Huggan On Ogilvy

John Huggan profiles Geoff Ogilvy,  who he says is "the most appealing character in years to emerge among the game's elite."
In a world populated by truants, he is a true student of the sport from which he makes a living. Good grief, the man even reads books!

He's curious, too. At home for a brief visit over the winter, Ogilvy, with former European Tour professionals Mike Clayton and Bob Shearer, played Royal Melbourne using wooden-headed clubs.

"It was a whole new level of fun," he says, smiling at the memory. "You had to hit it well for the ball to go anywhere. The difference between a good hit and a bad one with a driver was about 40 yards. With a modern driver you can hit the ball anywhere on the face, really. The difference is only about five yards. Only afterwards, when I had thought about it more, did I get depressed by all of that."

Indeed, the modern game in general is a bit of a worry for Ogilvy, a self-confessed and unabashed traditionalist.

"Two important aspects of golf have gone in completely the wrong direction," he maintains. "Most things are fine. Greens are generally better, for example. But the whole point of golf has been lost. Ben Hogan said it best. His thing was that you don't measure a good drive by how far it goes; you analyse its quality by its position relative to the next target. That doesn't exist in golf any more.

"The biggest problem today is tournament organisers trying to create a winning score. When did low scores become bad? At what point did the quality of your course become dependent on its difficulty? That was when golf lost the plot. The winning score should be dictated by the weather.

"The other thing is course set-up. Especially in America, there is too much rough and greens are way too soft. Then, when low scores become commonplace, they think how to make courses harder. So they grow even more long grass.

"But that misses the point. There is no real defence against a soft green. Today's players with today's wedges can stop the ball from anywhere. The angle of attack and the shape of the shot mean nothing. It doesn't matter where you hit it, as long as it is between the out- of-bounds stakes or between the trees. And so the game becomes a one-dimensional test of execution, time after time after time."
As you'd expect, Ogilvy is a big fan of the endlessly-fascinating strategic aspect of true links golf, and the Old Course at St Andrews in particular. It was there last year that he finished fifth in the Open Championship, shooting the lowest score over the final two rounds.

"St Andrews is the best course in the world because of the shots it makes you play," he points out. "In our increasingly black-and-white game, the Old Course is a million shades of grey. Stand on a tee there, and you have choices to make about where to hit your drive. That's a huge contrast with any course covered in rough, where any decision has already been made for you. It's: 'Hit it here you're good, hit it there you're f*****.' Which is stupid.

"Look at the last hole. It is a masterpiece, all because of one little hollow in front of the green. You have a 150-yard-wide fairway, and you don't know where to hit it. One day you might want to get some spin on the approach, so you lay back a bit. Then the next day, you might want to go way left, so that you can access a pin cut way to the right. On another day, you might want to hit past the pin, and on others that may not work - all on a dead-flat hole with no rough and one little hollow.

"But, because the green is firm, it is one of the best holes in the world. Plus, everyone gets to hit the fairway. And everyone finds his ball.

"If the first game of golf was played on some of the courses we play today, it wouldn't be a sport. It would never have been invented. People would play one round and ask themselves why they would ever play a second. It would be no fun."

Ogilvy also has some strong opinions on Augusta National, where he recently finished tied for 16th place in his first Masters.

"I've read a few of Bobby Jones' books," he says. "I don't think he'd be that flustered by the addition of length. I think he'd have done the same, given the neglect of equipment by the USGA and the R&A. But there is no way he'd have grown rough. He'd have kept it 100 yards from trees to trees. And every blade of grass on the course would have been cut short.

"With the greens they have there, they don't need rough. Which is what Jones wanted. His philosophy was: 'Okay, you have 100 yards to hit into, you tell me where you want to go.' Move the pin 10 feet, and the other side of the fairway becomes the place to be. That's the aspect that has been lost. And if Augusta misses the point, what hope has golf got?

"My mind goes back to the Road Hole at St Andrews during last year's Open. It's the most fearsome hole in golf, and yet they had to grow all that silly rough up the right-hand side. If they hadn't, we would have been hitting chip shots to the green. Symbolically, they could not allow that. That golf hole is the reason the golf ball needs to be changed. It's no fun with the modern ball. I was hitting a 4-iron off the tee at the Road Hole! Are you kidding me?

"There are people who seem to think winding back the ball is impossible. Rubbish! All they have to do is get a ball from 1995, test it every way you can think of, then make those numbers the limits. Job done."