We're at a point where driving distance has become a joke

Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

OAKMONT, Pa. -- It's difficult to describe what it feels like to stand on the tee next to Dustin Johnson and watch him hit a golf ball 350 yards, but here is the best metaphor I can come up with: Imagine if you saw a lumberjack who just walked out of Gold's Gym grab a 50-pound sledgehammer, whip it over his head and split a bowling ball in half. That's what it feels like. I'm not joking when I tell you the sound of the impact stings your eardrums.

On Friday at the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, Johnson stood on the tee of the 12th hole, a 617-yard par-5, and pulled out his driver. There was a light breeze blowing in his face. He still blasted his drive 327 yards, and then hit his 3-wood 258 yards, and because the ball got a soft bounce in the squishy fairways, it came up just short of the green.

It was amazing to witness.

It was also, when you really step back and think about it, absurd.

Frankly, enough is enough. America's great courses are now crying "uncle," even though we're stretching them to the breaking point at every major championship.

It's time for the governing bodies in golf to do something about the golf ball. (It's way past time, really.) We've reached the point where driving distance has become a joke, where there is a perception that Jordan Spieth is a short hitter because he averages only 294 yards off the tee. You can look at Johnson as an outlier, or you can admit he has become the face of a big problem that has to eventually be addressed, so we'd better do it now. More or less forgotten in the aftermath of Johnson's three-putt par on the 18th hole at Chambers Bay at last year's U.S. Open is the fact that, on a 605-yard par-5, he hit a 350-yard drive. Then he hit a 5-iron to 12 feet to set up a potential tournament-winning eagle putt.

When do we admit that regularly belting 350-yard drives isn't necessarily the best thing for golf? It's not that you shouldn't be able to do it. Jack Nicklaus used to hit it a long way, too. He famously won the long drive contest at the 1963 PGA Championship with a 341-yard blast. But he didn't do it every single hole. Today's big hitters uncork rockets on every single hole.

Johnson, the Open's co-leader at 4-under par, hit driver 18 times in 36 holes over the first two rounds at Oakmont. Sixteen of those times, the ball went more than 300 yards. One of the times, it didn't because he hit the ball in a bunker. Rory McIlroy was asked by a reporter earlier this year what it felt like to blast a 320-yard drive down the middle of the fairway, and he shrugged his shoulders and offered up a one-word answer that serves as a perfect summation of the mess we're currently in.

"Normal," he said.

Johnson, McIlroy, Jason Day and Bubba Watson are part of a generation of golfers who hit the ball so far that in order to hang on to historic venues like Oakmont, Augusta National, The Old Course at St. Andrews and Pebble Beach, we'll have to get them so tricked out -- stupid fast greens, ankle-deep rough -- it will turn majors into a farce. If I could place a bet on such a thing, I'd wager we're going to see a 700-yard par-5 at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills next year. Although the tees were moved up a bit Friday, when I watched Johnson nearly reach the green in two, Oakmont's 12th played at 684 yards in Round 1, making it the longest in U.S. Open history.

We've lost a bit of artistry in the pursuit of distance. Why hit a draw around trees or a bunker when you can instead just nuke one over the top? Tiger Woods and John Daly and Fred Couples hit the ball a long way, too, but it's ludicrous how many players regularly crush it that far these days. Aaron Wise, the NCAA champion from the University of Oregon, hit a 374-yard drive on the 15th hole Friday. He's 19 years old.

That the USGA and The R&A seem unwilling to admit this isn't a problem is baffling.

We didn't get here overnight. The distance boom happened gradually. Golfers started going to the gym, hiring personal trainers and maximizing their fitness and flexibility, just like athletes in other sports. Equipment companies poured millions of dollars into research and design, knowing that increased distance is great for marketing, and now they sell drivers and balls designed by people who used to work for NASA. You can't blame the equipment companies; they are just working within the rules.

That's why the rules need to change. Not for weekend hacks like you and me, but for the pros who are obliterating some of the game's best holes. Even Nicklaus agrees. When he was asked at this year's Masters what he thought about Augusta National possibly lengthening the iconic 13th hole (because players are now easily reaching the green in two), Nicklaus said the answer was much simpler than buying land from the Augusta Country Club across the street, or diverting Rae's Creek and moving the green.

"Change the frigging golf ball," Nicklaus said. "The golf ball goes so far, Augusta National is about the only place, the only golf course in the world that financially can afford to make the changes that they have to make to keep up with the golf ball. I don't think anybody else could ever do it."

I'm convinced the USGA will never have any incentive to take a stand on the issue unless it knows other power players in golf will have their back. (So, for now, it would rather focus on inconsequential things like banning belly putters and telling you that you can no longer turn in scores that count toward your handicap if you play by yourself.) That's why I think we need help from an unlikely savior on this issue -- Augusta National.

Before you roll your eyes, hear me out: Augusta National is the only entity in golf with the right combination of arrogance and moxie to tell invitees that if they want to play in the Masters, they have to use a golf ball that the club has preapproved. It can have your favorite logo stamped on it, and it will still go far, and it will still check up and hold a green, but it won't go 375 yards. And if you don't like it, you are welcome to decline an invitation to the Masters. There would be minor tantrums, but in the end, the players would show up.

Augusta National doesn't need Titleist's money, or Callaway's money, or Nike's money, or TaylorMade's money. This is a membership that once held a tournament without commercials just to prove it was beholden to no one. If the club took a stand, the USGA and The R&A might suddenly develop the backbone to consider joining the fight.

There is actually precedent for players being forced to use a different golf ball at different tournaments. In the 1930s, '40s, '50s, '60s and early '70s, Americans had the option of using golf balls approved by The R&A that were slightly smaller in size when they played in the Open Championship in the United Kingdom. Those golf balls, which in theory cut through the wind better because they were smaller in diameter, actually increased driving distance.

"The small ball back then was probably about the length of the golf ball we had today," Nicklaus said. "We hit it about 50 yards further."

It's time to go the opposite direction. Long live the long iron.