International: How much have golfers improved? No gutties, more glory
Comparing modern golfers with champions of old is trickier than escaping from a pot bunker with a niblick.
The winner of this year's British Open golf tournament, which started on July 16th on the Old Course at St Andrews, will pocket ￡1.15m ($1.79m) .
Golf was not always so lavishly rewarded.
The first time the Open was played at St Andrews, in 1873, the first prize was ￡11 (￡1,079 in today's money) .
There was no sponsorship, no TV (for obvious reasons) and only a handful of spectators braving the blustery Scottish weather.
The prize money was a welcome windfall for the champion, a local caddy called Tom Kidd, but he still died poor 11 years later.
He is thought to have sold his clubs and his champion's medal to pay for booze.
It is not only the rewards that have improved.
Because the Open has been played at St Andrews—the home of golf—more often than anywhere else, it is possible to measure what has happened to scores over a century and a half.
They are vastly better today.
Kidd took nearly 90 shots for each 18-hole round he played.
Any competent modern amateur could do that.
Louis Oosthuizen, the Open champion in 2010, averaged 68 shots a round, even though the course is now 7,305 yards, up from 6,577 in Kidd's day.
Yet the comparison is not fair, says Scott MacPherson, author of a history of St Andrews.
In Kidd's day, sheep rather than mowers kept the grass short, so the greens were bumpy and unpredictable.
And Kidd played with primitive equipment.
Winston Churchill once said that, “Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”
That was certainly true in Kidd's day.
He used wooden-shafted clubs (which tended to warp) and a “gutty” ball (made of the solidified sap of the Malaysian gutta-percha tree) .
Gutties were better than the leather-wrapped, feather-stuffed balls they replaced, which often exploded in mid-air.
But nobody could hit one more than about 200 yards—as far as a 12-year-old might hit a modern synthetic golf ball with a graphite-and-titanium club.
Still, today's golfers could almost certainly have beaten yesterday's.
They practise longer, lift more weights and use motion sensors to analyse tiny errors in their swings.
Rory McIlroy, the pre-tournament favourite until he pulled out with an injured ankle on July 8th, has built a gigantic practice ground in his backyard, complete with a replica of St Andrews' “Road Hole” bunker, a notorious black hole for errant approach shots.
They face competition from all around the world.
This year's Open features players from 24 countries; in 1873 the field consisted of nine Scots and an Englishman.