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March 19, 2023

Tom Marzolf on the modern golf ball

By Dan Vukelich, Alabama Golf News Online Editor
Tom Marzolf restored Fox Chapel Golf Club,

Its effect on America's classic courses

Long-time Fazio Design Group designer Tom Marzolf has a thing or two, actually, 20, 30 or 50 things to say about the effect of modern technology – especially the modern golf ball – on the game of golf and on his profession – which has included restoring classic courses to make them playable by big hitters in the modern era.

Earlier this month, the effects of longer golf balls on the game finally spurred the USGA and R&A to propose a model rule for elite competitions limiting the distance a ball can travel. If approved, the proposed rule would take effect on Jan. 1, 2026.

The new rule wouldn’t affect recreational golfers, but it would mean that the balls we play and the balls touring pros play would be different. Theirs would be designed to travel less far, about 15 percent less than the tour’s average drive now.

The USGA and the R&A want both our ball and the pros’ re-designed ball to travel no farther than 317 yards, plus or minus three yards, when hit with a robotic “Iron Byron” under controlled conditions.

Tom Marzolf: Many bunkers are no longer in play

Marzolf, who has worked with Tom Fazio since the early 1980s, has designed new courses. He’s also restored courses designed by the greatest 20th-Century architects, including Merion Country Club, Oakmont Country Club, Rivera Country Club, Firestone Country Club and Fox Chapel Golf Club.

In an interview with Alabama Golf News about his renovation of a 1996 Tom Fazio design – the Bonita Bay Club’s Cypress Course in Naples, Florida – Marzolf shared his thoughts about how the modern ball has impacted his work.

He talked as well about his restoration of the Fox Chapel course, designed by Seth Raynor, which opened in 1925, as well as his more recent renovation of the 27-year-old Cypress Course.

The following is excerpted from a longer interview.

Q: Talk about the impact of the longer ball on your work.

A: The game’s changed quite a bit. And you have to have a conversation about that when you’re going to rebuild a golf course. The ball goes farther in our lifetimes. For me, it’s a yard a year.

When you look at PGA Tour driving distances, when I started in early ‘80s with Tom Fazio, we would lay out a golf hole with the turning point of the dog leg would be 800 feet from the back tee, or 266 yards. That was the average driving distance on the PGA Tour at that time. So, we would put a landing area pole there and shape the bunkers on the dog leg on the inside of that distance. Today, the ball’s flying 320 in the air and farther. So, you look at the change in driving statistics and you’ve got to address that.

Q: Cypress isn’t that old, but it needed to be updated?

A:. The bunkers were built in ’96 and they were in that 285 yardage off the tee and were clustered, big bunkers. A player now would play that golf course and drive the ball over the top of the bunkers and the bunkers weren’t really in play.

So, immediately conversation is, “Okay, we’re going to build back tees and we’re going to move the bunkers to the 300 to 325 zone off the tee.” And that’s what we did on Cypress.

That’s unfortunate that the game has changed that much in our lifetimes where, back in the day, in the ‘80s, nobody hit the ball 300 yards in the air. It didn’t happen.

Q: I assume the problem presented by the modern golf ball was magnified in your restoration of Fox Chapel.

A: It was the same exact experience there. We did a master planning committee at Fox Chapel…. We found the history; we found the original information. All of the golf architects had worked there. A.W. Tillinghast worked there and removed Raynor, changed Raynor and built Winged Foot-style bunkers all over the place, with fingers and noses.

Back in Raynor’s day, the longest you could hit a ball was 185 to 220, and the bunkers were all placed 180 to 200 in Raynor’s day because that’s as far as you could hit it. So, obviously you put that on the ground, and that’s what they had. Freddie Couple walked the course at Fox Chapel and said, “There isn’t a bunker on this golf hole that impacts my driver because I’m 50 yards by it and more.” So [Fox Chapel members] didn’t like that.

Q: How did you deal with that?

A: We took the Raynor concept of, okay, first hole there’s a bunker, short right and long left. Well, we took the 185-yard bunker, the short right bunker, and we put it at 300 and then we put the long bunker at 325 to 330 – same distance between the bunkers, same concept of design, but with the equipment of the day. So, it was a sympathetic restoration of the Raynor concept. We did the Raynor concept, but we did it with the modern ball.

And today with the width of fairways, the balls fly straighter. So, if you put the bunker in the left rough or the right rough and give a player a normal fairway width, you play all day and won’t hit the ball into the bunkers unless you just hit a bad shot, if you will. So, the decision was made to pull the bunker into the line of play.

Coming this week: What Tom Marzolf, former president of the American Society of Golf Architects, thinks of the USGA’s and R&A’s proposed model rule

Dan Vukelich is online editor of Alabama Golf News

Featured image: Fox Chapel Golf Club

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