should also point out that Shackelford is something of a Tiger Woods fanboy, or at least he was at the time he wrote this book. (I do not know if he remains so today.)

So, let’s go back ten years. Shackelford thinks Woods walks on water, and then Tiger Woods goes and praises Firestone, a course Shackelford thinks is the very definition of a crappy golf course. Shackelford calls Firestone “bland, surprise-free, intelligence-free architecture” and expresses great disappointment in Woods’s comment. Shackelford makes the point that such courses hurt Woods, because they allow less-skilled golfers to compete with him in a way they could not on high-quality courses.

“Tiger has somehow forgotten that his advantage was on a golf course that didn’t tell the player exactly what to do — a design that required intelligence, creativity, and a little curiosity.”

Knowing of Woods’s great success at Firestone, I researched his results to establish historical context for Shackelford’s remarks. Woods had won there in 1999, 2000, and 2001, but not 2002 (nor would he would he win in 2003 or 2004). That’s a pretty stellar record (even for a limited-field event), so it’s no surprise Woods would praise the course.

What is surprising is that Shackelford would choose Firestone to make his point, as Woods had had so much success there. And we now know Woods was just getting started; he would go on to win five more times at Firestone in the next ten years.

Knowing now that Woods has won at Firestone eight times, if we accept the two Shackelford premises — (1) that Woods is an elite player who would be expected to excel, especially, on a quality golf course, and (2) that Firestone is a inferior course which would remove the elite Woods’s advantage — there is more than a little cognitive dissonance.

Shackelford’s underlying theory may well be valid in regards to an elite player having an inherent advantage on a quality course but not on an inferior course (such as Firestone South). If that is indeed valid, perhaps we should reexamine the conventional wisdom regarding Tiger Woods. We can’t help but question if Woods is really the elite player he was made out to be. Consider that while Woods has won some 80 tournaments, 23 of them have come on just three courses.  Shackelford sees Firestone as a crap course (my term, not his, and I’ll explain why I agree in a moment); I do not know his views on Torrey Pines or Bay Hill, but certainly they would be interesting.

At a minimum, Woods’s results at Firestone suggest another factor, an overriding factor, is at work. For now, I’ll put aside the big picture implications and describe the Woods-Firestone phenomenon as I see it. In my opinion, it is not complex.

At Firestone, a player can be crazy wild off the tee with very little downside. Almost all the holes run parallel to each other, with only a thin boundary of trees separating the fairways. Hit a bad drive and you will be among a few not particularly big trees. Unless you are stymied, there is almost no penalty for an errant drive. Hit a really bad drive, and you wind up in an adjoining fairway where you can play over the trees.

Look at these images or take this slideshow tour to see what I’m talking about.

firestone(1)Firestone-CC18 imagesd  images

It’s well-known that Woods suffers a lack of control with his driver. He hits it a long way, but he is liable to hit it just about anywhere. Firestone is not a course that penalizes wild driving, which is Woods’s greatest weakness. As a result, Woods can hit tee shots all-out rather than steer the ball down the fairway like he does at most other courses.

My conclusion on this matter — with the benefit of ten years of observation Shackelford did not have in 2005 — is that Woods has dominated on this course despite his tee shots being not elite. So, in that regard, Woods can be lumped in with the non-elites who gain advantage from this crappy course. Basically, Firestone is a paradise for long-hitters who can’t control their tee shots.

That wraps up Installment 1 of this book review. I’ll write and post the rest before too much longer.  I realize today’s installment was largely comprised of an analysis of one section of the book, so let me quickly state that the book is primarily about how advanced ball and club technology is ruining the game.  Shackelford has been battling this trend courageously, if futilely, for many, many years.

Before I end, let me provide one small quote from the book:

In 2002, Els averaged 281.4 yards a drive in the United States.  After changing to the Titleist driver and Pro V1x ball, his average rose to 303.3 yards in 2003 PGA Tour events.

It’s interesting to note how so many golf writers like to attribute today’s increased distance not just to equipment, but to the “fitter, stronger, more athletic players” on the Tour today.  It’s not just the gear, you see.  Ernie spent the Christmas holiday doing pushups, don’t you know?

I encounter that fitness/distance meme constantly.  Here’s one from just a couple of days ago, in a John Hawkins article [Hawkins, a Golf Channel employee, couldn’t possibly have a vested interest in protecting the golf equipment industry, could he?]  What’s especially funny about this example is that Hawkins praises a course Shackelford considers the epitome of a crap course:

I’ve always chuckled when the South Course is referred to as “boring.” Having played it eight or 10 times in my day, I’m not at all surprised the South has proven immune to advances in equipment technology or the increased fitness factor that seemingly has everyone driving the ball 300-plus yards.

“Bland” is pretty close to “boring,” no?  Immune to advances in equipment technology?  Geoff, you need to set Hawkins straight.

Anyway, in his book, Shackelford covers the topic of modern gear technology in great, fascinating detail.  I’ll write more about that in the next installment.

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5 Responses to Geoff Shackelford’s “The Future of Golf” — Book Review, Installment 1 (or, Tiger vs. Firestone)

  1. Anonymous says:

    People do live and die by sports stats don’t they…….It got me thinking bout all these ‘invitational’ tournaments and WGC events, where there are ONLY 75 golfers or less….Now you will hear announcers TOUT how many ‘top 10s’ these present day golfers have, but how irrelevant are they, when you consider these events which have no cut, and are only half a field or less? Nicklaus didn’t have these type of events…..This would be like playing in a 4 man scramble, and you are playing against only 3 other teams……It would be like, “well we finished in the top 4, look how great we are as a team”…um, yeah ok……These events shouldn’t count with regular pga events imo, and should just be looked at as almost a ‘skins game’ type of event….

    • lannyh says:

      Great point. I had not thought about the “Top Ten” aspect of these limited-field events. A top 25 finish in a thirty man field is not much to write home about, but it counts the same as a Top 25 in a 156-man field.
      The only limited-field events in Jack’s day (that I know of) would be the Tournament of Champions, which is still around today, and the Firestone World Series of Golf, which had a very small field the first few years. (The Masters is limited, but it’s usually around 100, so it’s not super small. However, compared to the PGA Championship, which is set to have all 100 of the world’s top 100, plus 56 more players, the Masters is pretty darn limited.)
      If I had access to the OWGR database, the first thing I would do is run an analysis on what the winner’s rank was in the field. How often does a guy from the top half of that week’s field win, etc. I’m trying come up a “cheat” to show the same kind of thing, maybe using player OWGR rank divided by tournament strength (of vice versa). No. 500 in tennis doesn’t win Wimbledon, but in golf, No. 500 can win the British Open.

      • Anonymous says:

        Also curious…Does the PGA actually count these events as part of the ‘consecutive cuts’ list? In other words if I played this event for 15 years, then would the PGA count my career stats as 15 events where I didn’t miss the cut? Even though there is NO cut?

      • lannyh says:

        I do not know. I have wondered the same thing Probably for Woods they count, but not for other players. (I’m only joking! Kind of…)

  2. Anonymous says:

    For a bad course Rory seems to think pretty highly of Firestone. Paraphrasing he pretty much said that he “Looks forward to coming to this event every year”.

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