On tee-off and technology

Interview

On tee-off and technology
Sir Michael Bonallack has received several accolades in his illustrious career. From the OBE for his services to golf in 1971, to being named the secretary (1984-1999) of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews before becoming its captain in 2000, to his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame the same year, Bonallack has seen it all.

Perhaps, the finest amateur golfer to have played the game, the biggest honour for him arrived when a trophy was named after him in 1998, a competition where the best amateurs from Asia-Pacific and Europe battle for supremacy. Having watched the latest edition at the Karnataka Golf Association along with his wife Angela, Bonallack spoke to the media on his career, the impact of technology and his 16-year stint at the R&A. Excerpts…
 
Despite enjoying a successful amateur career, why did you never turn professional?

There wasn’t any money in it at that time (laughs). In the late 1950s & 60s there was no European tour. All the professionals were club professionals and so the tournaments finished on a Friday then they went back to their clubs for the weekend. If you were an amateur and turned pro, the PGA wouldn’t let you take the prize money for the first two years and so you had to play without being able to make any money. That wasn’t very encouraging for people turning professional.

Do you have any regrets having not turned pro?
 
I don’t regret it. I realised how good you got to be and being married with four children and it would have meant traveling away from home, being away a lot. I enjoyed amateur golf a lot. I could still work (as a sales director for his family business) and yet at weekends play amateur golf.
 
Unlike your days, there is plenty of money in the game now. Your thoughts...
 
If there was money around then I probably would have turned pro. It’s wonderful for the players, wonderful for the ones who make it. But there are 40-50 who don’t make it. It’s only the top-100 on any of the tours who are making money, below that it is a struggle because of the high expenses.

Unless you have a good sponsor, which you will only have for the first couple of years, it’s a very expensive game, especially if you are not paying well. You have to pay for your travelling, your caddie, living in hotels all the time and you have got a home where your people are from, so you got to be very good.

Tell us about your stint at the R&A...

That was a very enjoyable time because having played a lot, I knew how golf worked and when I was secretary of R&A we were able to increase the sponsorship at The Open Championship, and the money we got from it we put it back into the game. We gave grants to various countries around the world, including India, and through PGA we sent our professionals to teach them. This was in the early 80s when a lot of countries didn’t have pros. So our pros came out and taught them and it helped the game grow. We gave grants to build new golf courses, for teams and for individuals. We were very successful in bringing money and putting it back into the game.
 
A lot of youngsters are doing well now. What do you attribute their success to?

Youngsters now have a great platform to succeed. A main reason behind their success is that the associations have put in a lot of money in teaching. During our times, we had to learn most things ourselves. We didn’t have video analysis or TV replays. We just went on the range, saw the fellow swing and told him what was right or wrong. Now a player’s swing can be dissected into pieces and pinpointed on what exactly is wrong.

A player also knows what kind of clubs to carry, what sort of balls he needs to use etc. They are tailor-made for each player. I remember during my times when a player hit it long, he was considered special. Now you have many doing it. Technology has made things easier.

Talking about technology’s impact on the game, do you see changes in golf course design to counter that?

Scientists told us that ball won’t go any further but it seems to be going further and further. Golf courses have to be changed because of the distance that these guys can hit the ball to now. The Old Course at St Andrews had to be altered three times and it is just getting longer and longer. I think it has reached the limit. Golf has become a bit slower now because the courses have to be made longer to counter distance.

Do you think cutting-edge technology is hampering the game?

It certainly takes away a lot of advantages which the best players have. Seve Ballesteros used to complain to me, saying “I had to invent a lot of shots using a regular 8-iron. But now they carry three different kinds of wedges and that has taken away all my skill. Now they can do the exact thing without the iron.” They have longer clubs and sometimes they even carry 3-4 wedges.

In the last decade or so the Europeans have been dominating the PGA Tour. Do you think there is a power shift?

It always swings back and forth. You have good players coming up in Europe, Asia and Australia. The Americans are coming up as well and they coach each other. If you get one or two good players in a country, that raises the standard of all the young players because they all try to copy. And for that time the country will do well because all young players determined to succeed.

America has some good players coming up now, there are some good players in Asia too. It is one of the great things on how golf is growing. Every country now has one or two good players who can win major championships. But in the past we had either the Americans or the Australians or Europeans, but that does not apply anymore.

If you were to start your career all over again, what would you do different?

Well, I would make use of the technology available and go to a good teacher to get my swing sorted out, to start with. I hope I would take advantage of all the opportunities available now. I would have thought of turning pro. But you can’t turn the clock back. If that had happened, I wouldn’t be sitting here. I’ve had more fun playing amateur golf than I would have had as a pro. Being the secretary of R&A for 16 years was wonderful; being involved with golf around the world.

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