Hannigan laughs when he hears players complaining that the game is being overrun by artless high-tech golfers who know nothing of shotmaking. "That's what all the guys over 30 say," he laughs. "The fact is, these kids are just terrific players. Calcavecchia, for one, putts like God. I can remember when Nicklaus first came out. Guys were saying, 'Ah, he's just a big fat kid. He can't work the ball. Y'know, he can't hit that knockdown shot.' Ridiculous stuff, but it's always been this way."
PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, on the other hand, is more sympathetic to the views of the touring pro, having been one himself from 1967 to 1973. "If you play golf at the highest level, you know there is a lot more to it than the laboratory and statistical aspect. It's more subtle than that," says Beman, who recently switched to the distance-producing mixture of metal-headed woods, perimeter-weighted irons and the Surlyn-covered two-piece ball. "There is no question in my mind that the technology is allowing me to do things with the ball I couldn't do 15 years ago."
Golf has had other controversies in which traditionalists fretted that skill was losing importance. Shortly after the livelier rubber-cored ball replaced the gutta-percha, John L. Low, a noted Scottish amateur, wrote in his 1903 book, Concerning Golf: "It was a man's job to drive a gutta percha the requisite 180 yards; a lad may do it easily now.... Harry Vardon came very near the truth when he said that the real reason why the crowd liked the new ball was that it gave them two chances—'if they hit the ball they made a good shot, and if they missed it they made a good shot.' "
On the other hand, many have always felt the game is hard enough. Gene Sarazen remembers the reaction in 1932 when he invented the sand wedge, whose effect was far more dramatic than that of square grooves. "Everyone was happy," says the 85-year-old Squire. "Jones was a terrible sand player. Hagen used to chip out of bunkers because he didn't know how to explode with a niblick. That club helped popularize the game. The average player was making sevens and eights when he hit into a trap. He'd come home crabby. But with the sand wedge, he'd make no worse than bogey and come home smiling. There were fewer divorces after I invented that club."
Manufacturers stay in business because of Sarazen's philosophy. "Nobody should complain if they can play better," says Solheim. "We should be thinking about how good we can make the bad shots. It's a game of misses. My clubs make your bad shots better and bring out the best in your game."
The reality, says Tom Kite, is that equipment advances will always bring the less skilled closer to the more skilled. "It's the history of golf," says Kite, who doesn't use square grooves, metal woods or perimeter-weighted irons. "Equipment has always been an equalizer. If you played really primitive clubs, the best player would have an even better chance of winning. If everybody played with just one club, the guy with the most shots would win. But golf isn't like that."
With all the recent changes, is golf in danger of losing its essential maddening charm, of being a very hard game to play well? At times, when the fairways are firm and the rough is low, the greens are smooth and the players are nerveless, it can appear so. It's true it might be harder to win a tournament now and that may be due in part to equipment that is helping the marginal player. But champions have always responded to a challenge. "Equipment is never going to replace talent," says Adams of Taylor Made. "The only real equipment that gets a golfer to the top is his heart."