Taking AIM With Gary Van Sickle

AIMDarwin.jpgSports Illustrated senior writer Gary Van Sickle has been covering golf for the magazine and SI's weekly Golf Plus section since 1996.

A fine golfer who once advanced to the U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying, Van Sickle was the only non-Ohioan to play in the Ohio Golf Association's Champions Tournament. He joins us to share a few thoughts on the uniform-ball event played last week. 

GeoffShac:    so how did you end up playing in the Ohio Champions event, being from Pennsylvania? :)

GVanSickle:    and not being a champion, either, since i don't think my Yale men's club championship from 1993 counted. They let me in as a media guy who could halfway play. i paid the $175 entry fee, got two dozen OGA balls and a practice round and was off.

GeoffShac:    and how did it go?

GVanSickle:    i'm sure you'd love to hear my three rounds hole by hole but i'll spare you. it went all right. i didn't really notice much lack of distance off the tee. oddly, the balls were about a club longer with irons, even wedges, and they didn't check up very well, if at all. of course, it took me two rounds to figure out the irons went farther. i thought i just didn't know the course.

GeoffShac:    Yes, we'll take a pass on the blow-by-blow

GeoffShac:    so because they weren't checking up did that force you to think your way around the course a bit more?

GVanSickle:    I was definitely trying to hit it short of the pin. the last hole, last round, i had 115 yards to pin, a little wind behind me. my sand wedge max is 100 yards, maybe 105. i hit that, very well. ball landed two feet from pin, ran 20 feet past and onto a gunky lie in the fringe, from where i failed to get up and down. it felt a little like golf on a firm links where you can't control the ball.

GeoffShac:    the course was pretty firm too, right?

GVanSickle:    yes, the greens were relatively firm after a hot, dry spell in ohio. but not exceptionally firm. just about right, i'd say. it was odd that we lost distance because the ball spun more, yet it didn't spin and check up with short irons. one conclusion of the oga guys was that there's a lot more to ball technology than they realized.

GeoffShac:    doesn't Tiger Woods use one of the higher spin rate balls on the Tour?

GVanSickle:    so i've heard. apparently the whole spin rate issue is complex, too. a new phrase i heard from a Trackman technician who was there (Trackman is a new technology that uses radar to track your shot from start all the way to finish--very precise) was angle of descent. that's apparently important. to optimize shots, you want an angle of descent less than 40%. one big hitter i saw tested had a 54% angle of descent. which means the balls ballooned up a bit, then dropped quickly rather than bore through the air.

GeoffShac:    and did you find that this ball went off line more easily in the wind or if you hit it with a certain "angle of descent"?

GVanSickle:    no, the ball seemed to go no more offline than usual... if that's possible to say for a player of my limited skill. we had three measured drives over two days. first day, i carried OGA ball 238, titleist pro VI 246. second day, i hit OGA ball and carried it 249. that's close to my approximate normal carry, last measured at 252. my swing speed was 104, ball speed 155. this ball hurt higher swing speeds more than lower ones, which was the idea, i believe.

GeoffShac:    wait, so they had you hit a pro VI on the measuring holes too?

GVanSickle:    just once. on the 18th hole in practice round, they let you hit one OGA ball and one of your usual brand. a kind of mini-test.

GeoffShac:    ah

GeoffShac:    so in general, not to sound like a marketing survey here...

GeoffShac:    but did you find the golf more enjoyable, less enjoyable, about the same, none of the above?

GVanSickle:    For me, it was slightly less enjoyable. not because of any loss of distance. i didn't lose enough to make a difference. i know some of the college kid big hitters did. the inability to stop a shot, something we've long taken for granted, was annoying. while I and others whined and moaned about the ball performance, the fact is, we're golfers. we adjusted. if this was the only ball in golf, we'd live with it. but knowing there are longer balls out there, nobody wants to use it again.

GeoffShac:    but say the distance reduction was maintained, but some of the control characteristics of the modern ball were maintained, do you think it would have been more fun?

GVanSickle:    I don't know if anybody would say more fun. we've got long memories. let's just say if you began the game playing this ball and never knew any differnt, you'd be perfectly happy. nobody wants to give anything, especially the guys who fly it 295 yards. what's fun in golf is scoring. it's fun reaching par 5s in 2. it's fun to dominate par 4s with driver-wedge. that doesn't make it a great competition, which is why the OGA is looking for a way to keep its classic older courses in play for its own tournaments.
GVanSickle:    if augusta national starts to get short again after the latest round of renovations, i'd look to see the masters institute a one-ball rule like this if officials there get desperate. but i think they're ok for a few years.

GeoffShac:    last question, almost

GeoffShac:    what kind of irons do you play and what kind of grooves do they have?

GVanSickle:    i was using callaway x-tour irons and you know, i don't know what the grooves are.

GeoffShac:    well if they are u-grooves, they may become illegal if the USGA is to be believed

GeoffShac:    what would be easier to give up, the irons or the current ball you play?

GVanSickle:    i don't know if the average guy hits it well enough to really take advantage of U-grooves. i'd give up the grooves first. that would be easy. if the usga really wanted to start something, they could turn golf into baseball and let the pros use only wood (persimmon) and the public use metal. that would solve the whole distance issue immediately. metal woods were where the game first got away from the usga. but of course, that's utterly impractical now.

GeoffShac:    yeah, it's your basic mess

GeoffShac:    well thanks for sharing your insights

GeoffShac:    and keep up the great work

GVanSickle:    no problem. the oga proved it can be done. let's see if anyone else gives it a try.

GeoffShac:    yes, it should be fun to see...if you believe the makers of the OGA ball, someone out there is ordering a whole bunch!

GeoffShac:    thanks Gary, I really appreciate it

GVanSickle:    no problem. it was great being had!