Last week the Detroit Tigers reined in their left centerfield fence by 25 feet, and the Old Course at St. Andrews reduced the depth of its diabolical Road Hole bunker by two feet, and USA Today noted that the number of perfect games in bowling rose from more than 5,000 in 1980 to more than 42,000 last year because bowling lanes, like bowling groupies, are now tricked out with oils to promote scoring.
In other words, sports are being made easier by the day, and the lesson for athletes is clear: Why rise to meet a challenge when the challenge will stoop to meet you?
Cutting your handicap is now as easy as clear-cutting your golf course. That's what someone—presumably a member—did last month at Tillicoultry Golf Club near Stirling, Scotland, where two 15-foot conifers that guarded the ninth green were felled with an ax in the dead of night.
The perpetrator may have merely taken a broad interpretation of Rule 23-1, governing the removal of loose impediments, but he—or she, or they—make Andy McPherson want to heave his haggis. "The course has to be hard in some places," says the Tillicoultry greenkeeper. "Golf is not meant to be an easy game."
Tell that to the St. Andrews Links Trust. The Road Hole bunker was the most famous hazard in all of golf, gaping like an uncovered manhole beside the 17th green at the Old Course. It has been renowned as the Sands of Nakajima ever since the 1978 British Open, when Tommy Nakajima took five strokes to get out of it, looking, all the while, like a man trapped at the bottom of a well. (Which is, in essence, what he was.)
Five-time Open champ J.H. Taylor took 13 to get out of that bunker in 1921. Costantino Rocca lost the '95 Open playoff to John Daly after taking three hacks to escape, one fewer than David Duval took in the final round of the 2000 Open, where he appeared—physically and psychologically—to be standing in the mouth of the man in The Scream.
Yet as of last week the sand, tragically, is more Ipanema than Nakajima. The bunker's been made benign. "It had become too treacherous for the average golfer," explained a spokeswoman for the St. Andrews Links Trust, which is responsible for the change. "And even Ernie Els, who is such a great bunker player, had problems getting out of it at the Dunhill Links tournament."
Too treacherous? Then why not turn the Paris-to-Dakar road rally into the Paris-to-de Gaulle road rally, and replace the racing motorcycles with dueling airport limousines?
Remember when sports were supposed to be treacherous? You didn't ask Dick Butkus, just before he bit you, to kindly remove his dentures. The four-minute mile is a difficult standard precisely because miles are long and minutes are short and the two measures are immutable. When Hillary had difficulty ascending Everest, did they bring the mountaintop to Muhammad? They do now, as tourists are "short-roped"—or chauffeured by Sherpa—to the summit.
We want instant gratification. We want heaven without dying. We want fast-food meals and we want eight-minute abs. (Indeed, seven- and six-minute ab programs have been developed for those who find 480 seconds too great an investment for a washboard stomach.) This distinctly American mania for shortcuts was best expressed by comedian Steven Wright, who said, "I put instant coffee in a microwave oven and almost went back in time."